Flying Witch Vol. 1 (Vertical)

160 pgs. B&W | $10.95 | W / A: Chihiro Ishizuka

It’s funny the totally random purchasing decisions we sometimes make as consumers of art. Case in point, a few weeks back I was shopping at my favorite online anime and manga retailer, before the End Times but close enough to them that I knew I’d be cooped up in the house for a while somewhat imminently. I had a shopping cart full of deeply discounted anime DVDs, but I needed to spend an extra few bucks to hit the free shipping threshold. I had noticed in the site’s weekly bestseller emails that a manga named Flying Witch that I had never heard of made their top three a few weeks in a row. The cover to the eighth and latest volume had a pleasantly low-key vibe and a realistic style that reminded me of Kenji Tsuruta, whose elegant Spirit of Wonder is a wonderful bit of magical realism and a personal favorite. The first volume of the series also happened to be on sale, which didn’t hurt, and I knew I’d soon need some proper reading material, so I tossed it in my cart. I didn’t even bother to read the plot description.

If, unlike me, you’d like to not take such a boldly random chance, Flying Witch tells the story of Makoto Kowata, a high-school-aged witch-in-training who moves to live with her second cousins Kei and Chinatsu in the rural village of Aomori, a place that, unbeknownst to its human residents, has long served as a secret witch stomping ground. Makoto isn’t supposed to make too much noise about being a witch, but that doesn’t stop her from flying Chinatsu home from the store on her newly bought broom and being spotted by Nao, her soon-to-be classmate and new bestie.

Those expecting that premise to deliver high drama about a witch trying to practice her craft while striving to keep her identity a secret will come away wanting. Instead, the mildest of hijinks ensue. Nao shows Makoto the ropes of their new school and Makoto thanks her by digging up a living, squirming mandrake. Makoto and her cousins plant a garden and encounter a pheasant. Makoto wanders around town with her cat familiar Chito as her guide. A spooky-yet-benign magical being visits, as does Makoto’s slightly more brash older sister. Adventures are had, but nothing particularly wacky happens and no overarching plot emerges. It’s basically a slice of life story with the occasional magical interlude.

Why a series this tranquil popped to the top of a manga list that usually features stuff like My Hero Academia, I can’t say. The animated adaptation of the series is four years old at this point. Vertical’s English edition of this first volume dates back to 2017 and while the next six volumes came out fairly quickly, it caught up to the Japanese release with volume 7 last summer so maybe the comparatively long wait for volume 8 caused some pent-up demand? Who knows? Given the anxiety-inducing reality of living in the days of COVID-19, I will say it was a pleasant diversion to end the day by stepping into the low stakes conflicts that Makoto and her friends faced. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn, each with a quirk to explore for mildly comedic effect (Makoto has no sense of direction and gets lost easily, for example), but their dialogue as translated by Melissa Tanaka is conversational and has real personality.

Chihiro Ishizuka’s art was the thing that grabbed me enough to buy the book, of course, but the black-and-white interiors, while fetching, don’t hold a candle to the full color painted covers, mainly due to a lack of depth and three-dimensionality. Screentones are implemented flatly to indicate varying colors rather than depth and shape, and shadows, if they are drawn at all, are captured with straight lines (mainly just a series of lines drawn under a character’s chin) that don’t realistically reflect a light source. The characters are expressive and attractively drawn, but their world looks flat, which doesn’t quite fully draw you into the lives of these characters you’re supposed to want to see a slice of.

Vertical’s presentation of the material is typical of the industry, though somewhat atypical for them: a standard-sized manga trade with six short chapters in its 160 pages and no extras. No letterer is credited (unless that’s Grace Lu and Tomoe Tsutsumi, credited with “Production”) but the lettering is a particular sore point for this release; the font chosen is cold and unattractive, and changes size or switches from mixed case to all-caps with little rhyme or reason. It makes it feel like the characters occasionally just shout at random. In stories as mellow as these, it has an unintentionally discordant effect.

Slice-of-life stories have their niche, to be sure, and those who enjoy them may be drawn by the unique flavor of this magical twist on the genre. Ultimately, this first volume was a somewhat ephemeral reading experience, not memorable on the plot particulars but the characters still stood out. I’m tempted to, though not entirely sold on, spending more time with them. I suppose we’ll see what happens next time the shopping cart needs topped off. | Jason Green

Read the first chapter of Flying Witch at https://kodanshacomics.com/series/flying-witch/

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