Content warning: brief war imagery
What’s it about? In an alternate, dieselpunk Europe, there’s a war going on—fought with equal parts magic and technology. In the midst of the conflict, a sergeant forced to retire due to injury is doing her best to pitch the importance of music and song to her superiors. Her efforts are going nowhere; meanwhile, however, a girl with mysterious vocal powers has arrived in London with a witch’s familiar…
In 1969, Edwin Starr asked “war! What is it good for?” His answer, in the next line of the song, was “absolutely nothing.” Many years later, an alternate answer might be “speculative fiction anime starring pretty young women.”
Luminous Witches is the latest venture in this lucrative genre, opening over the dark, churning sea of (this universe’s version of) the Dunkirk evacuation. The camera follows a squadron of young women as they fly through the turbulent skies. Not in planes, mind you: they have propellers attached to their legs. This imagery will be less surprising if you’re familiar with the Strike Witches series, of which Luminous Witches is a spinoff. Unfortunately, aside from some cursory knowledge I’m not well-versed in the franchise, so this first impressions article comes to you from essentially a newbie’s perspective.
It’s a tricky dance, I know: on one hand, a series several layers deep into an established story world shouldn’t have to appeal to non-fans (would you expect to pick up Book 3 in a series and seamlessly start enjoying yourself?). On the other, it’s always interesting to see what glimpse into these established worlds spinoffs offer, and whether or not they can work as a jumping-in point. Acknowledging that, how does this first episode of Luminous Witches fare? Well… let’s say I’m tentatively intrigued.
As I said, we open on Dunkirk, but for the majority of the episode we follow three young witches after they bump into each other (literally) in London several years later. There’s Inori, a shy girl with a calico cat familiar; and Lyudmila, who’s strolling around with a borzoi. And then there’s Ginny, who possesses incredible powers but seems to have no concept of what a witch is. Nor their role in society—Lyudmila drops the (unintentionally) horrifying line “even though you’re a witch, you don’t belong to any military, even at your age?”
If you’re familiar with Strike Witches this is probably just part and parcel of the world-building, but the suggestion that adolescents are swept up into military service as soon as they show signs of magic ability had me taken aback. In fact, another conversation tells us that combat witches are exclusively teenagers, since a woman’s magic abilities start to fade around age twenty. Because of course they do. Between the cynical marketing applications and the chilling world-building implications (all our characters are cute teen girls… drafted into a war!) there’s so much to unpack I think I might just throw out the whole suitcase.
In any case, Ginny as the naïve newcomer stands in for the audience, though there’s still a lot that goes unexplained. The synopsis promises that the story will focus on the healing power of music in troubling times, which is admittedly pretty interesting… and I wish this episode had spent more time setting that theme up in a more tangible way. It feels a bit… meandering, the camera swinging languidly between different settings and introducing us to different characters without ever feeling like the narrative is putting any kind of inciting incident into motion.
Presumably, all these characters will round out the cast as the series goes on. One point of interest here is a dark-skinned pilot from “New Zeiland” who apparently has a kiwi familiar. We see her for about five seconds, but she’s kind of my favorite part of the episode. Any acknowledgment that Australia and/or New Zealand exist in anime is very exciting to me—I’m still emotionally recovering from A Place Further Than the Universe spending a whole episode in Fremantle, Western Australia! This is purely speculation, but the idea of not only a New Zealander anime character, but potentially a Māori anime character, is super, super cool. So here’s hoping we see more of her soon and she gets to be, you know, a character!
Because alas, alas, as much as I hate to repeat the critique from my last review, there are a lot of girls in this cast and they all feel a bit flat and gimmicky. We’ve got a girl who’s sleepy. A girl who’s shy and sweet. A girl who’s cool and Russian. Even Lyudmila, Inori, and Ginny don’t make a strong impression, despite getting the most screentime (and presumably being the main characters). The ending theme, which lines about fifteen of them up on a stage like they’re an idol group, doesn’t ease the cynicism in my heart.
My instinct as an editor is always to suggest “fewer characters that we understand better” (for example, this is what I liked so much about Love Live! Superstar!!). But that doesn’t make a big cast of collectable, marketable cuties, does it? And you’ve got to make your money somewhere.
Luminous Witches, on its own merit, doesn’t make a super strong first impression. I’d be curious to know how it vibes for Strike Witches fans, as it feels like this premiere puts more effort into rapid-fire introducing us to the expansive cast than setting up a definitive tone or stakes. But I do want to give this another chance for its interesting premise, and I do want to come back for at least another episode to see if Kiwi Girl gets any more screentime. Count me unimpressed but tentatively willing to give it another shot.