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Meet the kawaii witches of the East

by

Special To The Japan Times

Despite being a fantastic go-to costume on Halloween, witches in the West have never had it easy. There were the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, and similar trials elsewhere in North America and Europe through the 17th century, which served as warnings to independent women that they could be persecuted at any moment.

In Hollywood, the witch has gotten mixed treatment. If it wasn’t for one wicked witch, Dorothy would’ve gone home sooner in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987) were fun but had to suppress their malevolent streaks, and on the 1964-72 TV series “Bewitched,” the nose-twitching witch Samantha had identity issues.

The latest incarnation comes with “The Witch,” opening in theaters July 22. There’s a masterful authenticity at work here on behalf of director and writer Robert Eggers. He invested years into researching his material, which deals with Puritan settlers in 1630s New England. From the old English dialogue to the peasant costumes, “The Witch” is pitch-dark and wildly inexplicable.

Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split”) stars as the teenage daughter of a devout couple, whose life spirals into hell after being accused of witchcraft. It’s a riveting, scathing tale, if only to see how 17th-century Western society loathed granting women any freedom or empowerment.

Witches in Japan, however, are devoid of such historical baggage. They made their debut in the 1960s, starting off with “Sarii-chan” and “Akko-chan’s Secret,” two features with cute child heroines that fueled a budding pop culture in the middle of a heavily patriarchal, rapid-growth economy.

Then Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” came out in 1989, with a slightly older, teenage witch named Kiki. She had her life problems and a little crush on her neighbor, Tombo, which made her that much more endearing. She became the gold standard for Japanese witches: kawaii and dedicated.

There’s been a drought in witches, but last weekend the titular character of “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” debuted on screens nationwide. Mary is the creation of former Studio Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and the first work to come out of his own Studio Ponoc after he departed from Ghibli in 2014. Like Kiki, Mary is energetic and industrious, though her story unfolds more like a “Harry Potter” arc as she enrolls in a magic school. Die-hard Kiki fans have expressed cautious criticism online, saying they can’t get behind Mary who is clearly white and not as relatable as her Eastern foremothers.

Speaking of which, Mary has been somewhat eclipsed by a new instant noodles commercial on TV that imagines Kiki and Tombo at 17. Kiki seems like any nice Japanese girl-next-door type, she just uses her broomstick to clean her high school’s swimming pool. Hopefully, we will get to see Kiki again at 35 when she can deploy her magical powers to secure day care for her kids.