「BURN ☩HE WITCH」
(Note: This review contains spoilers for both the ending and Bleach, so read at your own risk)
Kubo Tite is one of the most infamous mangaka in the past two decades for his work on Bleach. Bleach is a shounen story that was a victim of its own success as expectations escalated to its highest heights after the “The Agent of the Soul Reaper” and “Soul Society” arcs came out with all guns blazing. It was a glorious period to be invested in shounen manga with Naruto and One Piece matching its high-stakes action. There were contentious arguments about which of these were the best of what was considered to be “The Big Three”. I liked Bleach the most, but there wasn’t a bad pick out of the trio.
Once the Soul Society arc ended, however, the direction of Bleach’s story went all over the place: There was another rescue arc with one girl switching out the other. Captain Aizen, the Machiavellian mastermind in the Soul Society arc, turned out to have an absurd amount of knowledge about the past, present, and future for the main characters. Once he was defeated, there was another time-skip arc with more side characters to be introduced and then promptly ignored. Characters were killed for convoluted reasons that even Aizen couldn’t have predicted. There was an impossible-to-defeat final villain that turned out to only need Ichigo’s latest power-up to be defeated. And the manga as a whole ended with the same “and then they all got hitched” ending as Naruto.
What was considered to be a force to be reckoned with in the Aughts ended up becoming a punchline by the time the characters made it to Hueco Mundo. Because of Bleach’s crazy ride, Kubo Tite built up a reputation of being a number of things based on how you felt about Bleach: an incredible storyteller that built a fascinating mythos around Soul Reapers, a burnt-out mangaka forced to comply with Shounen Jump’s nonsense to drag out his magnum opus, a hack who can’t draw backgrounds aside from “The Heart”, one of the most talented fashion designers in manga history next to Araki, a master troll who matches the ballsy gutsiness of Captain Aizen himself, the main pioneer of “plotkai” as a way to detect contrived deus-ex-machina in anime/manga, and many other distinctions.
But one can’t live under the shadow of their finest work, especially when you have so many more stories to tell. And if there is someone who has far more stories than just one or two under their belt, it’s gotta be Kubo. That’s why it was exciting to learn that he hadn’t been discouraged by how Bleach ended to keep trucking with newer titles. One of which (heh), is an interesting one-shot he came up with called BURN THE WITCH. The first thing that came to mind was the title’s reference to a Radiohead song and the reminder that Kubo gave most of his characters in Bleach their own theme song and created a nice mixtape of contemporary pop, rock, and everything in between with their themes. As a massive Bleach fan, it was a treat to see how eclectic the choices were from Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Tegan & Sara, Fall Out Boy, Sixpence None the Richer, Bloc Party, Andrew W.K., Jamiroquai, and many others.
What I also got from the news that Kubo was coming up with a new series was excitement for what should at least be a very strong introduction. I’m a huge defender of the first arc of Bleach because I had a ton of fun seeing Ichigo get used to his new Soul Reaper powers while the story was still down-to-earth. He’d still have his everyday issues of going to school and staying in touch with his friends while learning about this whole new world he’s never known before, world-building slowly before we’re thrown right into the Soul Society. It had a level of charm in it with the Soul Society and its many intricacies being merely a concept meant to be given depth by the time they actually have to break into the darn place. But ghost samurai, spirits, a fraud ghost hunter, a creepy soul trapped in a stuffed lion, a supernatural candy shop owner that wears a bucket hat; these were all very cool ideas that resonated with me back in high school.
BURN THE WITCH shares this strength by giving an in-depth look into the obstacles that the witches take on as they protect London from the threat of a dragon attack. It’s neat to see how much Kubo fleshed out with regards to the concept of Reverse London, how witches are categorized by Pipers and Sabres based on their aptitude for capturing or killing different levels of dragons, and how important it is to make sure that dragon attacks are prevented so that a dragon contagion isn’t spread through the general populace of ordinary London. It takes a great amount of ingenuity to boil down an explanation for all of this in a little over an hour with enough clarity to come out of it having a basic gist of what the world is like.
It does remind me of how quickly and easily information on the Soul Society and the Soul Reaper was doled out. There are always holes people can poke out of both series’ considering how much it relies on the viewers to take what they get for face value until new information is given to us later on. But at the same time, as a one-shot that could potentially be something more, it’s a promising sign that I am invested in the world that’s introduced in this alternative spin on the city of London and Wing Bind’s push to suppress the threat of dragons while dealing with a bureaucratic back-and-forth between the Top of Horns and the lower echelon of the company. And with each of the top members of the Top of Horns having their own interests and vision for Wing Bind, it should be interesting to see if there is either internal fighting between the members or between Pipers/Sabres in consolidating their powers into one key vision.
