“The only spell to save that boy… is an ancient and forbidden one.”
On lonely Romonon Cape, Proctor Alaira, Master Qifrey and five apprentice witches have been ambushed by the banned Order of the Brimmed Cap. Qifrey, Coco and Tetia are trapped in a cavern by the reawakened vengeful ancients from the Nation of Romonon, ‘turned to gold, yet still alive’. Agott, Richeh and Euini (the unconfident apprentice of Master Kukrow) have been cornered by a faceless Brimmed Cap who has turned the hapless Euini into a fearsome scale wolf. Richeh, who is dealing with significant self-confidence issues of her own, determines to use the magic she’s learned in her own distinctive way to try to rescue her companions.
But then the narrative shifts in Chapter 26 as we follow the negligent Master Kukrow back to the Great Hall (only briefly glimpsed in previous volumes) and meet Deputy Captain Easthies of the Knights Moralis and five colourful members of his squad. Serious-minded Easthies has his suspicions about Qifrey and ‘that girl’ (Coco) and with an important event, Silver Eve, drawing near, he’s determined to be more vigilant than ever.
Back in the Romonon Maze, the girls are attacked by an invisible Brimmed Cap and the badly injured Qifrey does his best to fend them off, with revealing and surprising consequences! Scale-wolf Euini catches up with Coco and Tetia – and once they realize who the terrifying creature really is, they are horrified. But watching them is the powerful Brimmed Cap who has been following Coco from the start. For the first time, the practitioner of banned magic reveals their name to Coco. The Lidless One has planned this ambush to coerce kind-hearted Coco into using forbidden magic to free Euini. “Your friends never have to know. I’ll not say a word. All witches have secrets.” Can Coco save Euini and the others without giving way to temptation?
The fifth volume of Witch Hat Atelier is full of incident and revelations, making it the most engrossing instalment in series so far. Kamome Shirahama has spent quite a while building this fantasy world and its rules but if you’ve been following from the start, you’ll be as pleased as I was as some early questions are satisfyingly answered – only to set up more, of course. (No spoilers here!) Shirahama again delivers some stunningly beautiful artwork (the art nouveau influences are especially noticeable in her portrayal of the Knights Moralis, with the page for Chapter 26 being an especially fine example, the back-cover art also). We learn something surprising about Qifrey – and all his apprentices are tested by the dangers they encounter, especially (but not exclusively) Coco. One of the story’s strengths is that, even though this is a familiar trope in fantasy fiction, Shirahama has managed to find her own way to show her young characters’ growth and ingenuity when faced with adversity. And the underlying theme is explored further by contrasting the temptations of forbidden magic with the limitations of permitted magic, sternly enforced by the Knights Moralis.
Stephen Kohler’s translation continues to intrigue and impress, still opting for an archaic tone in certain passages, perhaps because this mirrors the original Japanese (I can’t comment with authority here), perhaps to enhance the fantasy storybook atmosphere. I’m a little conflicted about this as it can act as a distancing effect, although for the re-awakened Romonon ancients, it’s appropriate (and kudos to letterer Lys Blakeslee here for making the different voices easily distinguishable).
This volume concludes with a rather cute page by the mangaka explaining more about the different hats of Witch Hat, followed by a double-spread trailer for Volume 6 ‘in Summer 2020’. I, for one, can’t wait to discover what awaits Coco in the depths of the Great Hall ‘upon the base of the deep sea’.