Working the magic


Book review, from Tokyo – On the shelf of my local library stood a dark cover with a little witch. Standing on the branch of a tree, her frock catches the wind. She grips her broom tight, her pointy hat reaching up high to the full moon above. Appearing small yet determined, a crow perches alongside her. 『ちいさな魔女とくろい森』(Chiisana majo to kuroi mori, lit. The little witch and the black forest; Bunkeido, 2019) is unlike other witches’ tales.

The story begins. In the moonlight, two witches fly north to the black forest. One big, one small. A crow is with them. The forest animals greet the mother and daughter pair, and they move quickly to a hut to start preparing a witches’ brew. The forest is ill.

The mother witch works her magic, chanting a spell to conjure up a potion. The little witch sings along, mimicking her mother. When the potion is ready, the little witch helps to cast the brew, pouring it on the ground and roots of every single tree in the forest.

“Will the forest recover?” she asks.
“It will take time,” was the response.

One day, they hear that the forest in the south has fallen ill too. But there is still work to be done for this one. “I’ll stay,” says the little witch, suggesting that her mother go south.

But she cannot yet make the healing potion on her own. Chanting the spell is easy, and she rubs her hands, expecting the seeds to form and fall from her palms into the boiling broth. Nothing happens.

The big witch offers some advice – for the spell to work, you must think of all the living things in the forest, have them in your heart at all times. Day after day, her palms get sore from days of practice. Until the day when the seeds fall from those blisters into the steaming pot will she be ready to protect this forest alone.

Mutsumi Ishii’s story of witches coming to the rescue of an ailing forest strikes home for the episode in which the child learns the ropes, with sound advice, of course. From an eager apprentice, she grows into a real little witch who can cast her own spell. And that’s just about enough, for this forest at least. Chiaki Okada’s delicate artwork mesmerizes with expression in detail while leaving much room for imagination – those blisters turning into seeds is where she worked her magic.

No cackling, menacing fingers, crooked noses, eyeballs, bats, cobwebs, or spiders. But an endearing witch’s tale with a wisdom that we sometimes overlook – working magic takes time, effort, and heart. And of course, there is the bit about the forests as well.

Title:『ちいさな魔女とくろい森』(Chiisana majo to kuroi mori, lit. The little witch and the black forest)
Text by Mutsumi Ishii, illustrated by Chiaki Okada
Publisher: Bunkeido, 2019

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