This article contains spoilers for the covered material and assumes familiarity with it. This is your only warning.
I’m always hesitant to write this sort of thing. I don’t want to accrue a reputation as an Issue Critic or, indeed, as someone who thinks that Negativity = Good Important Critical Writing. Neither are true, and certainly there are plenty of people who work in the intersection of sociological study and arts study at a much higher level than I do and I think that work is very important. But it’s generally not what I aspire to do here on Magic Planet Anime.
So it is, truly, with a measure of reluctance that I am writing on Studio Colorido‘s adaption of Burn The Witch in this way. Not to praise the OVA’s many merits–its production, its soundtrack, the engaging fight scenes, the cool do-anything “Witch Kit” guns, or even its bevy of hilarious names*–but to talk about one of its problems. Even worse, Burn The Witch is an OVA that doesn’t actually have that many problems, but the few it does are notable, and one in particular is the worst of the lot by a good margin.
Balgo Ywain Parks. Has there ever been a character who feels more interpolated from some other anime entirely? Probably, but the feeling definitely exists with Parks, who comes across as a character less deliberately written into the narrative and more one conjured up by some kind of noxious otaku sterotype and snuck in under author Tite Kubo‘s nose.
That of course is not what happened. Someone is responsible for this, but whether it was Kubo himself, a misguided editor, or a mischievous sprite is impossible to know and not worth guessing about. However he got here, Balgo exists, and we must reckon with him. God help us all.
Balgo feels in a way like a new take on an old concept that permeates a lot of shonen; the pervy slapstick character. This is a trope with roots that predate the medium, and to be completely fair it’s not like English-language media is devoid of gross lunkheads. The specific issue with Balgo and the sort of character he represents is not merely one of sexism–though that is certainly a part of it–it’s that he actively leeches both goodwill and narrative coherency from the series he’s a part of.
Burn The Witch makes a fairly big show of denouncing “fairy tales”. The example given is Cinderella, which, this entire spiel in of itself has its own problems, but let’s take it on the level the OVA clearly wants us to. Waiting around for someone to bring excitement into your life or to solve your problems is pointless, because if someone else does that for you they can easily take it away. You should strive to seize your goals yourself. In as much as an OVA based on the first half dozen chapters of a manga can have a core thesis, this is Burn The Witch‘s.
For most of the characters that we get to know in the OVA, this plays out pretty logically. Ninny is a popstar in London proper but seeks to build her reputation as a dragonhunter in Reverse London so she can one day join the Sabres, Wing Bind’s actual dragon-hunting division. Noel meanwhile is simply trying to earn a living. So far, so coherent.
Let us for the moment set aside the sexist aspects of Balgo’s character. (We will, rest assured, come back to them.) From a simple coherence point of view, the main issue with Balgo’s character is that he has absolutely no agency. None at all. Zero. It is established early on that Balgo became a Dragonclad–and thus attracts dragons–by accident. He is thus in the care of Wing Bind, and more specifically our leads, by accident. Late in the OVA, he summons a sword from the Witch Kit he’s been given, by accident. Balgo does not do things, he is a straw dummy whom things happen to.
Effectively, he’s a reverse-maiden in distress. But the way to solve a problem caused by patriarchal norms is rarely to simply invert them. Balgo gains all the problems of that character archetype; a lack of agency, and a lack of any real depth, but inherits the benefits of being a male protagonist in a frankly poorly-written shonen series; being a wish fulfillment proxy for the intended audience (and perhaps the author, though that’s harder to say with authority) and facing no consequences for the one thing he does do of his own free will; ogle and harass the female characters.
And we must tackle that part of things, too. Because it’s easy to simply say that Balgo is a wish-fulfillment character and that that is the problem, but it’s not, it’s only a small part of it. Wish-fulfillment in narrative fiction is fine, and every audience under the sun is entitled to some amount of stories that simply exist to let them watch someone similar to them succeed and triumph over adversity. The problem specifically with Balgo is that he is a wish-fulfillment character who faces no adversity. And indeed, makes no choices. By simply existing, he actively cuts against Burn The Witch‘s own central theme. He is put into danger and taken out of it through no action of his own. Even the aforementioned summoned sword simply exists, he doesn’t use it.
Balgo, thus, does not seize anything. Violating the OVA’s whole thematic point. The closest idea of his we get to a goal is a desire to shack up with Noel. That, too, is simply handed to him, as the final few minutes of the OVA imply that Noel, for some reason, returns his feelings. (There’s a clear intended contrast between Noel as a “cold tsundere” and Ninny as a “hot tsundere” but it doesn’t really work. Noel and Baglo barely speak before this scene, contrast Ninny’s many heated interactions with Macy.) And then the whole thing ends on a panty shot, in what is presumably supposed to be a wink to the audience. Instead, it comes across, at least to yours truly, as a reminder to not be too generous when telling people about this thing’s flaws.
Balgo does have one compatriot in Burn The Witch. Macy, who fulfills a similar role, is similarly lacking in any agency, and explicitly harbors feelings for Ninny. But despite both being problem characters, the difference in the magnitude of the problem is stark. Macy’s “clingy lesbian” characterization is certainly unflattering and would not be present in a better-written series, but her relationship with the dragon Elly gives her an extra dimension that Balgo–who mind you is billed as one of the protagonists–simply doesn’t have. And as mentioned, she gets far more interaction with Ninny than Balgo does with Noel.
And really, the biggest issue with Balgo is not any of this. It’s that he’s unignorable. These problems were and are all present in the manga. But in animated form, mugging all over the screen, with VA Shimba Tsuchiya turning in a performance that is perfect to the character by dint of being ludicrously obnoxious, he goes from an irritation to a defacement.
It is, of course, possible, technically, that the manga will rectify this at some point. It’s not like there aren’t ways out. One could give Balgo something to actually do. One could write him out of the series entirely. One could simply make his comedic relief revolve around anything else but talking about sexual harassment. But as long as he remains that way, he is an inescapable black mark on an otherwise solid series. It is cheap to say this, but a version of Burn The Witch that replaces Balgo with almost anyone or anything else is an infinitely better version of Burn The Witch.
And that sucks, because other than this one glaring problem, Burn The Witch is actually quite fun. But when that one glaring problem sucks all of that fun out of the room any time he’s on screen, it’s a serious issue. And Balgo, sadly, all on his own, is that issue.
*Seriously. Ninny Spangcole? Bruno Bangnyfe? Genuinely incredible.
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