The lifespan of a new manga series published in Shueisha’s Shonen Jump magazine can be short.
Despite how much you may like something, it can get the axe if it fails to capture an audience, among other factors. Authors are given a few chapters to attempt to wrap up their stories, which usually end up being abrupt, unsatisfying conclusions. No one can predict what will last — well, except if the title is MoriKing, i tell c, Build King, Bone Collection, or Nine Dragon’s Ball Parade. Not everything I listed is bad. However, they are examples of recently cancelled manga with under thirty chapters that, in my opinion, didn’t have much staying power. Shonen Jump releases and cancels tons of new series each year, and they all need to hit the ground running in order to gain readers’ interest and keep them engaged. Beginning its serialization in February of this year, Witch Watch stands out as a confident new manga from an author with the patience to let his story marinate, slowly unveiling key details hidden in plain sight.
*Spoilers for Sket Dance, Astra Lost in Space and minor spoilers for Witch Watch*
Witch Watch, The Story So Far
Over the course of breakfast, Morihito, a high schooler, learns that Nico, his childhood friend and witch-in-training, will be coming to live with him. We learn that he’s an ogre, and he has to use his strength to protect her from a tragedy that has been prophesied. The series doesn’t waste time with its introduction. Dressed in clothing inspired by Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nico is a bright teenage witch who is a little bit naïve in regards to city life. She arrives with a desire to help people using her magic powers, but she’s very clumsy and all her spells have some sort of creative yet awful side effect. For example, duplicating herself causes her height and intelligence to be split in half, and the power to make objects light causes it to become heavier afterwards. This leads to fun, sometimes perilous scenarios, and Morihito, who is as strict as an overprotective mom, helps to keep her out of trouble despite often being caught in the crossfire of her errant magic.
At first glance, this manga’s premise might appear too quaint, or even contrived. Witch Watch is not the only series published in Jump at the moment about cohabiting high schoolers. The manga does not settle on clumsy magic as a clutch for jokes, however, as it quickly tosses aside the formula established in the first few chapters. Initially, Morihito wants to keep the fact they’re a witch and ogre hidden, but within a chapter, their identities are revealed to a surprisingly accepting class. Similarly, a rival character named Kan is introduced (another childhood friend who comes to live with them, a tengu). While his relationship with Morihito is contentious at first due to historical bitterness between their two races, as a gag, he gets over his hatred within a panel. Nico’s magic does not always fail, Morihito is not always strict, and soon the chapters become so freeform that it dedicates chapters to developing side characters, like the otaku teacher, or a classmate that finds going to the bathroom in school awkward. My favorite one-off chapter features a sentai hero show that depicts the hero’s startlingly cold domestic life.
Witch Watch begins with a simple premise that naturally lends itself to familiar tropes; however the author Kenta Shinohara breaks away from them in fun and refreshing ways. For instance, when Nico is exposed as a witch on her first day of high school, all the potential gravity and stakes of her identity being revealed are swept aside by her open-minded classmates, who simply ask if they could play with her magic instead of doing their self-introductions. This is a great scene as it acts as a way to introduce all the characters and their personalities. You can tell a lot about the supporting characters by how they use the power of flight: there are some who can pick it up naturally, those who try and show off to girls, play Dragon Ball, or the kid sitting out because he’s too cool to participate.
By the tenth chapter, with most of the main cast introduced, the humor ramps up as the manga begins to feature more one-off gags. This is the type of manga where the comedy becomes richer the more familiar we become with the characters. The manga’s humor mostly involves Japanese wordplay, and I have to commend the translators at Jump for doing their best to translate instead of localizing it. The banter is also manzai-like, with Morihito being the straight man to the antics of Nico and Kan (with the roles reversing occasionally).
Witch Watch quickly hits a comfortable stride balancing humorous and life-affirming episodes. It makes the appearance of darker elements — such as candies laced with dark magic (essentially fantasy drugs) being passed around the school, or the appearance of villains near their home — an uncomfortable contrast. The combination of humor and tonal shifts should be familiar with those who read Kenta Shinohara’s previous works Sket Dance and Astra Lost in Space.
Kenta Shinohara and How to Plan Far Ahead in Shonen Manga
Kenta Shinohara followed his debut work Sket Dance with Astra Lost in Space in 2016, and at the time I remember the first chapter left me a bit disappointed. Compared to Sket Dance, his following work about kids transported to another planet felt like it was just a generic sci-fi to me. Astra only ran for about a year, but after several chapters reading out of curiosity, I became hooked. I wanted a comedy, but what I got was a manga full of intrigue and revelations that changed the entire context of the story several times. However, I should not have been surprised by Astra, as Shinohara proved that he had the ability to build up twists with Sket Dance.
It catches the reader off-guard because the genre of the two works and its publication does not lend itself to stories with this much planning ahead. Besides big established titles (especially One Piece), not a lot of series on Jump can afford to hold off key character and story payoffs. Yet, all of Kenta Shinohara’s works contain complex and emotionally resonant narrative threads weaved in, and he seems to delight in exposing them at delayed, precise moments. For instance, in Sket Dance, the main character learns that another regular character was his twin the entire time, through two different flashbacks, his own, and one that plays around with perspective. In Astra, he expanded the scope by recontextualizing not only the identities of the entire ensemble, but he made them eventually discover that their entire history was based on a lie. Astra Lost in Space is therefore memorable despite only being several volumes long. The series has won the coveted Manga Taisho Awards in 2019, so it is definitely worth a look.
In both aforementioned series, Shinohara employs the “Chekov’s Gun” principle by concealing pivotal plot turns behind initially undeveloped and casually introduced information. As such, in Witch Watch, we are just now receiving the first example of something more sinister. In Chapter 22, we learn that Nico’s wide array of abilities is actually not normal, and potentially destructive. Now a scene from the heartwarming flashback in Chapter 17 about how Nico and Morihito became close, provides a hint as to why she’s in danger. Another great detail from the chapter is that it changes the meaning of the prophecy that motivated Morihito to help Nico in the first place — “Watch out for dogs and raindrops” — to not be so literal. “Dogs” was actually referring to gang members, and “raindrops” is wordplay predicated on the fact that the Japanese word for rain (あめ) can be used for both candy and rain; in this case, referring to the dark magic-infused candy drops being distributed at the school.
This makes me question whether I brushed over any other significant clues. What is the true nature of her mother’s divination abilities, or the father who left her when she was a kid? Could he have anything to do with her tremendous power or why villains are after her?
The manga opens itself up for further investigation and contemplation, as previous elements have the potential to come into play later. By design, comedic manga series tend to be simple, but Shinohara is more interested in using the format to elevate the story, looking for ways to fill in any blanks. As the world and characters of Witch Watch expand, it becomes more engrossing, and I eagerly anticipate seeing how it will all unfold.
The way this manga goes at its own pace is proof of the author’s confidence in his abilities, and I believe there is a lot of darkness lurking underneath the surface of this lighthearted manga. It is shaping up to be a culmination of the work Shinohara has done honing his storytelling technique throughout his other series. The manga’s reception in Japan is very promising, as the first volume has sold well enough for reprints. No one can predict how long a new series will last, but I think Witch Watch is one to bet on.
Thank you to NomadicDec for his help proofreading this article.