The terror of fantasy

Witch Craft Works kind of has an image problem. Nothing in all the marketing I’ve seen for this anime indicated it was anything besides a typical high school comedy-romance with a twist – he fights ghosts, she’s a superhero, it’s a school for magic, whatever. In this specific anime the twist is that the male protagonist is the damsel in distress. “Don’t worry your pretty little head over it” is basically the central message repeated over and over to our hero. Otherwise the show’s early episodes have the sort of things you’d expect from a high school anime – a student council with ridiculous amounts of administrative authority, a beloved school idol, teenagers running wild, and so on. All of that was to be expected in this setting. What I didn’t expect was to discover that this anime was also about the War on Terror.

The rising sun peeks out behind wrecked skyscrapers
Not a picture of Ground Zero.

I’m not making this up. By the end the parallels were too many to ignore. There’s a secret prison, terrorist bombings, Ground Zero-style images of wrecked buildings, prisoner torture, an entire city held hostage, and an enemy devoted to nothing but chaos. There are even a few lines at the end which could be interpreted as being about not letting the terrorists win. The show treats all these things in a lighthearted and comic way – magic makes sure no one is killed or seriously injured, for instance – but there’s only so much you can soft-pedal an image as disturbing as the sight of teenage girls rigged with explosives while gagged and blindfolded.

Terror in Resonance may have taken up all the anime terrorism news last year, but I think this show dealt with the subject in a more interesting manner. For one thing, I felt Terror in Resonance got a bit too pleased at itself with the transgressiveness of its subject matter, while this show uses its War on Terror elements as established facts. “This is the world we live in and these are the images we’re surrounded by,” announces the show as it tells a story about teenage witches in love. It feels like the more transgressive and the more subtly political stance. In the end, the anime is about terrorism inasmuch as it was made in a world where terrorism exists. How messed up is it that terrorism exists even in our romantic comedies? Witch Craft Works clearly wasn’t made just to express that message, which makes it more interesting that such a message got there in the first place. This terrorism stuff only starts becoming noticeable near the end of the season.

There’s more about the anime I could discuss – the way the girl is the dominant one in the romantic relationship, the slight deviation from anime body types which ended up giving us a statuesque and terrifying female romantic interest, the way the anime shoots itself in the foot by not showing its weirder and more interesting elements until after the first few episodes, the way the show overturns the masculine and heternormative trope of kids being forced into an arranged marriage by their parents by having the parents be two lesbians, the background sight gag of the military using a tank to suppress rowdy juvenile delinquents – but the War on Terror stuff was what stuck out the most for me. The show had unexpected depth, which pleases me. I’m always glad when an anime really gets me thinking.

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