A Review of Burn the Witch

Bleach, despite the myriad criticisms I’ve heard leveled at it, has maintained a reputation akin to anime royalty. Even from the outside, it isn’t unfathomable as to why. The art direction and style is striking enough that I can’t say I’ve seen many shows that have mirrored the look of its characters. Additionally, the show’s lifespan on cartoon blocks like Toonami guaranteed it a legacy in the minds of a generation that stayed up way too late on a Saturday night to see the newest episodes.

2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the franchise and in celebration of that, the series seems to be getting a resurgence in more ways than one. Firstly, it was announced that the manga’s final arc would be adapted in a new anime project. Secondly, a new manga spinoff of Bleach would begin in the summer of this year. The spinoff had previously started as a one-shot back in 2018 but would now turn into a full series, with a short film meant to generate hype and interest. The series in question: Burn The Witch.

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Set in the Soul Society’s Western Branch in London, Burn the Witch is a spinoff that doesn’t require prior knowledge of the parent series to enjoy it. At least, not in this film. As the manga continues, certain concepts or world-building elements may arise from that series. For now, take solace in the fact that this film is welcoming to newcomers.

In this world, there is another world adjacent to the real one. In “Front London” the modern city operates as we would normally expect it to. However, there is also “Reverse London”, a mirror image of the city where dragons roam, posing a threat to the citizens of Front London. The witches of the Soul Society neutralize and manage the dragon population, keeping the citizens safe.

Immediately the world makes an impression. The small aesthetic differences between the two Londons make sense given the kinds of lives the people live. Additionally, the larger differences add a nice contrast to the heavily eastern-inspired imagery seen in Bleach.

As much as I enjoy what pieces of the world-building we got and how the action further elaborated on how the city operates, I still had a lot of questions. The film states how dragons pose a threat to the citizens of Front London, but it isn’t explained how they get from Reverse London to our world. Do they start in Reverse and have to make their way to Front, or can they appear in either world? How connected are these two worlds?

Burn the Witch isn’t very long. The streaming release was split into three episodes that, combined, amount to a little over 60 minutes. There are a lot of ideas introduced with only a few that are explained fully through the main story. It’s a complex and beautiful world that could have been explained a bit better.

Some anime have what is called a “Read the Manga” ending, where it ends with little guarantee of a sequel anytime soon, prompting viewers to just read the manga. In this case, Burn the Witch feels like a “Read the Manga” story, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like I was expecting every facet and every character to be fleshed out. However, I would have liked the main tenets to be given a clearer definition. They were already on the right track but the story needed a little more time.

Ninny Spangcole, voiced by Asami Tano

The most compelling part was the two leads, who, apart from having a strong visual presence, surprised me in small ways. Ninny Spangcole is a popular singer in Front London who secretly works as a witch in Reverse London. At first glance, based on the marketing, she comes off as this go-getter, looking to make a name for herself, and that rings true. However, it is the way she articulates that desire that interests me.

The story begins with her showing disdain for the popularity she’s attained through being a celebrity. Through narration, she explains that she hates fairy tales because she thinks the princesses are fools who fall under spells and then take away the wrong lessons from them. Ninny doesn’t want to be a princess who’s content with getting by on her superficial qualities. She wants to be the witch, casting spells, which is to say she wants to succeed through her own hard work.

Noel Niihashi, voiced by Yuina Yamada

On the other side, there is Noel Niihashi, who at first glance appears to be more composed and business-minded. Ninny claims that she is in it “for the money” and she isn’t wrong. Noel does do it for the money but that’s because she sees being a witch as her job and takes it seriously. Funnily enough, Noel is, at times, more concerned and compassionate than Ninny.

When an explosion happens, Ninny thinks they shouldn’t intervene because they aren’t certain if a dragon is involved, as opposed to when there was a dragon and she immediately jumped at the chance to take it on in the first episode. On the contrary, Noel immediately investigates, thinking she ought to do something if she can.

Ninny seeks merit for interesting reasons but is flawed for her occasional inability to look beyond her own goals. Noel treats her job seriously rather than anything more special but is also inherently a caring person when it counts. I can see Ninny’s misconceptions about Noel becoming a source of conflict down the line in the story. This film does a great job of introducing two leads with good chemistry and just enough texture to make me give a crap. Plus, they’re both hella cute.

Balgo Parks, voiced by Shinba Tsuchiya

The main story of Burn the Witch revolves around two events occurring simultaneously. First, the curious case of Balgo Parks, a “Dragonclad” who Ninny and Noel are assigned to watch over. Dragonclads are another element of the world that aren’t quite explored well. Whereas most people are prohibited from direct contact with dragons under penalty of imprisonment or death, Dragonclads are given leniency because of some vague trait within them.

