In Little Witch Academia, the faerie workers of Luna Nova Witchcraft Academy perform all of the school's non-teaching work, from cooking and cleaning to maintaining its powerful Sorcerer's Stone, which provides them sustenance and witches the ability to use magic. Despite their essential role, however, they are given only ten percent of the stone's energy while students and faculty use the remaining ninety, leading them to strike for a fairer share and forcing the witches to adjust to daily life without their services.
Frustrated by the inconvenience at first, protagonist Akko tries to reason with the faeries, only to end up on the picket line beside them. When Luna Nova's top student Diana patronizingly asks the faeries if they're willing to also lose their work and homes by shutting down the academy, Akko retorts, in what might be my favorite scene in the series (or of all time), "How could the bourgeois know what laborers feel?" and reveals Diana's lavish living arrangements to her fellow strikers, who join her in chanting "Aristocrat! Aristocrat!" until she leaves in a fit.
Akko and the faeries eventually meet the academy's faculty face-to-face in collective bargaining, where Luna Nova's newest tech entrepreneur-turned-teacher Croix Meridies offers a path to compromise: adopt her magic-conserving invention, the Sorcery Solution System, to create a permanent source of energy for faeries. Unfortunately, while the strikers are in favor of the new technology, the faculty show little interest in Croix's proposal and force an end to their negotiations, though Croix herself seems hardly pressed.
That night, using one of her "magitronic" devices, Croix frames a pair of students for drenching a fire spirit, inciting the faeries into a riot, cornering the school's headmistress and wreaking havoc across school grounds. Though the panicking headmistress agrees to meet their demands, Croix uses another machine disguised as a faerie to escalate the conflict even further. But just as it begins to look like someone could get hurt, she arrives with Sorcery Solution System-powered drones and subdues the faeries. The rescued faculty, now having seen Croix's inventions in action, finally agree to adopt her technology into the academy. Little do they know, however, about her machinations behind the scenes, or of her plans to secretly siphon the school's magical energy for herself.
Though the Sorcery Solution System may indeed distribute Luna Nova's limited energy supply more fairly, it is adopted as a tool to protect the witches from faeries instead of being implemented as a product of their consensus, denying the strikers victory as a collective. Just as the witches agree to meet the faeries' demands, Croix offers the System as an alternative allowing them to maintain their current lifestyle and monopoly over Luna Nova's resources without fear of uprising. Meanwhile, without being acknowledged in their bid for more energy, the faeries are unable to create a precedent for having a say in how Luna Nova's magic is managed. Thus, under the guise of resolving the tension between Luna Nova's faeries and witches, the Sorcery Solution System thrives. If anything, its implementation entrenches stratification, as it relegates the faeries' magic to an alternate, out-of-reach source controlled by yet another witch, while hardly discouraging the witches from their excessive use of magic.
Given Little Witch Academia's path from a pair of short films produced with Kickstarter funding and government grants to a Netflix-licensed series, it's fitting that it ends up offering a critique of tech's role in labor relations. Croix's meddling is a metaphor for all of the non-solutions that exploit the injustices against workers under the veneer of progress and innovation. Her indifference towards workers' rights could be likened to the role that giants like Netflix and Amazon play in the world of anime production in particular, where they legitimize the exploitation of animators behind the smokescreen of adding edgy, original content to their streaming libraries.
The harsh working conditions of Japan's animation industry – its unlivable wages, unsustainable working hours, and exploitation of mostly freelance animators, who are not covered under Japan's Labor Standards Act – are frequently documented, yet after countless hospitalizations, labor code violations, and even deaths, there appears to be little movement towards change. Most critics fault production committees, joint venture subsidiaries through which multiple companies may share the risks and responsibilities involved in producing an anime. But according to Jun Sugawara from the NPO Animator Supporters, no matter how popular a series becomes or how much merchandise it manages to sell over time, its success is only reflected in the profits of the committee rather than in the salaries of its animators.
Netflix's announcement of its multibillion-dollar investment into anime production in 2017 led optimists to predict that industry would distance itself from the production committee system, leading to more humane working conditions. But according to animators who have worked with Netflix since, while they no longer face the restrictions of broadcast television, their demanding schedules and pitiful compensation are only decided at the whim of production committees, which still reign supreme. In other words, Netflix reproduces the anime industry's structural flaws note for note, offering only the concession that it allows its animators creative freedom. Conflating this freedom with the right to live freely, however, perpetuates the anime industry's exploitation of artistic passion itself, through suggesting that the opportunity alone is a privilege that justifies sacrifice.
Netflix's participation in anime's labor exploitation should come off as no surprise, of course. Companies entering anime production will gleefully take advantage of the cheap animation costs long-established by production committees. Fortunately, nonprofits like the Japanese Animation Creators Association and the Association of Japanese Animations, both of which have hosted the annual project that produced the first Little Witch Academia film, and grassroots organizations like Animator Supporters, which crowdfunds aid for animators just entering the industry through the Anime Dormitory Project, have dedicated themselves towards providing animators support and greater visibility in an industry that considers them expendable.
But as impactful as grants and fundraising may be for the beneficiaries lucky enough to receive them, they will not amount to change within the industry while the rights of workers remain unrecognized, as Little Witch Academia grimly realizes. Croix's ability to slip by unnoticed after hijacking the faeries' negotiation mirrors Netflix's acquisition of the committee-produced series itself, and through the fanfare of innovation, we can be sure in either case that the workers have not yet won.