Creator Chemistry in A Whisker Away

The Japanese anime film A Whisker Away caught my attention early on due to its writer-director combination of Okada Mari and Sato Jun’ichi. Okada has worked on some of my favorite anime, including A Woman Called Mine Fujiko and Aquarion EVOL. Sato has helmed numerous masterpieces, especially in the magical girl realm—Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu, Kaleidostar, Ojamajo Doremi, Hugtto! Precure, among others However, this is not the first time they’ve worked together, and their last collaboration, M3: The Dark Metal, was mixed at best. Their strengths as creators are total opposites in a certain sense, which can make for a brilliant chemical reaction or an explosive mess. In the case of A Whisker Away, the combination succeeds.

A Whisker Away follows a girl named Sasaki Miyo, whose crush on her boy classmate Hinode Kento only seems to irritate him. What Kento doesn’t know, however, is that the stray cat he loves so much, Tarou, is actually Miyo in disguise through the power of feline magic. Key to the film are the desire to understand and to be understood.

When I say that Okada and Sato have opposite strengths, what I mean is that the two specialize in very different expressions of emotion. The writer’s works are all characterized by melodramatic floods of powerful emotions (especially at the climax), while the director’s greatest strength is conveying small and intimate emotions whether the setting is humble or grandiose. It is a challenge for both types of emotional expression to exist in the same space without smothering each other, and as I discussed years ago on the Veef Show podcast, this is one of the problems with M3: The Dark Metal

I think what makes the newer work click in contrast to their previous title is that both Okada-style and Sato-style emotional expression are able to coexist. The film has moments for both styles to shine, especially given the numerous scenes of quiet introspection and frustration juxtaposed with loud and bombastic outbursts from the heart. It also doesn’t hurt that cute but trying teenage romance is the wheelhouse of both creators.

Given this long trend of two whole films, I am eager to see what comes from the next Okada-Sato joint effort. Now that I know this team can pull it off, I have high hopes that the third time around will be spectacular. In the meantime, A Whisker Away is worth a watch.

You’re Magical: Ojamajo Doremi

On the surface, Ojamajo Doremi is a relatively simple series. Its plot isn’t particularly complex, and it can hardly be called a controversial series that creates divisive opinions. However, I also find it remarkably difficult to review because it is really, really good. Its strengths are many while its faults are few, and it represents some of the best that not just the magical girl genre but anime in general has to offer.

Ojamajo Doremi centers around a trio of 3rd-graders and their path from witch apprentices to their ultimate goal of becoming full witches with mastery of magic. The titular heroine Harukaze Doremi is an energetic motormouth, easily lovestruck, who calls herself “the world’s unluckiest pretty girl.” Fujiwara Hazuki, shy, intelligent, and a connoisseur of bad puns, is the only daughter of a wealthy family and Doremi’s best friend. Rounding out the core group is Aiko, a tomboy from Osaka with a penchant for takoyaki and money who lives with her single father. Along the way, they use their magic to help out friends, family, and various others around town, though their magic often backfires in a humorous fashion.

The show is mostly episodic, with a few ongoing plot elements, most significantly the periodic “witch exams” the girls have to take in order to move up in rank and gain more powerful magical abilities, and on a basic level Ojamajo Doremi feels very comfortably like any other magical girl show with its cute mascots and brightly colored wands and transformation sequences. However, it uses those trappings to great effect, telling genuinely heartfelt stories with strong and enriching messages without going out of its way to diverge from convention. This desire to motivate, combined with the show’s incredibly rich characterization, gives a strong sense of not just how well-developed the characters’ personalities are, but that they’re inspirations to those watching.

The first really solid example of the show’s approach to characterization—and the first instance where Ojamajo Doremi begins to exhibit its full strength—is the portrayal of Aiko’s relationship with her father. When the girls’ elementary school has its “Take Your Parents to School Day,” everyone is excited. Aiko, though, purposely chooses not to tell her father about it. The reason? Having only recently moved from Osaka, Aiko’s father is a new face at his current job, and she doesn’t want to harm his reputation at his taxi company for what she considers a selfish purpose by having him take the day off so soon after starting.

