Akko, Yoshinari, and the Journey of the Young Creator

Anyone who has ever tried to create something artistic knows that doing so is as far removed from simple and painless as any task can be and is every bit as exhausting as it is time consuming. Newer and younger creators who have only recently chosen to dedicate their time and mental energy to crafting a creative identity for themselves are intimately familiar with the struggles all artists face on a daily basis, only in their cases those difficulties are amplified by their inexperience and lack of knowledge in their respective fields. In addition to the initial challenge of learning the basics of their crafts, through time and experience they must also discover for themselves what it means to be a creative person and how that identity fits into their everyday lives. Creating artistic content requires extensive thought, planning, introspection, hard work and brutal self analysis that often leaves the creator feeling overwhelmed and discouraged with the task they’ve taken on. Those who persevere through this initial learning curve find the self satisfaction of having done so to be more than worth their while, but during that period all potential rewards for the young creator’s tireless efforts seem despairingly small.

Little Witch Academia is a series that understands and portrays the struggles of the young creator in the empathetic and insightful ways that only a young creator can, which makes sense when one considers the origin of the franchise. Little Witch Academia was born out of the Young Animator Training Project, whose purpose is to support and fund the training of young Japanese animators. Each year, selected anime studios are given funding from the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs to provide on the job training to these young animators while also giving them the chance to show off their unique talents and abilities. In 2012 the newly established Studio Trigger produced Little Witch Academia under the project’s banner, kick-starting the beloved franchise. The short received such widespread acclaim and affection that a second installment was released two years later, funded by its fans through a Kickstarter campaign. Director Yoh Yoshinari stated in an interview that when he conceptualized the series he wanted to create a protagonist that the animators working on the project would be able to relate to and identify with. Knowing this, it’s hardly surprising that the show’s lead character Akko Kagari is herself an ambitious, passionate and artistic young person seeking to establish herself in her world.

Early on in the show’s run many viewers expressed disappointment with its supposed lack of compelling writing and a general dissatisfaction with Akko’s personality, and even now after its completion she’s often the center of attention of the show’s critics, some going so far as to say that the show would be improved if she weren’t a part of it. However, it seems to me that those bent on criticizing the foundational characteristics of her personality, as well as those who make the case that her development over the course of the series left much to be desired, have gravely misunderstood what she represents within the context of the franchise, and what it would stand to lose if she were to be replaced. Akko is the epitome of the everything a young artist is and strives to be as seen through the eyes of young artists themselves, and as such her character is as relatable to me as she is endearing.

Akko’s initial characterization immediately establishes her motivations for entering Luna Nova and begins exploring how those motivations create disparity between herself and her peers. Her first burst of inspiration came upon her when she attended a Shiny Chariot magic show as a child. She had been so enraptured by the performance that she dedicated herself to becoming a witch in Chariot’s footsteps, her goal being to recreate the emotions she experienced at the show in the hearts of others. After arriving at Luna Nova, however, she’s disappointed and frustrated to discover that Chariot isn’t held as highly in witch culture as she had assumed. Due to her obstinacy and refusal to bend to the opinions of those around her as well as her position as an outsider to the witch world, Akko is henceforth looked down upon by many of her peers to varying degrees. This character conceptualization is immediately appealing to me, having myself been inspired by various artists within the same vein of critical reception and popularity as Chariot. In that respect, Akko reminds me a lot of myself at a younger age when I was unable to sufficiently defend the things I was inspired by to those who would question their greatness, instead vowing to prove their genius by following in their footsteps. Yoshinari expands on this concept a little bit in an interview, describing how he wanted to convey the idea that having something to gain inspiration from is crucially important, even if the object of your admiration causes you to be ridiculed and looked down upon by those around you.

