2019’s Witch Hat Atelier, Volume Five is the fifth tankōbon in author/artist Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier fantasy manga series. Witch Hat Atelier (Tongari Bōshi no Atoriein the original Japanese) has been serialized in Kodansha’s Monthly Morning Two magazine since July 2016. The English translation of Volume Five appeared in 2020.
When last we saw our heroes, they were venturing into Romonon. The party had divided into: Coco, Tetia, and their teacher Qifrey in one group, and Richeh and Agott in the other. The first group finds itself in a dire situation, while the other is facing a challenge that is even worse.
In the realm of Romonon, for reasons that made sense long ago1, the hapless inhabitants were all transformed into gold. That alone would be a warning re the dangers of magic. But the situation is even worse than it first appeared. The transformation was unpleasant but it did not kill its targets. Indeed, it’s not clear if anynatural phenomena can kill the golden people.
Unsurprisingly, witches are at the top of the golden people’s hate list. While Qifrey, Coco, and Tetia had nothing to do with the excesses of the past, the golden people are happy to punish them for the sins of witches long dead. Qifrey’s battle magic proves no match for the golden people, so it falls to Coco to unleash something that iseffective: empathy.
Another plot thread: the series antagonist Brimhats have cruelly transformed timid would-be witch Euini into a scaled wolf2. After some digressions, Agott and Richeh arrive at a cure for Euini’s condition. The cure is bold, brilliant, and ineffective.
The Brimhats offer to show Coco how to cure Euini. Not for Euini’s sake: his future is almost certainly dire, thanks to the witches’ draconian legal system. The treatment depends on forbidden magic and the intent is to seduce Coco to the Brimhat cause.
The art in this manga continues to be wonderful.
It is not entirely truthful to say that all Coco did in dealing with the golden people was use empathy (although empathy was a crucial first step). She also provided a little magic that she hoped would comfort them. She was surprised when this magic gave the grateful golden people a way to commit mass suicide.
This is not the first time Coco’s magic proved far more dangerous than she expected. There’s a reason why the witches are so cautious when it comes to magic.
The theme that magic is effective but unpredictable runs through this volume. This is something that most of the characters (students, still in the process of learning the basics of magic) must internalize. But even skilled practitioners can be surprised by the results of their magics, results such as the grim plight of the golden people. It’s a pity magic is so useful that it will never be abandoned.
Given the inflexibility with which the witches’ council enforces their draconian rules, ignorance and victimhood being no excuse in the council’s eyes, it’s not terribly surprising that even supposedly law-abiding witches are prone to covert rebellion. It suggests that some of the Brimhats may have rebelled because the alternative was punishment for something that wasn’t their fault. That said, while the council is excessive, the Brimhats are perfectly happy to torture children. This series isn’t entirely a shades of gray story … some shades are much darker than others.
Given that magic is dangerous and both council and Brimhats are grey hats, it’s astonishing that the author manages to provide as upbeat a narrative as she does. The students suffer disquieting revelations, disturbing consequences of well-meant magics, and repeated brushes with death … or worse. Somehow, they manage to preserve their hopeful natures. Consequently, this manga is much less grim than one would expect of a series whose protagonist has a body count in the double (possibly triple) digits.
1: Back in the era when magic was freely available, Romonon’s governing body went on a rampage intended to eliminate the imperfect. Each success was followed by increasingly stringent tests and even more unbounded magic. Eventually, no living humans were left, only statues that remembered being human. There’s a reason why the Council is so determined to control magic.
2: That’s a wolf that has scales, sort of a cursorial predatory pangolin.