Honoka Takamiya was just your average male high school student who had the mixed fortune to sit next to Ayaka Kagari, the class idol. While sitting next to someone as tall, good-looking, and cool as she is was great, he also had to deal with unwanted attention from her massive fan club. So imagine Honoka’s surprise when he finds out that this was done so that Ayaka could keep an eye on him. It turns out that the boy is a source of immense magical power that needs to be safeguarded by someone like her, a Workshop Witch who specializes in fire magic. Say what now? While witches like Ayaka are all about protecting humanity and making sure that magic isn’t abused, there’s another group known as Tower Witches who are all about using magic for the lulz. They’ve got their eyes set on taking Honoka and his power for their own gain and all they need to do is get past Ayaka to make it happen. However, this fire witch isn’t about to let anyone make trouble for her princess.
Much of the first two volumes of “Witchcraft Works” is eye-rollingly familiar. From the “magical people hiding in plain sight” nature of the story, the villainous/comedic antics of the Tower Witches, the possessiveness of Honoka’s sister Kasumi towards her brother, and the “promised fiancee” business between the protagonists that crops up towards the end of vol. 2, you can probably get a good drinking game going based on the amount of tropes here. Regrettably, you’ve probably seen most of them done better elsewhere than they are here.
Not helping matters is the fact that the nature of the magical society mangaka Ryu Mizunagi has created doesn’t feel credible. We’re told about the two different types of witches and that the school Honoka, that the school Honoka and Ayaka attend is a secret base for witches, and we see a prison for dangerous magic users in vol. 2. Yet these details aren’t developed beyond their necessity to the story at hand. Why are there two witch factions? To give the protagonists something to struggle against. Why is the school a base for witches? So that the story can be set there. Why is there a magical prison? To let you know that the villain in this next arc is bad news. With such bare-bones development to the world, you wouldn’t think that these details would come together to create a believable fantasy world. You’d be right too.
What saves “Witchcraft Works” from being a generic piece of fantasy fluff are, quite surprisingly, its gender politics. You might get a hint that there’s something unusual about the dynamic between Honoka and Ayaka from the cover alone. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a cover where a girl is catching a guy as he falls helplessly. It gives you the impression that Ayaka is the dominant one in their relationship and that carries over into the volumes themselves.
Ayaka referring to Honoka as a “princess” in the first story isn’t actually condescending on her part, but an accurate encapsulation of their relationship. As a nigh-invulnerable fire witch, she’s capable of taking on just about everything that the Tower Witches throw at her. Most of the volume’s most amusing bits involve seeing these witches at Ayaka’s mercy or realizing that (once again) they’ve really underestimated her abilities. Even when she gets into trouble -- usually because Honoka has decided not to listen to her -- Ayaka is still capable of pulling off some impressively badass feats of spellcasting. She’s also teaching Honoka the basics of spellcasting, so in every way Ayaka is wearing the (metaphorical) pants in this relationship.
This kind of relationship is very unusual for what is basically a shonen action series. While Honoka’s power and the training he’s receiving does suggest that he may eventually become a great spellcaster, he’s definitely playing second-fiddle to the female protagonist for these two volumes. The series also deflects any implications of femdom here by having Ayaka be straightforward and reasonable in all interactions with Honoka and not resorting to physical violence whenever he does something dumb. “Love Hina,” this is not. I will admit that the chemistry between the main couple in this series hasn’t quite sparked yet, but I’m rooting for them to succeed just due to all the conventions they’re upending in the process.
I feel weird writing that given how the rest of “Witchcraft Works” hews so closely to convention. It’s worth noting that Mizunagi mentions in the footnotes to vol. 1 that his original pitch for the series had Honoka as a girl and the core relationship was going to be a yuri romance. Somehow, Honoka wound up being a guy in the final version. A yuri fantasy-action series isn’t all that unique by manga standards, even if it does get an amusing nod when you find out how Honoka and Ayaka became promised to each other. By turning Honoka into a guy and keeping Ayaka as the strong, capable female lead, Mizunagi has actually created a story that’s surprisingly progressive in its gender politics. Now we just have to hope that the main story will eventually become as surprising or interesting.