Additionally, Akko’s general personality, outlook and attitude make her an irresistibly charming character to me. Akko isn’t necessarily a good person; she’s obstinate, naive, inconsiderate and acts without thinking. While she’s not without her doubts and occasional lapses in self confidence, her public persona is one of an egomaniac without the slightest clue of what the hell she’s doing. She rushes into every situation head first, breaking down every closed door in her path and stumbling through every open one. While Akko’s personality may be lined with flaws from every angle, it is in those flaws that the ingenuity of her character begins to come into focus. Due to her upbringing in an average Japanese family without access to anything relating to magic other than Chariot’s show, Akko arrives at Luna Nova without knowing how to perform the most basic of spells. She’s entering a new world full of challenges, dangers and difficulties and lacks the practical knowledge and experience required to face them as well as those around her. This forces her to compensate for those attributes with her determination and obstinacy, which is something I completely understand and relate to. With the exception of video editing, which was taught to me by a friend and mentor of mine, every creative ability I possess has been entirely self taught. I’m all too familiar with the initial frustrations that come with learning a craft for the first time. Finding myself faced with these challenges I began to take on an adapt-or-die mentality, forcing myself to become stubborn, focused and self centered in an attempt to push my way through the initial learning curve out of fear that my present limitations would cause me to become discouraged if I became complacent. Even now whenever I’m studying, practicing or creating I tend to isolate and completely submerge myself in my work, sometimes to such a degree that it takes a negative toll on me mentally and socially. I think Yoshinari understands this struggle as well, relating Akko’s egocentrism to that of a young animator who lacks the required skill to be as clean and precise in their work as those with more experience but presses on with god-like confidence regardless. The way Akko completely abandons herself as she pushes her way through every challenge desperately reaching for the next rung on the ladder fills me with joy. Yes, she’s egocentric and sometimes obnoxious because of it, but in more ways than I’d like to admit, so am I.

Akko’s characterization in the early episodes establish her as a well conceived character in her motivations and ideals, keeping with Yoshinari’s original conceptualization for the franchise. However, it’s not as if her character starts and ends there. When the show’s central narrative is revealed in the second half of the series it becomes clear that the structure of the story is built entirely off of how she develops and changes over the course of the show. In episode fifteen Akko learns of an ancient power called the Grand Triskelion that is capable of changing the world, specifically in regards to restoring the dying the flow of magic, and that in order to unlock this power she must learn and gain a deep emotional understanding of seven magical words hidden within the Shiny Rod, following the same path that Chariot had taken many years earlier but hadn’t seen to completion. Each of these words carry with them some important principle or concept that Akko must learn or reaffirm in her mind in order to move forward. In other words, the show’s narrative structure is directly tied to its themes and ideas.

The first word is unlocked in episode one when Akko solidifies her goal to become a witch, dedicating all of her energy and passion to seeing that dream come to fruition and boldly declaring her faith in herself to achieve it, the first step in any creative person’s journey. The second is unlocked in episode eleven when Akko meets with a legendary all-knowing spirit and is offered the fullness of Chariot’s abilities in return for her memories. Akko confidently refuses the offer, determined to reach her goals by her own efforts and abilities instead of having them handed to her, reflecting on how she treasures all of the experiences she’s had thus far, both the good and the bad. Additionally, we see how she places value in all of the lessons that she’s had to learn the hard way and takes pride in her own capabilities as a creative person, which is something I and many artists I know personally can strongly relate to.

