Friday, February 14, 2014

Witch Craft Works & Mahou Sensou: The difference between Flavor and Spice.


My specialty is evasive magic. A slow giant golem punch? Let's Block it!
Last Seen: Episode 5 for both

"Gah Ha Ha Haa Ho-ohh-whoaa-oly shit!"
I'd like you to guess which of these two anime made me laugh this out loud into the open air. Magic Wars on the right, Witch Craft is on the left. Those of you too clever or jaded to bother playing along with me, yes, it was actually the bottom one, Witch Craft Works. After trying the longest to keep myself from comparing these two, I've decided to throw in the towel and just do it and get it over with, because I'm doing it unconsciously whether I like it or not. They're completely different at their core, but the peripherals have too much overlap to ignore. They both feature as a major element the act of dumping magic into the lap of the protagonist(s), and a correlated major world upheaval is heavily responsible. They also both feature more than a little comedy.

So why is it, that as each progressive episode of these came out, despite them both starting out above my expectations of them, one of them is quietly floating one point above my expectations, and the other is soaring freely all over the place on a broom? I made it a mission to decide for myself why I felt that way.
In short, the principles in play are Concept, and Execution. Both shows have similar settings, but pretty different concepts and very different executions. (I'm already starting to annoy myself with how vague I'm being, but I refuse to spoil anything for either show, so bear with me). Mahou Sensou looked and sounded like a cardboard cut out of your generic shounen'y action oriented plot line, and came out above my expectations a fair bit for having good character depth, and interesting world mechanics. Witch Craft Works sounded like a gender inversion of the Damsel in Distress and Her Shining Knight plot element, plus magic, and ended up completely surprising me with an actually interesting set of characters, the top of which was a protagonist (our...Man'sel?.. in Distress) who actually had the ability to think and reason for himself quite well.

Over time however, I slowly became disenchanted with Mahou Sensou, and absolutely enamored with Witch Craft Works. I couldn't quite put my thumb on the reason why until this latest set of episodes, which I watched back-to-back. The core concept of Mahou Sensou is action-with-drama. The core concept of Witch Craft Works is comedy-and-action. The difference in execution between them, is summarized thus: MaSen makes funnies, then spins on a dime and gets serious, and they expect you to take them serious-business serious. Witch Craft Works is made of funnies, and when they want to be serious, they just be serious and bring the laughs with them.
To get a few more details in, I feel that MaSen has a problem with maintaining or being aware of Flow. To their credit, when they do drama, they do it really well. One of the biggest hooks keeping me interested even in the face of of my mild disenchantment is how they keep adding dynamics to their characters, or just breaking boundaries of what is usually expected to be the limit of a characters personality trope. On the other foot, I feel that Witch Craft Works is doing an amazing job of maintaining consistency in the face of overwhelming comedy. Every episode something completely absurd (and magical) has happened, and yet the two protagonists reactions manage to ground the comedy nicely so that important things still feel important, even while we laugh our arses off. Takamiya actually has coherent reactions to the chaos dumped in his lap, instead of just being buffeted about by the winds of fate like most others in his position, and Kagari, who is suppose to be this invincible badass, actually feels like the invincible badass. To clip-quote a comment posted on crunchyroll by one 'colonalcat', which condensed several vague ideas I had been having: "Gotta hand it to Kagari, she's pretty dam awesome at being smooth."

To wrap this up, examples. When I'm watching Mahou Sensou, I'll frequently have a 'Flow-break', which is to say that I'll be thrown out of my immersion by a instant change in tone. We'll be having a running line of serious important things happening, and then bam they slap us with some comedic thing in the middle of it, and then instantly resume serious. The biggest instance of which is in the first episode, when Isoshima gets her powers. Like, you expect me to continue taking that scene seriously while I'm laughing that hard? It made absolutely no sense in context.
Meanwhile with Witch Craft Works, I'll be laughing my ass off, and then Takamiya will make a decision or do a thing, and I'll be really impressed with him, or Kagari will...well, be Kagari and I'll just start snickering. Kagari has rarely emoted more than a quiet smile or frown in all of five episodes, and yet she's leaked more personality, with a straight face, than some of the loudest most emotional characters I've seen in anime.

To pull this all into a conclusion, if you're looking at watching Mahou Sensou, expect some above average Shounen'y action with a drama-based pool of characters. Be prepared to offer your immersion with hooks to hold it down for the sharp turns, because they're trying to roller coaster this thing up and down.
If you're looking to watch Witch Craft Works, expect a lot of laughter, but given with a lot of meaningful things happening. Despite having effectively shallower characters and motivations, the things they do, and the way they act, lends additional weight amidst all the silliness when it needs to.

At present, I'm giving Witch Craft Works a solid Thumbs Up!and a recommendation to at least try 1-2 episodes. If comedies not really your thing, it's still got enough other interesting things happening you might enjoy it anyway.

While Mahou Sensou just gets a nice Merit Badge for unexpectedly Interesting Characters&Character Depth. They haven't done anything horrible yet, and overall it's a really good show so far. I just can't shake the feeling that maybe they could be doing something better though, that I should be much more invested than I currently am. Probably just me.

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