Title: Majo no Tabitabi / The Journey of Elaina / Wandering Witch
Length: 12 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Slice of life, adventure, drama, comedy
Year of release: 2020
The great thing about journeys is that you never know what you’ll get. That’s, ultimately, where the magic is. That’s what the 100+ episode travelling behemoth of an anime, Galaxy Express 999 gets so right. And what Majo no Tabitabi, Elaina’s 12 brief excursions of a travelling anime, doesn’t. Large shifts in mood between episodes is hard to pull off and falls into the ‘consistency’ issue, and, much like in the earlier linked work, that I also experienced in my recent Gegege no Kitarou review, I find myself having to filter my review through the old ‘Ratio’ argument. How many episodes were good? How many were bad?
Now the first episode was a masterpiece. It stole my heart from the moment I saw its gorgeous background art, but it kept getting better. Perhaps its moral was a little heavy-handed, and the fundamental premise a little shaky, but none of that matters when the execution is so pitch-perfect. As an apprentice witch, Elaina spent that episode reeling on her trials and tribulations and enduring hardship, agitation, and feeling her dream escaping from her grasp, and it was exquisite. Elaina’s gritted teeth in isolation, the focused lens shots of her glazed eyes before she puts on a faux smile again – all these little scenes went a long way to convey her feelings in a nuanced way; you sympathised with her easily, because she expressed so quietly and reasonably. When the battle comes, a fantastically animated hopeless affair, she’s forced to grapple with her own inability and immaturity before the exhaustion comes out, and the tear-ducts were so naturally opened for the audience so easily walking in her shoes.
This was the most heartfelt moment I’ve had with anime in years. And, if you look at my review history, that’s no small feat.
And I’ll just say it now – the show never captures that magic again.
That’s not to say the remaining eleven episodes were never good, though. From the second until the last, with a singular backstory episode for Elaina’s teacher, we’re solely in the show’s journeying territory. Elaina goes out and sees the world! in a bizarre non-chronological fashion… and, in a bizarre series of tonal leaps with no rhyme or reason.
The second, fifth and very final episodes were the only ones that gave us those same gooey, heartwarming feelings. At its best, Majo no Tabitabi has a fantastic dedication to crafting a personal, intimate tone with a bite. Saya, the witch Elaina meets in the second episode, strikes up a sisterly rapport with Elaina and experiences a story worth telling, and it makes the twist (even if thoroughly sign-posted) hit with emotional girth, if a little less impactful as the first episode. The fifth episode, though, didn’t really feel like a story worth telling, and it undoubtedly relied on soppy sentimentalism, but the show’s continuing excellent scene direction and reliance on callbacks to the first episode made it feel so wholesome. The final episode, where Elaina meets 17 alternative universe versions of herself (Kaede Hondo’s one-woman performance as each variation of Elaina in this episode is worth the wait) that made different decisions at key-points in her journey, sees the most caring side of Elaina, one where she is forced to open up to herself again.
On the other hand, Majo no Tabitabi’s most, uh… noteworthy episodes, in the community anyway, were the ‘dark’ ones. Episode 3 showed Elaina seeing hopeless situations where she had to learn that kindness could make matters worse; she sees how far vengeance can go in episode 4; and in the deeply divisive episode 9, she time travels into the past, and learns why a little girl became a murderer. I’ve already spoke about this in my earlier check-in post, but let me bring this back up: Majo no Tabitabi is a fundamentally cynical show that crafts cynical messages. In episodes 3 and 4, far too much reliance was put on the show’s normally strong use of expressions, gestures and background details that mean the morals are delivered satisfactorily while the mechanics come across vague – almost like the message came first, the reasoning behind it second. Authorial intent shouldn’t be this clear.
Episode 9 is another beast altogether. It’s so divisive because it really depends on your feelings to the show’s wide tone. Can it get away with putting Elaina into a Higurashi-like arc of horror? The mystery was clear a mile-off (Majo no Tabitabi’s plots are simple, after all), but the one-two-punch of the episode was horrifying. Elaina gets herself out of the situation as fast as she can and breaks down in tears – and I don’t blame her. The show’s cinematic touches got into the heads of its characters quickly and effectively and made this episode the distressing and dark episode it meant to be (if a little OTT on blood), but even as one of its fans I come away thinking ‘what was the point?’
Well, Majo no Tabitabi is a journey. It doesn’t need to have a point; it only need be entertaining. And it… mostly is.
And… on that note, it is very shaky at its comic episodes, which comprise the rest of the bunch. Episode 6, 7 and 8 are back-to-back-to-back comic episodes, and none are particularly good, with 6 and 7 basically trying to find a funny way around cynical messages such as ‘sometimes lying is good’ or suggesting that divisions in towns are caused by being equally as bad as one another and get worse when you refuse to talk. There’s a few good gags here-and-there, which are typically due to the show’s use of visual humour and strong framing – though it has a good few instances of dragging a visual joke out way too long. Saya comes back and has gone from ‘lightly crushing on Elaina’ to being outright obsessive over her (bizarrely, Majo no Tabitabi is largely yuri anime), and this is where most of the jokes come from – and it becomes repetitive.
The other place the humour comes from is Elaina’s extremely inflated self-admiration.
Now it’s important to note that Elaina’s major character traits are not necessarily good ones, in the personal sense, not the written one. She wants money, and, much like her mother used to, opens negotiations asking about payment. She often comments on how beautiful she thinks she is, which… I mean, yes, she’s a very pretty girl, and it’s okay to know it, but it regularly exaggerates her self-esteem for comedy (to mixed effect). She’s helpful, but cautious, needing more information, and will often seem to ‘lie’ in these instances; asking what she will get out of it or finding an excuse before actually helping (which she was inclined to anyway). She isn’t very good in-the-moment, often freezing in difficult situations and being unable to cope, or in smaller situations, she can turn to a petty retaliation and angry outbursts instantly. After episode 1, there’s no real character arc or change to her core character – where she learns to stop looking down on others, which, despite her ego, she never does! – or episode 12 – where she confronts her own feelings on journeying – but she’s a consistent character, even despite the massively varied tone.
There’s a sequel-hook in the episode’s finale, and golly gee am I glad. The final 3 episodes were the best run it had, and then it ended – like it improved as it went along. Perhaps if we keep going, we’ll capture the magic of the first episode? We can only hope! Because this show’s quality control would be so much easier to manage with a better spread of comic/light-hearted/intimate/message focused/dark, or in a vastly longer series, like Galaxy Express 999′ 100+ episodes, where the good begins to outweigh the bad, and with enough individually great episodes to make the series worth watching. As is, the ratio of Good:Bad, or in this case, Good:Forgettable, for a 12 episode series, is a pretty poor sight. I’m dropping my anchor in the 6/10 mark, but I can’t stress enough that that number really lands anywhere from a 4 to 10 – purely depending which episode we hit.