We find Qifrey bound in herbs as we return to Witch Hat Atelier, ensconced in the tools of his trade on the title page. He is at peace, and why wouldn’t he be? Though we often see practice as an imposition or chore, it is the only route through which we can achieve mastery, and mastery is the font of confidence, self-knowledge, and self-determination. In this world where our efforts are so often abstracted from our results, where the interconnected complexity of modern society robs us of tangible accomplishments, the mastery of a craft is a route back to an honest, immediate connection with the world. What’s more, it is like the cradle in which Qifrey is suspended – it provides us shelter and security made of our own hands, the skills that no changes in external fortune can steal from us. When we have nothing else, we still have all that we’ve learned – through practice and mastery, we make a hearth of our hearts, a smith of our hands, a library of our minds, and an atelier of our bodies, our burnished instruments working in marvelous unison.
Qifrey’s confidence is clear as he counters his opponent’s approach with a ritual of his own. A steady lengthening of panels across the top half of the page emphasizes his mastery; as he speaks to his students the magic spreads unbidden, the extension of the panels echoing the spell’s intrusion into the mundane world. Qifrey himself is unbound, floating beyond the panels much like his ethereal power sets him beyond his students – he is a conductor of the visual frame, his confidence reified by the sharp jolt of the traditional square panel at the bottom. It arrives like a punchline, a period, a pause in the composition, commanding the reader to look directly at Qifrey, to meet his eyes and not goggle at his hands. Through these tools, Kamome Shirahama conducts the reader’s focus with as much skill as Qifrey commands his magical instruments.
Shirahama’s skill is equally apparent in Qifrey’s subsequent feint, the paneling emphasizing the momentum of his actions. In this case, the tilt of the panels actually echoes the momentum of the robe that Qifrey is first dipping in water, then making stiff as ice, then flinging desperately at his opponents. The rightward tilt of the initial panel mirrors the flaring up of the cloth, as it crests and folds over itself like a wave. Then, before it can collapse, it is made rigid and drawn towards him, an effect echoed by the middle panel drawing upwards towards Qifrey’s yanking hand above. Finally, the motion is completed with the cape billowing out in the wake of Qifrey’s pull, a transformation echoed by the third panel’s larger width and continuing tilt. The end result is a complicated motion executed with both clarity and visual momentum, allowing the audience to feel the weightless rise of the cape, the moment it is caught by Qifrey’s tug, and the way it expands like a sail behind him.
And Shirahama’s talents are not limited simply to a grace of paneling. Tetia’s negotiations with these gold-encrusted victims of mages past speaks to the truth of the last volume’s central focus, the necessity of practicing even things you don’t find immediately interesting, of exploring beyond your preferred focus within a discipline. As is so often the case, the proof of Shirahama’s lessons is expressed through the triumph of her own craft: in this case, how the designs of these forsaken souls and their recollections draw on the forms and functions of woodworking and traditional sculpture. Shirahama could have conveyed these moments purely through aesthetic forms drawn from manga, but Witch Hat Atelier would be poorer for it, less precisely evocative of living sculpture. The more broadly you study and draw influence, the more tools and traditions you embrace in constructing your own atelier, the more vivid and meaningful your resulting work will be.
Of course, this applies to narrative forms of art as critically as visual ones. So we see in the lyrical manner of speaking adopted by these golden prisoners, as well as their employment of a traditional rhyming riddle. It is not a crime to remain content within the forms and genres that naturally appeal to you, but you are undoubtedly impoverishing yourself as an artist, robbing yourself of all the fresh insights and distinctive tools that drawing from a broader pool of influences would offer. And what’s more, beyond this pursuit’s efficacy as an enricher of your aesthetic potential, it’s also simply fun to explore new realms, to see what else the astonishing breadth of human ingenuity has created. Through this process, we come to find new things we love, enriching our quill and coming to greater understanding of the self in one.
When asked to identify the most crucial thing that these trapped souls have been denied, Coco answers with “peace.” It’s an answer that seems to imply wisdom beyond her years – an understanding that just as the process of mastery is a continuous, restless wheel, so must our larger journeys rise through pandemonium and resolve in oblivion, allowing the next generation to continue the work of sculpting our world. Through her warming glyph, Coco is able to end their suffering, but she is too young to see this as anything but a tragic conclusion. For all these apprentices have learned about magic and themselves, things such as the weight of age or the intolerable certainty of a static future are unknowable to them. The process of attaining such knowledge is similarly the work of a lifetime – and to a child, the idea of cherishing a final goodbye is unthinkable.