When I first saw this, I was just so impressed by how this little bit of information addresses and reveals so much. It establishes Aiko as a strong, mature, and practical girl who really loves and supports her father, all without explicitly bringing up any of those attributes. It also shows the difficulties that go along with being a single parent working a job with long hours and presents a real situation which father and daughter have had to face together.

The show’s excellent treatment of its characters does not end with Aiko, and while Aiko might have the best introduction, it is perhaps Hazuki who grows the most. When Hazuki is first seen, she is a wallflower whose kind, soft-spoken nature complements the louder Doremi well. Over the course of the series, while Hazuki never stops being an overall quiet girl, she slowly learns how to be more assertive, sometimes even being the first to act. However, I must point out that Hazuki does not “gain” any strength of character, as it’s clear from the very start that her best qualities were with her all along, and that she merely needed the confidence to express herself more readily.

Doremi herself is not to be outdone in terms of characterization, either. Not only does she have about as much development as Aiko and Hazuki, but her infectious personality alone would be capable of carrying the show without the rest of the series being so good. Doremi is a clumsy girl who frequently gets outsmarted by her much younger sister, but she’s also very unorthodox and her straightforward personality is endearing. In a magical girl series aimed primarily at young girls, she is an exemplary heroine with whom they can learn and grow themselves.

As a series aimed towards kids, Ojamajo Doremi has the added concern of not only being entertaining but also delivering a good message to the children watching. Fortunately, this is where the series really excels, most notably through its tempered optimism and its approach to magic.

Ojamajo Doremi‘s is a message of positivity, but it is not so afraid to expose its viewers to some of the sadder, potentially more hurtful aspects of life to the point that it would pretend they do not exist. The problems that the girls help out with can range from rescuing a boy who fell into a hole to helping a girl come to terms with her own guilt over killing a pet. This also extends to the main characters themselves, such as the fact that Aiko’s mother walked out on their family. It’s quite a sensitive topic for Aiko, but Aiko doesn’t let it get her down, and it’s this emphasis on enjoying life, bumps and all, that also contributes to Ojamajo Doremi‘s success as a children’s show that has much more substance than other anime like it.

As for magic, Ojamajo Doremi places great importance on how it is utilized. As is the premise of the show, Doremi, Hazuki, and Aiko regularly use their spells to aid others, but the more you watch it the more you realize that the magic does not solve anyone’s problems for them. As a hypothetical example, if two friends are fighting, rather than making them less angry, the three girls’ magic will place them in the same room so that those friends can talk it out and clear up any misunderstandings. Thus, instead of eliminating the problem outright, the magic in Ojamajo Doremi acts as a guide, nudging people in the right direction so that they can find the answers for themselves. It’s a message that a lot of kids’ shows in general fail to deliver, let alone magical girl anime, and it’s really the kind of thing that can get a child (or an adult!) to think, even if they don’t realize it at first.

Now if the show has any real flaw, it’s that the show is by necessity designed to sell toys. It isn’t a big problem at first, but about halfway through the series it becomes clear that the toys weren’t selling quite enough, and the new animations for the girls’ magic spells really place the merchandise dead center for the kids at home to see. But as I said, it’s necessary for this sort of program, and the show manages to overcome this limitation in spades. Another lesser flaw is that the English dub for it is really, really bad, changing dialogue and stripping away much of the charm of the series.

Overall, Ojamajo Doremi is an amazing series. It is an almost perfect case of how to execute a proper magical girl anime that creates strong emotional connections with the characters that has you looking forward to more of their adventures. It leaves you not only satisfied with the quality of the work itself, but happy that the show was able to relay its messages of personal growth, positivity, and friendship to children and adults of all ages. Whether you’re 10 years old or somebody’s parent or just someone who appreciates good anime, Ojamajo Doremi is simply worth watching.