It helps that the two main characters, Ninny Spangcole and Noel Niihashi, do a great job of carrying the story. Ninny’s obsession with status drives her to overachieve in an attempt to be noticed and get promoted to a lucrative dragon killer position. At the same time, she has to contend with the unwarranted media scrutiny that makes her life in normal London as a pop star more miserable than it needs to be. Because much of the plot of the episodic films focus on her clingy bandmate Macy getting in contact with a mythical dragon, these three episodes also give us a better glimpse of Ninny’s personal ethos as she finds it exhausting to try to live up to the pop star fantasy when she has a much more reasonable outlook on advancing her career as a dragon hunter. But despite her no-nonsense approach to hunting dragons, it is still funny to see her lose her patience with Balgo considering how annoying he can be and a force of nature like her is necessary to remind the audience how much of a waste of space that dude is. She gives us some very funny facial expressions as she’s the quickest to get fed up with the nonsense that her work situation has her putting up with.
Noel is a wonderful character too for providing an antithesis of Ninny’s character as an aloof Piper with a dry sense of humor. Noel’s motivations to work are solely to get paid, and she’s willing to go against protocol and hunting alone if it means doubling her salary and selling off anything valuable she finds along the way. She also takes advantage of her aloof demeanor to try out deadpan jokes such as when she mocks Bruno straight to his face after he announced that Balgo was getting a death sentence or taking it upon herself to mention that Balgo could die if she pushed him off of her dragon after he gleefully talked about her breasts. As much as she endears herself to Balgo when the going gets tough, it’s funny that she poses a larger threat to Balgo’s life than Bruno’s plan.
Another amusing distinction that Noel has is that she’s one of the few representations of weeaboos in anime that don’t fit the blonde genki girl trope. She has a Dragon Ball ringtone, gave herself a Japanese name even though she’s never been to Japan and is likely not Japanese, and addresses others through honorifics. It’s just a funny twist to see a character that goes down the offensive Japanophile route in an anime when that type of mindset is common with a lot of weebs in Western anime circles where the way to express your love for Japanese culture is to get offensive with it.
But there is a ton of fun chemistry between the two main characters that makes their dynamic great to see. The contrast between Noel being a stoic rulebreaker and Ninny being a hot-headed girl scout makes for some funny moments where the two are at odds about their methods of advancing up the ladder in Wing Bind. Whereas Ninny might see herself getting a foot in the door by momentarily impressing Bruno, Noel has no interest in compromising her own comfort, life expectancy, and pay-grade to gamble with high-risk/low-reward promotions. Their differences cause them to clash, but the ways they gel with each other are also nice to see considering how Noel will find herself doing things that would impress Ninny or vice versa, bringing out the best in one another through their mutual differences.
However, one blemish on BURN THE WITCH is the character of Balgo, a boy who is considered by a majority of the cast to be a waste of space and goes out of his way to never let us forget that detail. He isn’t voiced by Shimono Hiro, but his voice actor definitely took notes from his portrayal of Kimetsu no Yaiba’s Zenitsu by making him screech and yodel every line out of the character’s mouth. He constantly butts his way into every scene and does nothing but pal around and be used as bait for his ability to attract dragons.
On top of this, he is a serial pervert, joining the other younger men in BURN THE WITCH at gawking at Noel whenever she crosses his path. Sometimes he acts like a normal person around her, but in most instances, he can’t be within the same vicinity as her without getting obscenely horny and wanting to get close to her. Balgo’s lewd thoughts dominate so much of his personality that his cute dragon dog Osushi parrots his perverted demands to see her panties.
To Kubo’s credit, the female characters in BURN THE WITCH have interests of their own and are capable of fighting competently, as do a majority of the women of Bleach. That’s already more than I can say about most shounen mangaka who treat their female characters like doormats, housewives, punching bags, cheerleaders, and/or dakimakura. I just hope that any future installments of BURN THE WITCH are kinder to Noel so that she doesn’t have to ignore one horny guy after another while she’s trying to get through her missions in peace.
Another aspect of BURN THE WITCH that I’m hoping doesn’t end up overtaking the series is its connection to Bleach with the Western branch of the Soul Society being established in London for some reason. By tying it down to Bleach, it might not let this story become its own thing, and forces it to comply with all of the events of Ichigo’s journey. Instead of worrying about the internal drama with Wing Bind, now the main questions will circle around which Bleach character is going to intervene in the plot whenever they want to make their presence known. It might just be an incidental nod to Bleach, but it’d be disappointing if Noel and Ninny’s adventure ends up getting hijacked and transformed into Bleach 2: Aizen Strikes Back.
That being said, BURN THE WITCH plays into Kubo’s strengths by delivering a solid introduction with a cast of unique characters and lore that has the potential for giving us an in-depth look at how Wing Bind operates in Reverse London to protect the outside world from dragons. At the moment, it’s been hinted that there might be more BURN THE WITCH coming down the pipeline, but there is a lot to look forward to if that’s true. The three episodes and the one-shot available for BURN THE WITCH have been entertaining to follow up to this point, so it’d be awesome if this series turns out to be his comeback shounen. I’d definitely be interested to see if BURN THE WITCH develops into a full-fledged anime/manga and if we’ll get to see Noel and Ninny again sometime soon.