Witch Hat Atelier is an incredibly imaginative manga whose whimsy and sense of wonder has crafted a fantasy world that reminds us why we love magic in the first place. At the end of the first volume, there is a brief postface by the author, Kamone Shirahama, that captures the meaning of this charming manga about magic and artistry. "This story was sparked by a casual comment from a friend, who mentioned that process of bringing an illustration into the world seemed just like magic. I'd like to offer a word of thanks to all my imaginative friends whose many ideas helped form the world of Witch Hat Atelier."
Witch Hat Atelier, written and illustrated by Kamone Shirahama, began serialization in Kodansha's Monthly Morning Two in July 2016 and has since had eight volumes. It follows the story of a young girl named Coco who always dreamed of casting spells like the witches she meets in-and-out of her mother's tailoring shop. One day, as Coco is experimenting with magic, she accidentally releases a strange spell on her mother. Now under the tutelage of Qifrey, a witch, Coco is an apprentice witch trying to uncover the details of the magic she unknowingly cast on her mother if she has any hope of saving her.
As dark as Witch Hat Atelier's opening chapter is, the story is a surprisingly optimistic one. While touches of malice occasionally bubble to the surface, Shirahama makes an effort to portray the good that magic can bring to the world more than anything else. This is in part to how she writes Coco -- who is incredibly endearing. Coco loves magic with all her heart; she loses her composure the first time she meets Qifrey, becoming a blushing flustered mess. Shirahama will, at times, draw Coco as excitable and bewildered as possible to emphasize her passion and enchantment with the magical world.
The fun of this manga also comes from seeing Coco contrast with the other young witches studying at Qifrey's Atelier -- each with strikingly different personalities and different motivations. Three others join Coco, including the jovial Tetia, who loves to hear the words "thank you" and wants to create comfy spells for herself and others, and the reserved Riche -- a girl who dislikes having to learn magic "the proper way" and prefers creating her own spells to solve problems. The group's final member is the astute and resolved Agott, who takes her magic very seriously and doesn't see Coco as a true witch.
Despite how different the four girls are from each other, we slowly see them start to rely on each other and realize that they bring a different perceptive to magic that the other three can not.
An early arc sees the four girls trapped in a maze-like pocket dimension with a fearsome dragon. Instead of utilizing magic as a weapon, Coco views it as something to bring happiness to others and suggests finding a way of pacifying the dragon. It's moments like this, which highlight the lighter intentions of Witch Hat Atelier that make the series enjoyable and endearing. The girls working together to create a spell instead of falling into battle manga tropes, focusing on building the characters and their relationship to magic rather than simply using it as a vehicle for fight scenes.
That's not to say magic isn't used to overcome adversity at all for Coco and her friends, but it's more complicated than a monster of the week. Another difficulty the witches face is a rule which forbids them from sharing how magic is done with non-witches. This issue comes to a head when they must try to save a group of settlers from a mudslide caused by a violent river current, threatening to drown them all.
If Witch Hat Atelier were a light novel, the story itself would still be interesting; however, what truly elevates this manga is Kanome Shirahama's incredible artwork and paneling. Witch Hat Atelier has this storybook quality that can be felt from its very first page. The backgrounds bring so much life to the world, making turning the page feels like you're unfolding a discarded map. Beyond Shirahama's delightfully expressive art style and breathtaking backgrounds, the unconventional paneling adds further charm.
The layout of Shirahama's pages will often resemble a stained glass window or an illustration from a book of fables, especially for exposition or lore. This technique of having the world explained with a different lens is a clever workaround for delivering new information to the reader. The visuals give the story being told a more foreboding atmosphere that draws you in, best exemplified when we first learn of why the secrets of magic are kept hidden from civilians.
Shirahama will often use little flourishes too that give the panels a bit more flair and mystique. At one point, Qifrey lets Coco know he sealed off her home with briar after the accident, and around the panel we see thorny vines. Small touches draw you into the world, like when we're introduced to a new tool or weapon that is given an explanatory panel that feels right out of a detailed compendium for witch artifacts.
Fans of fantasy storytelling and adorably likable characters are sure to find enjoyment in Witch Hat Atelier. The series oozes charm, intrigue and wonderment and has been nominated for several publication awards. It won the 2020 Eisner Award for U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia alongside Taiyo Matsumoto's Cats of The Louvre. At the rate Witch Hat Atelier is going, it could very well go down as one of the best contemporary manga of our generation.