There is an apocryphal quote, sometimes attributed to Dr. Samuel Johnson, that goes: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." I felt like that sometimes while watching Izetta: The Last Witch. Parts of it are a delight to watch, because they are both good (high technical caliber) and original (creative setting). But it's in the service of telling the wrong story to the wrong effect, an attempt to make a sweet and uplifting story out of material that isn't suited to it.
Last witch standing
Izetta opens on many promising notes. It's set in an analogue of WWII Europe, where the names have been filed off all the countries but it's plain what they all represent — Germany is "Germania", Russia is "the Volgan Federation," and so on. The protagonists hail from the little country of Eylstadt (Austria, perhaps?), where crown princess Ortfiné Fredericka von Eylstadt — "Finé" for short — is forced to assume responsibility for the future of her nation when neighboring Germania invades and her father dies unexpectedly. Finé has the personality for that sort of fast thinking on her feet; she's a headstrong and upright young woman, reminiscent of one of Hayao Miyazaki's firebrand heroines. But she can't outrun a bullet, and she's betrayed and captured by Germanian forces.
While being transported by plane, Finé is rescued by an unexpected savior. The same plane is also transporting a sort of sensory deprivation chamber capsule, inside which is contained another young woman with flaming red hair and the powers of sorcery. This is the Izetta of the title, and Finé remembers encountering her when they were both children, even going so far as to protect her newfound friend from the ignorance and violence of a mob. Izetta is able to enchant objects, and so the two of them fly away from their captors together astride the barrel of a bewitched anti-tank rifle.
Izetta is devoted to her friend first in all things. Translation: she doesn't want to sit out the war effort, not when she can use her enchantment to transform swords and lances into anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, like some militarized version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". It works smashingly well — not just because it puts Germania on notice, but because Eylstadt's own soldiers are now that much more inspired by a literal and figurative local legend. But the battle isn't so easily won: Izetta's powers have their limits, and Germania has not only started to figure them out but surpass them with a witch of its own.
Missing and mislaid pieces
Again, this isn't a bad setup, and for the first couple of episodes (and apart from some annoying injections of fanservice), I thought Izetta was on to something. Specifically, I thought Izetta, the character, would have to choose between becoming a weapon of total war and remaining true to herself. There's a few stabs in that direction, as when Izetta gets staged for a photo-op to demonstrate her powers, and feels uneasy about the whole way things are being played out. In the same vein are a few moments where Izetta is forced to confront the humanity of the people she's being tasked to fight, that they are more than just targets to be picked off but people with lives and destinies of their own.
Here's the problem: the story isn't about any of this stuff. It's about what total besties Izetta and Finé are, and how awesome that is. Somewhere along the line, the creators decided the purity and directness of the friendship between Izetta and Finé was the most important part of the story — which would have been fine, just in a different story. The problem here is that all they do with such a sentiment is highlight it, over and over, instead of actually challenging it, or commenting on it, or doing any of the other things that good fiction does. Izetta and Finé end up with the kind of programmatic character busywork relationship where one character gets unhappy and the other one buoys them up and then an episode later they swap roles. It doesn't feel heartwarming or human, just mechanical and obligatory.
The biggest mistake with Izetta, one committed not just once but many times, is how things that should be themes in the show are treated like mere ingredients. I liked how Izetta is unnerved about the idea of being turned into a propaganda tool, but the idea does not fuel the story in any significant way; it's brought up, then plowed under. Likewise, the whole the-other-side-is-human-too thing is essentially the whole throughline of something like Turn A Gundam. Another conceptual mistake involves trying to wring some suspense out of details involving Izetta's lineage, but again it's a mismatch for a story like this. We care about these characters because of where they are headed, not where they are coming from, and so every time they trotted that stuff back out I winced.
What's most ironic is how some of the side details in the story are better thought out, more resonant, than its central storyline. I particularly liked a subplot involving Rudolf, Finé's intelligence officer. He kills a hapless young soldier who mistakenly discovers the limits of Izetta's power, the better to keep the whole thing from falling into enemy hands. Irony: his urge to secrecy is rendered entirely moot since the enemy reverse-engineers the whole thing anyway. I kept wondering why the main storyline wasn't composed out of pieces like that. I suspect this was for two reasons: 1) they wanted the core story to be "uplifting", and 2) it's the same reason the heroes in Disney movies are so bland and the supporting cast so colorful, because they're hedging their bets about what kind of character most people will find appealing.
The big letdown
The conclusion of the story is absolutely infuriating. (Warning: spoilers.) Izetta uses her magic to level the playing field — not just to destroy the magic of her clone, but to destroy all the magic in the entire world, thus living up to her namesake. Then a shot at the end implies she somehow survived the conflagration. It's a total snub of the audience, since everything we've been fed up to that moment implies she'll die if she does that. It's not heartwarming when you set up your character's choices as hard-won, then make them irrelevant and pointless because hey, she lives. It's just insulting.
One of the troubling things about alternate -history productions that use WWII as a setting is how it can come off feeling like a way to borrow the romanticism of WWII without having to deal with the horror of Naziism. Why directly evoke most every aspect of the period, save for the one that was ostensibly most responsible for it in the first place? (Actually, Hetalia showed you didn't even need an alternate history; you could just flat-out ignore the implications of the period entirely.) I get that they ultimately wanted Izetta to be a fantasy and an uplifting one at that, and not let the story get bogged down with that stuff, but it would have been far easier to forgive that if the story had been worth it.
Izetta does, to its credit, try to deal with the other major horror of WWII — weapons of mass destruction, with Izetta herself being one such weapon. But the storytelling and the characterization crumb that play, too. At one point it's flat-out stated that Izetta, and the nation she fights for, could easily become the most powerful entities on the face of the earth. The fact that the only thing Izetta and Finé seem motivated to do with such power is ditch it speaks more about the incuriosity of the story than it does of their goodness as characters. Again, the story never really becomes about those things, and again, no tension comes from anything around it. The worst thing that happens to Finé's resolve is that she gets a little depressed and Izetta slaps her out of it. And then what genuine tension does get built up in the climax — all of it mechanical tension around whether or not she'll pull off her big gamble — is then set on fire and thrown gaily out the window by that awful ending.
All this said, Izetta does have one thing going for it. It will never, ever be anywhere nearly as terrible as Strike Witches. One must count one's blessings.