The third word is less of a principle for Akko to learn and more of a reaffirmation of her motivations and purposes. In episode thirteen, Akko and her roommates are selected as sacrifices to be consumed by a mournful spirit as part of a tradition for the upcoming Samhain Festival. It is here that Akko finds herself faced with a situation that challenges her personal beliefs and a choice that will determine how she moves forward. In the end she decides to firmly stand on her ideals by refusing to blindly follow what she sees as outdated and ultimately pointless traditions, instead choosing to put her efforts towards seeking out a way to use her magic to entertain both the audience and Vajarois herself. During this episode, Akko’s enthusiasm for putting on an entertaining show for the school has a contagious effect on her roommates and later on those who witness her spectacle. I think this episode serves as an interesting reflection on Studio Trigger’s approach and mindset towards creating anime. While the studio and their staff have long been known for pushing the boundaries of what animation is capable of on both a thematic and visual level and for consisting of some of the most well known and ambitious anime creators from the last two decades, from what I’ve seen of how they interact with their fanbase it seems to me that their primary goal is to be simple entertainers, striving to create anime that their audience will enjoy and making every effort to interact with that audience as personally as they are able to. This especially rings true for Little Witch Academia. Before the series began airing a member of the studio and the show’s producer held a question and answer session on 4chan to discuss topics such as their favorite characters, the show’s universe, some of the references hidden within the series, crowdfunding, fanshipping and a number of others. During the show’s run its twitter page was constantly posting sketches and promo art of its characters created by the animators for their followers. This isn’t even including all of the interviews that Yoshinari and Hiroyuki Imaishi have participated in over the last few years. What this episode and Akko’s character as a whole tell me is that the heart behind Little Witch Academia’s staff is to make their audience happy, and they do so with considerable success. While not every episode of the series is equally good, there’s never a moment that it isn’t fun or in which it loses the spirit that has been the backbone of the franchise from day one. Using Akko’s character development and natural predisposition as a born entertainer to portray the staff’s simple love of giving people a good time is both adorable and pretty amazing, and like Akko’s performance, it has a contagious effect on those who witness it. Watching Trigger put so much effort into creating a series that their viewers will love, and watching the lead character of that series put so much effort into creating a spectacle that her peers and teachers will love makes me want to work even harder to create things that people within my sphere of influence will love. I’ve used the word “contagious” to describe this series a lot so far, but that’s really the best word I have to explain its effect on me.

Moving into the second half of the series, in episode 16 Akko learns the value of patience after rushing through the steps to create a remedy for Lotte’s diseased hometown and having to start over from scratch as a result. Up to this point, Akko has been trying her damndest to get to Shiny Chariot as quickly as possible only to find herself constantly frustrated with her inability to do so. One of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn as a creative person is that nothing happens overnight, and that the secret to reaching your goals lies in hard work and dedication over long stretches of time, and while Akko has to learn it the hard way, this lesson serves to prepare her for the challenges ahead.

The next two words deal with Akko’s relationships with the people around her. In episode twenty, the dynamic between Akko and Diana comes into focus when Diana is forced to make the decision of whether to take her place as the head of the Cavendish family or continue her studies at Luna Nova. Akko responds by encouraging her to do the impossible and pursue both goals. Akko’s bold, audacious optimism in this episode, while perhaps not particularly realistic, is inspiring and contagious, and as this story unfolded I found myself wanting to adapt her mindset and outlook on life for myself, imagining how much I could accomplish if I were able to have that kind of faith to just step out and do anything. Moving on, the next episode mirrors this dynamic, placing Akko in the opposite position as she realizes that she had been taking advantage of the people who had been inspiring and encouraging her along her journey. She activates the sixth word by expressing that sentiment to Ursala and apologizing for being so unaware of everything she had been doing for her. The lesson behind these two words is pretty straightforward; no creative person should have to exist in isolation, and realizing the importance of mutual encouragement while being thankful for those who fill that role in our lives is crucial to maintaining healthy productivity. Humans are social creatures, and artists are no exception. Akko learns that the relationships we build with each other are as important as the things we create, and that’s as much a lesson for me to take to heart as it is for her, given how easy it can be for me to fall into isolationist habits when I’m working hard.

