Brave Witches returns after a week of hiatus. I admit, I’ve been eagerly awaiting its return. I hadn’t realized just how much I was looking forward to this series until it suddenly went AWOL for a week. Hikari has only just begun to interact with the girls of the 502nd, and that’s one of the things I like best about the various Strike Witches series. Getting to know everyone, learning what motivates them, and really seeing them become friends. In their situation, being friends is really important. These girls and their support staff are the only humans in the entire city of St. Petersburg. If they don’t get along with each other, they’ll go crazy.
There is some military strategy and deception going on in the beginning of this episode, but that’s long-term stuff that doesn’t really touch on what this episode is fundamentally about. The real focus of this episode is Hikari having one week to overcome the tests Rossman sets for her to earn herself a right to stay in the 502nd. Certainly it starts off with a significant display of the difference between their capabilities. Hikari can just manage her “crossing the sea” with three jumps, and even then she has to use tiny magic circles, each one only just big enough to give her a foothold to jump off of. Rossman can simply walk across the water. Frankly, I doubt Hikari could ever reach that point. She just doesn’t have enough magic to be able to spend it constantly in that fashion, no matter how much control she gains over it. Still, the message gets across, Hikari asks for training, and receives the 1-week time limit in return.
Fortunately, Hikari has some good friends waiting in the wings. Nipa overhears the situation and brings it to Kanno, who chooses to do something I hadn’t expected. It actually took me a bit to realize what she’s up to, because the gloating she does over dinner on the first day seems like it would have been out of character even if she’d done it in the previous episode when she was still angry. And then there’s the fact that, every time Hikari isn’t looking, Kanno is right there with Nipa, looking worried as Hikari tries to get through Rossman’s tests. It took some time for me to realize that Kanno is deliberately setting herself up as an antagonist to Hikari, taunting her in order to make her angry so she’ll keep pushing forward when she might otherwise think about giving up. It’s touching seeing her take on that role, and seeing the concern that lies underneath it.
Back to Hikari, Rossman runs her through a few different tests, but the main one is climbing the obelisk in the courtyard to retrieve the hat from the top. I’m not certain if this was simply intended to drive home to Hikari that she’s incapable of performing on the level that a witch needs to be at or not, but given what follows it does occur to me that a witch who can concentrate their magic well enough to climb to the top without falling should also be able to concentrate their magic into the striker unit well enough to be able to fly properly. So in a sense it works as both test and training: if you can do this, you should certainly be able to do the other.
Throughout this week-long process as Hikari challenges the climb, we learn a bit about Rossman as well. She’s been training witches throughout the war, and has seen many girls leave her and head on into battle. Her story of a girl like Hikari, who had little magical power but was determined to fight anyway, and who ended up crippled and unable to fly, shows us something of the nightmares that can haunt her. She isn’t trying to stop Hikari out of cruelty, but because she does not want to send Hikari out there to die in a battle she cannot possibly handle. She does not want Hikari’s death on her conscience. Yet Hikari manages to win her over with her determination to help, even if all the help she can give is just a tiny bit.
The key to completing the climb, on the final windswept, stormy day, is one that I basically saw coming. For Hikari, using her magic effectively requires absolute efficiency. She simply does not have any to waste. So even though it would normally be easier to make a magical support point for each and and foot, and climb up in a crawl, Hikari doesn’t have enough magic to support herself when she spreads it out like that. So concentration of power is the key: instead of four unstable grip points, make a single solid magical handhold that can keep Hikari in place even against the wind and the rain.
Speaking of the wind and the rain, the storm that batters at Hikari’s body also wears away at her spirit. The sudden alarm of a Neuroi sighting calls away her supporters, and she can only watch, still only 3/4 of the way to the top, as the squad flies off to engage without her. A feeling of having already failed eats at her heart as the cold, numbness, and exhaustion press down on her. It’s here that Kanno turns back from the rest of the squad for a moment to fly over the obelisk and shout down at Hikari. It is an incredibly heartwarming moment, because she understands Hikari. When Hikari’s own desire to succeed isn’t enough to push her past her exhaustion, anger and the need to prove to her tormentor that she isn’t a failure draw a burst of strength from her that she didn’t realize she had, and she pulls herself to the top. And finally seeing an honest, happy smile from Kanno when Hikari succeeds is very touching.
The battle against the Neuroi is almost an anticlimax after all that. Hikari now knows how to concentrate her power into her striker unit the way she needs in order to fly properly, and a chance collision with the Neuroi’s tail allows them to figure out that her power lets her see the core on a Neuroi after she’s physically touched it. A dangerous technique, since it basically requires her to get into suicide range in order to use her power. On the other hand, she’s been able to use it twice so far and still live to tell the tale. While I wouldn’t say they should go into every battle thinking about how to get Hikari close enough to touch each Neuroi, the possibility of making use of it if she happens to get that close shouldn’t be dismissed. I suspect Rall’s order is because she doesn’t want Hikari deliberately taking risks to close into touching range of a Neuroi. Especially since, when it comes down to it, Hikari is still the inexperienced newbie in the group. She can fly and dodge effectively now, so she’s no longer a strategic drain on the squad, but she undoubtedly still has some training to go through before she’ll really be up to ace levels.
This is good stuff, so far. Hikari is slowly winning over the people around her, and even her accomplishments are still handled within the scope of recognizing that she’s still weak. She’s had to go through all this extra effort just to be able to reach the point of being able to fly properly with her striker unit. And doing that takes everything she has. It may well reach the point in a battle where she’ll have to choose between staying in the air and being incinerated, or putting up a shield and falling like a rock. She certainly isn’t going to be able to hold a shield against continuous barrage like other witches we’ve seen in the past. She just doesn’t have the strength. I know this is a point I’ve mentioned before. I’ll probably end up mentioning it again: it just keeps feeling so surprising to me. I’m really used to protagonists being “special” in some way that ends up making up for whatever flaws they have and gives them a boost forward. All Hikari has is her determination and her stamina, and those don’t really count for much of anything here.
Anyway, now that she’s proven herself, hopefully the rest of the unit will open up to her more. Nipa and Kanno now are already basically her friends, Sadako has talked to her a bit around meals, and Waltrud has flirted with her somewhat, but I’d like to see everyone start treating her more like a real member of the group, rather than an outsider who they’re just politely putting up with on general principle. Hopefully that will happen more in the coming weeks. Let’s see how it goes next time.
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