If you search online for Witch Craft Works, one of the first things you’re likely to see is the promotional art for the anime, pictured above. It’s an attention grabber for sure, as the image of a tall, voluptuous woman cradling a smaller, frailer man in her arms sends a whole array of messages that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Of these possibilities, one question that arises asks, is Witch Craft Works feminist? I would argue that it is in certain respects, but not necessarily in the way that one might expect. While one may very well approach the gendered role reversal in terms of whether or not it’s a form of empowerment, I find that it’s better to consider it in terms of how it highlights how we view those roles in the first place.
Witch Craft Works is an anime and manga about a meek-looking teenage boy named Takemiya Honoka and his love interest/protector, the practically-perfect-in-every-way Kagari Ayaka, who is also a witch able to command flames. Weak protagonists are nothing new for anime at this point, but whereas a typical story would have the guy “man up” and defend the woman (see Fate/Stay Night, for example), Ayaka is clearly stronger than he is at all times. This is what creates the spark of potential for Ayaka to be a symbol of female empowerment, though people who read into her this way may potentially be disappointed, especially because her clear male-oriented attractiveness (wide hips, very large breasts, long raven-black hair) and moments of obvious fanservice can detract from such a portrayal.
While those unfamiliar with shoujo manga might see the series as more of a role reversal in general, in fact Witch Craft Works is more specifically a genderswap of a stereotypical shoujo manga. Instead of the girl being perpetually late for school and bumping into Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious, it’s Honoka playing the part instead. All of the lines that the male love interest would make about protecting the female protagonist while holding her gently have instead gone to Ayaka. What makes it clearly shoujo as well is the trope of having Ayaka followed by a squad of fangirls who keep all potential partners at bay through bullying and trickery. The main difference, aside from the change in genders, is that the art style is more geared towards a male audience, which opens it up for the criticisms seen in the previous paragraph.
When I say that Witch Craft Works can be interpreted as a feminist work, however, my intent is not to argue that people should just get over the clear idealized appeal of Ayaka for heterosexual male viewers. Instead, the point I want to make is that this role reversal brings to the surface many assumptions we make about how characters behave. Imagine that, instead of Witch Craft Works acting as a reverse shoujo series, we instead made a genderswap version of James Bond, or better yet Golgo 13? In this version, a stoic woman would sleep with guys left and right, who would be so amazed at her instinctual command of the carnal arts that they would beg at her feet for more as she leaves without saying a word. Sometimes, they might get caught in the middle of a gunfight or perhaps themselves be assassins, which would result in them being violently murdered by “Golga 13.” As she goes about putting bullets in the heads of her targets, men and women would sing her praises and talk about how amazingly powerful she is.
Would this be empowering? Perhaps. Would this emphasize equality between male and female characters? Not really, as it’s more just flipping the issue. However, by turning the tables in that way, it would increase awareness of how these tropes are affected by how we perceive characters’ behaviors according to their genders. Witch Craft Works does something similar, only instead of using the typical narrative aspects of a guy-oriented series like Golgo 13, it uses the cultural markers of girl-oriented anime and manga to start with, and then pushes things a few steps further.
One of the arguments by fans of yaoi and yuri as to why they prefer those stories over ones about heterosexual relationships is that there’s less of a power imbalance between male and female. At the same time, categories like “seme” (top) and “uke” (bottom) complicate this issue because they can often be used to express a relationship of domination and submission. Witch Craft Works, through the interactions of its weak male and strong female leads and its mix of guy-oriented and girl-oriented aesthetics, calls to mind all of these different portrayals of romances. Kagari and Ayaka simultaneously behave like a shoujo romance, but also a bit of a shounen one as well, and even embody aspects of yaoi and yuri. Apparently the manga was originally supposed to be yuri itself but was changed to its current form.
For guys, this is a rare opportunity to see what it feels like for a male character to be made a damsel-in-distress, though the conclusion for them won’t necessarily be that this is a problem, and that the role is diminishing men as a whole. It’s possible that this can even be viewed as something desirable, that men rarely get the chance to feel the desire to be rescued, to have their troubles eliminated by someone more powerful than themselves, even less so when the rescuer is a woman (usually it’s a father or something along those lines). Instead of manifesting an empathy for weakness through moe girl character, it can be achieved through a boy, and there isn’t even a need to berate him for not being “man enough.” At the same time, male viewers can see the boy damsel, take comfort, and then return to endless images of macho heroes. Women, on the other hand, leave Witch Craft Works and go back to a sea of women being captured and waiting for their saviors. As a result, Witch Craft Works ends up emphasizing the fact that the “damsel-in-distress” issue is not that the trope is inherently dangerous or detrimental, but that it has been historically reinforced repeatedly as something “for women.”
By playing with the standard rules of its storytelling style but flipping the script, Witch Craft Works serves to make us aware of those storytelling tendencies, especially those found in anime and manga. and to look at them more critically. In that respect, Witch Craft Works is capable of contributing to feminist criticism.