Witch Hat Atelier Volume Eight is the eighth tankōbon in Kamome Shirahama’s fantasy manga series. Witch Hat Atelier (Tongari Bōshi no Atorie in the original Japanese) has been serialized in Kodansha’s Monthly Morning Two magazine since July 2016. First published in Japan in 2020, the English translation of Volume 8 was released in 2021.
Unaware of teacher Qilfrey’s horrifying actions in volume seven1, the students at his atelier (protagonist Coco, as well as friends Agott, Richeh, and Tetia) are delighted to be invited to assist shop-boy Tartah to set up a tent at an upcoming fair. Normally this would be a task for Tartah’s boss/grandfather Mr. Nolnoa, but a back injury has sidelined Mr. Nolnoa. If the girls don’t help Tartah, he will have to manage alone. This might affect sales, which would be bad; the fair is financially important to Mr. Nolnoa’s shop.
An entirely different matter emerges to engage Tartah and Coco’s attention.
A non-witch minstrel named Custas lost the use of his legs after a mishap. Provided with a walking chair while he convalesced at Kahln Medical Facility, Custas is frustrated by the chair’s limitations. He is also painfully aware that he is dependent for funds on his older companion Dagda and that the need to secure funds forces Dagda to accept dangerous mercenary jobs.
The subject of disabilities is close to Tartah’s heart, as he suffers from a form of colour-blindness that makes many aspects of working in a magic shop much harder for him than it would otherwise be. Among the magical community’s many little quirks is a near-complete indifference (bordering on active loathing) for anyone with a disability. Given magic’s power, one could imagine a multitude of ways witches could mitigate disabilities without violating magical community rules. For the most part, unless they themselves have a problem, witches cannot be bothered.
Rescuing Custas from would-be robbers who covet his chair, Coco and Tartah realize how miserable Custas is. The chair may grant a degree of mobility but its limitations are many. Therefore, the comprehensive reformation of society being out of reach for the two kids, the two set out to provide Custas with a superior solution. They cannot restore his legs but they can grant Custas the power of flight.
Alas! In front of a horrified Custas, the odds finally run out for poor, dutiful Dagda.
The art in this series continues to be amazing.
Something that this volume makes very clear: this society has an elite (witches); a middle class (Coco’s mother made an acceptable living as a dressmaker); and downtrodden poor. Before Dagda took Custas on as an apprentice, the boy was a starving street urchin. Having had personal experience with how society handles the challenge of poverty — by ignoring it — Custas has a much bleaker worldview than Coco and Tartah. He does not expect much; even then, his life often turns out worse than expected.
The entire series is about the consequence of comprehensive reforms (specifically, limiting the use of magic to prevent general calamities such as entire populations being transformed into living statues) and the struggle by various groups, not all of whom are self-centered jerks2, to mitigate the consequences of the current legal system. It’s an odd political background for a young adult series.
Shirahama’s choice of protagonist may soften the impact, but it’s clear that this is not one of those Disney-style secondary fantasy worlds in which peasants are happy with their lot. There are a lot of very unhappy people in this world, and it’s not at all clear that things are going to get any better.
And yet … Shirahama manages to avoid presenting the reader with a relentlessly grimdark world in which everything is horrible. It’s a neat trick, given the realities of the setting. One can only wonder how long the author can keep it up before even relentlessly cheerful Coco has one upsetting revelation too many.
1: Unfortunately, there is not room in this footnote for an explanation of Qilfrey’s misdeeds, as I have used up too much room explaining that there is no room.
2: If there’s a unifying theme to this world’s political philosophy, it might be “solving pressing social issues badly,” whether it’s limiting the use of magic with a wildly draconian legal system or encouraging the use of magic without regard for consequences.
Probably this is an obscure enough place to acknowledge Canada’s bold forays into winning the wars on poverty, mental disability, and disability with something we innocently call MAID.