The Witch of Tata: Social Commentary Through Isekai
The Witch of Tata (タタの魔法使い) by U Pa is one of the most interesting isekai light novels I’ve ever read. I’ve mentioned it before as one of the better examples of its genre, but I want to go into more detail about what makes these books so interesting now that the second volume has hit Japanese bookstores.
Both volumes of The Witch of Tata follow a similar formula: a witch turns up in a random high school and grants the wishes all the students wrote in their middle school graduation book. At least one of the students wishes for their entire school to be transported to a fantasy world, so everyone ends up there with no immediate prospects of return.
The isekai genre has gotten diverse enough in recent years that there are other examples where entire classes of students get transported to a fantasy world (most notably Arifureta and So I’m a Spider, So What?). What really makes Tata stand out is how it’s written in a documentary-like style, where an outsider compiles the testimonies of the surviving students. By shifting the focus away from a central protagonist and towards a large group of people, Tata becomes a story about the wishes and dreams of Japanese millennials in general, and how they cope in the face of disaster.
The Witch of Tata reminds me a lot of World War Z by Max Brooks. That’s another example of a book that takes a very played-out genre fiction premise (i.e. the zombie apocalypse) and spins it into a documentary. In doing so, it makes broader observations about human nature. Quite a far cry from the power fantasies about vigilante heroes that normally populate zombie and isekai fiction.
Tata doesn’t really feel like your typical isekai story, and that’s because it wasn’t originally intended to be one. U Pa said in an interview that Tata was going to be a survival story set during World War II (specifically the Pacific War), but he changed the setting to an isekai because he thought that the historical setting would make the story too heavy. Nevertheless, a dark tone remains in Tata, as the majority of students perish in the fantasy world.
I’m going to spoil the story of Tata here, so don’t read on if you’re planning on reading the books yourself.
The first volume of Tata makes a pointed statement about the kinds of things young Japanese students are allowed to dream about. Most of them have submitted to the stable career paths that their parents and teachers wanted for them, and those dreams are useless in the fantasy world. The characters who were influenced by escapist fiction and made frivolous wishes like “I want to become a wizard” gained those powers in the fantasy world. Towards the end of the story, however, Tata the witch tells all the surviving characters that they must give up on their dreams in order to return to the real world.
In the end, it’s the power of human wishes that defeats Tata. A girl who wished for her bully to disappear spends most of the book weighed by guilt, but she comes to realise the goodness of people throughout the book. Her wish for bullies to disappear extends to Tata as well after the witch inflicts cruelty upon her. It’s a seemingly anti-climactic ending, but it fits with the self-affirming message of the book: don’t let The Man tell you what you can and can’t do. Even though Tata told everyone that they’d never achieve their dreams in the real world, everyone works hard and achieves their dreams eventually (well, except for the people who had chuuni wishes that they never took seriously in the first place).
Tata depicts the isekai as a hostile place for sheltered Japanese students, and nobody wants to stay there after all is said and done. On the other hand, the story has quite a positive view of human nature. There are no evil characters in it besides the witch, and all the students work together and affirm each other. The story directs its criticism towards the Japanese educational system for beating the creativity out of them. When the student are left to their own devices, they learn to get creative very quickly.
In the end, Tata neither glorifies nor condemns escapism; it simply acknowledges that people need dreams to survive in reality.
The second volume repeats many of the same themes and motifs, but it immediately strikes you as an angrier book. The book opens with Youtuber commenters responding apathetically to a scene of massacre. This sets the tone for the story – the truth behind the events of the first book have been skewed by the mass media, which means that nobody realises what is happening when the phenomenon repeats itself.
There’s also a stronger “Monkey’s Paw” element to the wishes the students make this time around. In the first book, Tata asked the foreign exchange student directly what she wished for because she hadn’t written anything in her middle school graduation book. When she responded that she wanted to be fluent in Japanese, Tata perceived her unspoken desire to be able to communicate with everyone and made her fluent in all languages. By contrast, Tata’s younger sister Kaka interprets the Kenyan exchange student’s wish much more uncharitably. When Krio wishes for everyone to get spooked at the haunted house that his class prepared for the culture festival, Kaka literally beheads half his class and turns the rest into zombies and monsters the next day.
Kaka’s actions end up causing more interpersonal conflict between the students than the last incident did. The students can’t help but blame Krio for killing his classmates. This compounds their instinctual distrust of him as a dark-skinned foreigner. Krio’s subplot ends up being one of the highlights of the book because it focuses on something that you don’t often see in Japanese isekai fiction – how discrimination against the marginalized transfers to the fantasy world.
Although some readers have said that the second volume is basically a rehash of the original story and lacks a lot of the freshness in concept, I actually liked it better than the first volume since I was able to get more attached to the characters this time around. Tata has a lot of interesting ideas, but none of its characters are particularly well-developed, making it hard to keep track of all the names. As a foreigner living in Japan, I was able to relate to Krio and was relieved to see him get the happy ending he deserved. The second volume has other great characters too, like the gender non-conforming boy who admires his childhood friend so much that he literally becomes her. The focus on “atypical” characters for isekai fiction made this volume more memorable for me overall.
The third volume is a continuation of the incident from the second volume, except focusing on a different set of characters. Although it’s easily the weakest volume overall and is bloated with too many subplots, the ending concludes the series and ties up the themes of the narrative nicely. The focus turns to the narrator of the series and her motivations for documenting the lives of these high school students. It turns out that she wanted to learn about human nature through the isekai as well.
Before everyone goes away thinking that this is the best isekai light novel ever, I do want to mention some caveats. Despite the fact that the series eschews a lot of isekai tropes, it’s still anime as hell. There are lots of silly fanservice scenes between all the fighting and killing, which I enjoyed a lot myself, but will probably not be so well-received by others. Be prepared for problematic tropes that will somewhat undermine the social commentary in the story.
In sum, The Witch of Tata is the kind of thing I read light novels for: An interesting core concept wrapped up in the kind of scenario you wouldn’t find outside of this subculture. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but the first book did win the 24th Dengeki Taisho for a reason. I recommend giving it a try if it ever comes out in English.