Balgo is a ditzy, dorky perv who pals around with the girls along with his adorable dog Osushi, who is actually a dragon. [Oh yeah, dragons don’t just look like dragons. They can also look like other animals and then sprout dragon wings.] Anyway, Balgo is established to be an especially unique Dragonclad whom the council of elites deems too dangerous to stay at large. So Bruno Bangnyfe, one of the elites and the leader of the “Inks,” posts a bounty on Balgo and hunts him down.

Macy Baljure, voiced by Saori Hayami

Simultaneously, one of Ninny’s friends from Front London, Macy, has come into contact with a powerful dragon and has raised it as her pet. Soon, however, the dragon becomes too powerful and starts to become a threat to the entire city. The two stories on their own are interesting but combined as they are, they don’t coalesce properly.

Sometimes it feels like certain threats aren’t treated with enough seriousness. Balgo’s very nature is said to attract dragons, making him useful as a lure, but also a danger to the public, making the caution surrounding him understandable. Similarly, one moment of wanton destruction at the end seemed so huge as to make me question how the ending could be so relaxed. All I’ll say is that I hope those buildings that got blown up didn’t have any people in them after hours.

World-building is an important part of storytelling for me. When it’s done well, it can draw me deeper and deeper into a story. Here, though, I think it’s less about the world-building being cool and more that the potential of the world interests me. The difference is significant in how it affects my opinion of the work as a whole. And as a “whole”, Burn the Witch has some work to do to clear the air.

At the very least, it is presented beautifully enough that it’s easy to fall in love with how Reverse London looks even as you question how it works. Studio Colorido produced my favorite film of 2019, Penguin Highway, and seeing them work on a project tied to a shonen franchise is pretty cool. The animation throughout was impressive and the characters wowed me throughout with a myriad of diverse magic styles.

Bruno Bangnyfe, voiced by Chikahiro Kobayashi

Watching this has reminded me that one of the things I love most about anime is how they can take unusual, unconventional ideas I never would have thought of, and turn them into the coolest thing I’ve seen in several weeks. One of the characters is steeped in a heavy urban graffiti aesthetic and so the way he creates the magic circles needed to cast spells is by using spray-paint cans. It’s such a small touch but it gives a signature to the character.

All of the characters in this are well-designed. Friends of mine who have read/watched Bleach have told me that creator Tite Kubo is great about giving characters a strong signature style, be it fashion or fighting-wise. The characters are hands-down what I’m most stoked to see more of with the future of this series.

I suppose that brings me to the biggest question. When will it continue? The manga is ongoing but it will be some time before there’s enough content for a TV adaptation. It also begs to ask whether or not Studio Colorido will helm the project when that time comes. I kinda hope they do because from what I’ve seen, they’ve shaped the idea of what a Burn the Witch anime should look like.

Tatsurou Kawano directed this and it is listed as his first project as the main director. He has worked as an animation director such as his work directing the action in Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. It would be awesome if he could make his name with this series. Similarly, Keiji Inai’s soundtrack played a big role in getting me hyped for this in the first place. Colorido is known primarily for Movies and ONA’s, so a TV series would be a first for them. Still what an awesome project to break tradition for. If we saw a different production staff making a TV anime in the future, I think it would be a big loss.

Ultimately, as a film, Burn the Witch was a win for its characters, aesthetics, and animation, falling short primarily in storytelling and world-building. As a marketing tool for the manga, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued to give it a read as its being released now. Having never watched Bleach, even I got excited at the end when the film proudly proclaims its place in the universe. It’s a momentous moment. Plus, they sneak a little something into the title that I never noticed until that moment. It ends on a high note. Truly, a wicked good time.

Burn the Witch is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll in the US and Amazon Prime internationally.

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What did you think of Burn the Witch? If you’re a Bleach fan, did it sate your craving for more? If you’re new to the universe, did it get you interested in the series? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and while you’re at it, let me know if Bleach is worth checking out.

I’ve been working on a ton of new projects and some of them are video-related. I’m gonna be turning my review of the Kizumonogatari trilogy into a video review to go up on my YouTube channel, hopefully soon. Keep an eye out for that. Otherwise, I’m also working on reviewing the Project Itoh film project from a couple years back, because it was pretty dope and I feel like the world slept on it. I look forward to sharing these things and more with you all.

Thank you for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!

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