The seventh and final word is unlocked in episode twenty four and encapsulates the totality of everything Akko has learned thus far as she reflects on her journey and decides how to move forward. After being let down by Shiny Chariot, who had been the sole motivator behind her goals since the beginning of the series, she realizes that it was a mistake to base her passion off of another ordinary human being, which prompts her to rethink her motivations and goals. In this episode, Professor Croix’s character arc acts as both a parallel and contrast to Akko’s journey. As the final arc unfolded we learned that over time she grew to see Chariot less as a peer and more as a measuring rod for her own success as a witch, so much so that she created her own version of the Shiny Rod in an attempt to to accomplish the goal that Chariot had been chosen for as part of a quest to prove herself. What Akko learns here is that as much as she admires and looks up to Chariot, she can never become her, and that it’s unfair to herself to use her idol as that measuring stick since doing so would set a standard for herself that she could never live up to. The reason for this is obvious when you stop and think about it, because of course they’re different people with backgrounds, abilities, personalities and ideologies formed by their unique individual experiences, so of course one shouldn’t expect to be able to accomplish as much in as short a time as the other, but trust me, the simplicity of this lesson is easy to miss when you’re in Akko’s position, looking at those around you and seeing that they possess far greater skills and capabilities despite not being that much different than you on a surface level. This basic lesson of not comparing yourself to others is one that Croix never accepted but that Akko now recognizes as being the only way for her to move forward. In one of the most heartwarming scenes I’ve seen in anime this year, Akko makes the decision to chart her own path instead of trying to follow someone else’s and asks Chariot to continue to help her accomplish this. It is here that everything Akko’s character arc is and represents comes full circle and the message of the series, and by extension Yoshinari’s message to young creators, comes into focus; be your own person. Base your goals on your own passion and love rather than someone else’s. Take hold of the world with your own hands and see where it will take you.

Akko has faced mountainous struggles along her journey and has even more intimidating challenges ahead of her, but now she knows better than to allow herself to become discouraged. One of my favorite scenes in the series is in episode sixteen in which we find Akko at the end of her rope. Cold and exhausted, she sees visions of a younger version of herself encouraging her to give up, arguing that someone else will inevitably come along and complete her mission for her. It is here that we see Akko at her lowest point, crushed by the weight of her replaceability and weakness. However, it’s also here that she sees a vision of Chariot, who simply asks her, “are you satisfied with this?” In other words, will Akko be satisfied with allowing someone else to take her place? Will she be content to allow her passion to go unrecognized by the world? Is she really going to wait around in vain for someone else to come along and do the things that only she can do? And the question the show’s staff asks their young, passionate viewers is this: “will you?” With Chariot’s encouragement, Akko’s strength is renewed and she continues her journey, remarking that while the road to her destination is painful, she is confident that she will endure. Why? Because she’s Akko. She’s egocentric and kind of a pain in the ass. She’s unashamed of the things she’s passionate about and inspired by. There’s nothing she can’t do if she lets her belief in herself and her friends carry her to her destination. This is why I can’t help but feel that Yoshinari’s vision for the series would be left unrecognized and the series as a whole would lose its ingenuity and personality that makes it so unique and charming if she were replaced by another character. Akko is the beating heart of Little Witch Academia, and as a result the series is as emotionally touching as it is inspiring.

At the beginning of this whole journey, Shiny Chariot proudly proclaims that “a believing heart is your magic.” While the message of this series may be simple, it’s one that I’ve chosen to latch onto. At nineteen years old, I recognize that for all intents and purposes I’m still a very young creator. While I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing my work improve significantly as I attempt to refine my style and approach to writing, I know I have the rest of my life ahead of me to continue to learn, explore and create. I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a long way to go and that the struggle to remain motivated and passionate in the face of the challenges ahead is one that I expect to wrestle with for a long time; however, like Akko, I’m holding out hope that my hard work, creativity and belief in my abilities will eventually see me through.

When we last left Akko, she had finally learned to ride a broom, a skill that she was expected to already possess at the beginning of the series and took her no less than twenty five episodes to obtain. She still has a long way to go and more than her fair share of difficulties ahead of her, but knowing Akko she’s not about to let any of that stand in her way. She now stands on the verge of all that life has to offer her, and she’s ready to take hold of it with her believing heart and craft it into whatever she wants it to be.

And you know what? So am I.

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