Granted, the obstinance of childhood certainly has its uses. As a flashback to four years ago reveals, Riche’s proud confidence in her own perspective was her only defense against her first, tyrannical teacher, a man who delighted in cowing his students into precisely mimicking his methods. To her brother Ririfin, Riche’s quiet rebellion, her insistence on sneaking her own glyphs into the margins of her work, was a vital source of comfort. Giving students the space to express themselves and nurture their passions is just as important as teaching them the correct forms and formulas – and when students are denied that space, only the most passionate or confident among them will survive. There is no greater crime for a teacher than robbing a student of their passion for learning, but many teachers nonetheless see their students as an extension of their own brilliance, rather than distinct bright lights who can be guided and encouraged, but who must ultimately find their own ways forward.
All we can hope for is that unhappy students eventually find their guidance elsewhere, be it through a new teacher or simply the encouragement of their peers. In the end, Riche’s examination of Eunie’s keystone provides a fresh solace, as she realizes how Eunie adjusted the standard arrangement to account for his own shaking hands. Our passion for creation and personal growth can be stamped out by thoughtless instructors, but like Riche’s notes in the margins and Eunie’s distinctive glyphs, all we need is the smallest amount of wiggle room to retain and nurture our own identities. Riche was not wrong to rebel against her teacher, and though his mistreatment blunted her ability to engage with new ideas and methods, she was right to shepherd her own style of magic through his service and on to Qifrey. And fortunately, as Riche has learned, the things that define our approach to the world do not disappear when we learn more techniques. “Within the book, hidden between the lines, your personal touch will never leave.” We need not carefully guard our own identity within our work; though our approaches will naturally shift as we accumulate new tools, no matter how much our style changes, our identity will remain ensconced within it.
While Riche fights to maintain her artisanal style, others express the feckless confidence of youth in significantly less prickly manners. As Coco and Agate lament Eunie’s transformation, Tetia banishes their somber thoughts with her declaration that three heads are better than one, and that with their minds combined they’ll surely find a way to save their friends. Her confidence is not just a cheery comfort to her friends, it is a genuine power when it comes to a young mage or artisan. While we must move forward with humility regarding all the things we don’t know, we must simultaneously possess confidence that we will come to know them, that our drive and skills will ultimately carry us forward. Without self-confidence, your skills will languish, unable to grow beyond your self-defeating perception of your abilities.
And sometimes, allowing confidence to precede understanding is the only way forward. Rather than immediately seeking a perfect solution, Tetia suggests that “let’s come up with a plan. We’ll decide if it’s any good or not afterwards.” You must not allow yourself to fall into stasis, paralyzed by your inability to immediately grasp perfection. Iteration is the essence of study, and study is the road to improvement – try boldly, fail with a smile on your face, and try again. After all, it’s always easier to critique than it is to create – so create quickly and without regret, that you might then ramble onwards to the easy part.
Spurred onwards by Tetia’s confidence, the trio break their “impossible” task down into a series of discreet, manageable tasks, demonstrating again how the “magic” of creation can always be made coherent through study and compartmentalization. And though this process is the general essence of mastery, their results are still as true to their own nature as someone like Riche could hope for. Even your fears and regrets ultimately inform your aesthetic or artisanal identity – just as Riche learned to master small spells in order to avoid her teacher’s censure, so has Coco spent long hours considering how magic might be undone, in order to save her mother.
With their master’s tutelage and youthful confidence to sustain them, not even the Brimhats can thwart Qifrey’s pupils. Embodying both the confidence her teachers have nurtured and the brilliant arrogance of adolescence, Coco pushes back against the Brimhats’ offers of salvation, saying “no matter what you want from me, what I draw will be something I decide myself. And I myself will learn how amazing and terrifying magic can be!” For Eunie, Riche, and all other students suffering under the yoke of oppressive instructors, Coco’s words ring as a defiant rallying cry, a declaration that her passion is greater than her ignorance, that students must be free to find their own stumbling way forward. Apprenticeship is a partnership; there is nothing so invaluable as a great teacher, but there is much to be said also for the audacious confidence of youth.