Izetta: The Last Witch
By Andrew Erickson
There’s a certain quiet desperation to being an anime viewer who’s able to tell the difference between good things and bad things. You watch the 12-24 episodes of good material that get produced every season and then wait six months for the next trickle to come slipping down the Saharan sand dunes of shounen and slice-of-life. Reaching the end of Saga of Tanya the Evil, I assumed I’d be in for another dry spell, but then I remembered an almost providentially similar show from last year: Shuumatsu no Izetta, localized as Izetta: The Last Witch. Yes, Funimation, please give me more alternate history anime about witches flying around World War-era battlefields, just as long as it isn’t Strike Witches.
Sadly, that’s where the similarities end, and Izetta ends up being less a war story than a vaguely pornographic lesbian romance occasionally guest starring World War II. The series already attempts to fit the entire war into 12 episodes, and the dilution in focus results in a plot, setting, and characters that lack coherence and dynamism. It’s a story that should have had twice as much time to play out or dropped some of its conceits for sake of simplicity.
The setting is an a la carte of pop culture knowledge about WWII, half of which contradicts the other half. This is most noticeable where it concerns the villains, Germany (or Germania, as it’s referred to in the show). Unlike in real life, Nazis are entirely absent – but the SS exists; instead of Hitler, an emperor named Otto rules Germania – but Berlin’s skyline is dominated by Hitler and Speer’s Volkshalle. Every other country is identical to its historical counterpart save for a (usually slightly) altered name: Thermidor for France, Britannia for the UK, United States of Atlanta for the USA, Volga for Russia. The biggest departure from reality is the independence of the Austrian states of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, which are combined into the fictional country of Eylstadt. This is because the plot demands Germania invade a small Alpine country between Germany and Italy and, I assume, because nobody at Ajia-do Animation has ever heard of Switzerland.
But by far the most glaring shortcoming of the setting is the presentation of witches. The series never really establishes what witches are. Parts of it imply that they’re a persecuted minority and that the ability to use magic is something people are born with, but the only two witches to ever appear are the White Witch, who has been dead for centuries and passed into folklore, and the eponymous Izetta. The only thing it’s perfectly clear on is that Izetta is the last one, which is right there in the title. However, barring certain light novels, a title isn’t a story capable of standing on its own. Most other aspects of magic and witchcraft – the most fantastic part of the setting, and the one that most directly relates to the protagonist – are up in the air, especially since the story contains at least one major contradiction about how magic works.
Izetta might have been able to pull this off if its namesake weren’t so painfully boring. Her defining character trait is that she loves Archduchess Finé. Her motivation is that she loves Finé. Her goal is to love Finé. She never changes and never grows as a person. There isn’t even anything interesting to learn about her, since all important information is laid out by the end of the second episode: Izetta loves Finé because when they were children, Finé stopped a crowd from killing Izetta. Because there isn’t anything about their shared history to uncover and the characters are static, their interactions boil down to blushing, furtive glances, and awkwardly avoiding saying what both know they’re thinking. For her part, Finé’s motivations are similarly simple and unchanging, though unlike Izetta she works at cross-purposes to them for half the series. Given an unstoppable weapon capable of destroying armored divisions and bomber wings in minutes, Finé decides her best course of action is to tour Europe, loaning Izetta out to the British for attacks on enemy shipyards. Given that Izetta is functionally invincible, can break the sound barrier, and can presumably run down to the local bookstore and grab an atlas, there’s no reason she couldn’t have resolved the plot in two episodes by flying to Berlin and dictating peace at gunpoint. The only time Finé considers the implications of having a witch in her army is when she briefly feels guilt over exploiting Izetta’s feelings for her, but this goes nowhere because Izetta knows she’s being used and accepts it. It’s a good thing they nipped that one in the bud – any more interpersonal conflict and they might have had to cut a scene of Izetta in the bath, or being squeezed into a corset, or trying to assuage Finé’s envy over the size of her breasts.
Making matters worse is a dub that ranges from acceptable to pitiable. Except for paranoid Germanian agent Arnold Berkmann, none of the characters are played with conviction, deflating what are supposed to be dramatic moments. Finé’s scenes suffer from this the most, as she gives several allegedly inspiring speeches throughout the series, and the ecstatic reaction from other characters was completely at odds with my own incredulous laughter. It’s hard to ignore a wooden performance when the character in question is in every other scene, especially when her lines move the rest of the cast to tears.
Not that said speeches amount to much, considering Izetta is both immeasurably loyal to begin with and the only character who accomplishes anything in combat. Endowed with magic that allows her to fly, throw objects with telekinesis, and shield herself from harm, Izetta easily slaughters any Germanian force she comes across. Intellectually, most people understand that the protagonist of a story is probably going to win, but Izetta is brazen about it to an annoying degree. If a story absolutely has to have an invincible hero, then it should take that into account and include stakes that don’t rely on the audience conveniently forgetting about the hero’s invincibility: the One Punch Man approach, let’s call it. The staff at Ajia-do apparently realized this, but to their misfortune half the series had already aired at that point. Minor inconsistencies aside, I was willing to play ball with the setting until Germania dug up the White Witch’s bones, cloned her, and used a copy of her genetic memory to invoke in the clone a desire for revenge against Eylstadt. This seems like useful technology that would explain why Izetta never tried to decapitate the Germanian government – assassination doesn’t accomplish much when anyone can have backup bodies waiting in the wings – but it only ever comes up in the context of creating replacements for the White Witch. Being able to resurrect anyone who left behind a scrap of DNA is the kind of ability that would normally warrant acknowledgment, even if just to say, “the emperor won’t let us create an unstoppable super-army led by the greatest generals of all time because he’s insane.” Any explanation is better than none, which is exactly what Izetta gives its audience. Not to worry, though: while the Germanians can slam a soul into a new body as easily as replacing an oil filter, they make up for it by forgetting how to calculate a ballistic arc. At least that’s the only explanation I can think of for why their V2 missiles have to be guided by magic. In all other aspects everyone uses period-appropriate equipment, so your guess is as good as mine.
However unsatisfying it might be, Izetta leaves room for improvement in a prospective second season, maybe one that could dip its toes outside western Europe and give some insight into what the rest of the world is up to. At least that would be the case if not for the final episode summarizing the rest of the war, from Operation Barbarossa to D-Day to the Battle of Berlin, in a single minute of narration. And now that I think about it, it wasn’t much of a world war; I can’t recall even a single line about the Pacific, where I can only assume not-Japan is laying into not-China with abandon. This is the sort of thing that logically should have been brought up in one of the Allied strategy conferences Finé attends throughout the series. Well, who am I to say? Maybe it was and she didn’t catch it because she was too busy slow dancing with Izetta and practicing her 2×4 impression.
- – Izetta’s attack on the Germanian aircraft carrier is fun to watch.
- – Anemic characterization, an underdeveloped setting, and a story that arbitrarily meanders from one plot point to the next leave little to find compelling in the series.
- – Same-sex romance isn’t enough of a hook to justify neglecting every other aspect of the show. It wasn’t OK when Yuri on Ice, Flip Flappers, and Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid did it, and it isn’t OK here.
- – Tanya is the superior show in every regard, and there’s no reason not to watch that instead.