Witch Hat Atelier, Volume Four is the fourth tankōbon in author/artist Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier 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. The English translation of Volume Four appeared in 2019.
This volume offers readers that for which they read fantasy manga: pop quizzes!
More accurately, teacher Qifrey informs two of his students — Agott and Richeh — that they are to undertake the Sincerity of the Shield, a rite of passage that all witches must pass. They will be accompanied by Professor Kukrow’s student Euini and proctored by Alaira. Failure is not catastrophic — students who do not pass will simply continue their studies — but those who fail cannot retake the test for another year.
Each student’s reaction to the upcoming test reflects their personality. Agott is determined to pass on her first try, lest she betray the honor of her high-ranked family. Richeh wants only to study what Richeh wants to study, rejecting other fields as un-Richeh and thus impure; Richeh sees the test as an affront. Euini, having twice failed and continually subjected by Kukrow to verbal abuse, knows only that the form his failure will take is unpredictable.
The test involves a difficult path (a subterranean road that is the last cursed relic of a magical society that fell to hubris, underlining to the students the importance of not abusing magic), and onerous conditions. However, the point is not to humiliate the students but to teach them, even if they fail.
A worthy goal. Too bad the series antagonists, the Brimhat Witches, have taken an interest.
This volume warrants a “terrible things happen to young people” warning, as does, I suspect, volume five. Things start off badly for poor Euini and then get much worse by the end of the volume.
One of Qifrey’s hobbies is collecting misfit students, of whom there seem to be no shortage. This surfeit of misfits seems in part to be due to the terrible teaching system in place. Each atelier functions semi-autonomously; while there is a staff compliance officer resident in each school, the rules they enforce have to do with protecting the secret of magic (that anyone can be taught to do it) and not protecting the actual students. Therefore, someone like Euini, stuck with an abusive teacher1, is out of luck … unless they cross paths with Qifrey and transfer schools. Unlike certain series about magical students that I could mention, the text does not appear to take the side of the terrible, terrible school system.
That said, the volume isn’t simply a sequence of terrible things happening to Euini. After all, tragedy works better if there are moments of hope. The three students are faced with a series of magical challenges, for which there may be no one right answer. However there are definitely wrong answers. Proceeding along the labyrinth provides the students with opportunities to overcome personal weakness while showcasing their particular talents.
I may need a rubber stamp for “the art in this manga is beautiful; even if the story was not so diverting (or translated), I’d still want to read this.” On top of that, the author is skilled at presenting characters about whose fates the reader will care.
1: Given senior witches’ disinterest in their charges’ well-being, it seems likely every imaginable variety of abuse is inflicted on students.