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The Ancient Magus’ Bride Combines Magic, Beauty, and Terror
I’ve been on a bit of a faerie-story kick lately—not so much the Grimms’ variety as the creepy-but-beautiful ancient fey myth variety. Before this most recent resurgence of my affinity for such things, I’d heard a little bit about a newish anime series (first released in October 2017) called The Ancient Magus’ Bride and was intrigued by it. When I ran across it again a few weeks ago, it struck me as just the sort of strange and beautiful story that I’ve been into recently, and it felt like the perfect time to start watching it. The story of The Ancient Magus’ Bride follows Chise Hatori, a teenage girl who has spent a portion of her short life being bought and sold as a slave, something that is fairly normal in the alternate-universe version of Earth Chise lives in. Chise’s history is quite murky, but wherever she might have come from, it’s clear it was nowhere good. The brief flashbacks of her life that are sprinkled throughout the series are dominated by hazy sadness and harsh words. In the first episode, Chise is bought by the other protagonist of our story, Elias Ainsworth, a tall, shrouded figure whose bearing is characterized by a sort of kindly looming. Soon after purchasing Chise, Elias reveals that he is not human—it’s unclear to Chise (and the viewer) just what he is, though. He's over seven feet tall, and his head is like the bare skull of a wolf with the antlers of a goat and eyes that glow orange from their sockets. But though his appearance is fearsome, his manner is kind and his voice comforting. It’s clear that his chief aim where Chise is concerned is to protect her from harm and give her a place to belong in the world, which is something no one else appears to have done for her before. He spirits Chise away by magical means to his quiet cottage located in the English countryside. It is there that Chise finds her first real home, along with her first true experience with the kindness of another person. Before she can get too comfortable in her strange and cozy environs, however, Elias reveals his reason for purchasing Chise. She is something called a Sleigh Beggy, he tells her, a rare being who can draw immense magical power from her surroundings and from within herself, which she can then use to work spells both beautiful and powerful. Elias wants to train Chise to harness this power so that she can use it to become a mage. He also has another, more personal reason for bringing Chise into his home: he reveals to her that he hopes to one day make her his bride. He doesn’t push the issue, and he makes sure Chise understands that he has no wish to hold her against her will, but Chise wonders just what this request will mean for her, and what Elias's true motive is in making it. Regardless of the strangeness of her new situation and companions, though, Chise quickly settles in to her new life and follows Elias in wonder and amazement as he takes her on one grand adventure after another. There are a lot of things that make this series unique and enjoyable, from my perspective, but one of my favorite aspects—and indeed, the most objectively striking one—is the artwork and animation. Every shot of scenery and every set design is heartbreakingly gorgeous in a way that reminds me of the loveliest scenes from Studio Ghibli films. Everything is rendered in careful, realistic detail, and the sweeping shots of the beautiful places Chise and Elias visit are absolutely breathtaking. It’s the type of 2D animation that’s pretty rare to see these days, and it’s almost worth watching the show just for that feature alone. The series is more than just a gorgeous aesthetic, though. The story and the characters who populate it are delightful, engaging, and often terrifying. The story itself is intriguing; the viewer is given the information they need to know only when they need to know it, making this series a good example of my favorite type of worldbuilding. With fantastical stories, it's all too easy for the creators to try to build the framework and the history for it all in one fell swoop, which is intimidating at best and befuddling or frustrating at worst. With this plot's slow-build style, though, the world of the story unfolds before the viewers' eyes the way it would if they were truly setting foot in it for the first time, and to me, this is a much more satisfying way of experiencing a new story-world than if the creator asks me to learn everything about it from the get-go. Much like the viewers' level of understanding of Chise's world grows over time, the stakes of the story become greater with each episode. A few episodes in, a mysterious menace is introduced in the form of a seemingly young alchemist and his underlings, and with the appearance of these characters, it becomes clear that the sooner Chise can start mastering her magic, the better. As it turns out, Elias isn’t the only one who knows the nature of Chise’s rare power, and in order to protect herself and him from those who would seek to use it for evil, Chise will have to learn fast. But though the setting, characters, and story progression of this series are all top-notch, it doesn’t hit every note perfectly from my perspective. Like all good faerie stories, beauty and horror exist in a compelling tension in The Ancient Magus’ Bride—but sometimes the story leans a little too far toward the horror side of things for my taste. It doesn't happen often, but there are a couple of standout episodes that are difficult to digest. (Out of the ones I've seen thus far, there are a couple in particular onto which I'd put an animal-cruelty trigger warning, and another that merits a warning for body horror.) In some sense, I'm aware that these sort of things tend to come part and parcel with fey stories, but there are some moments that come close to the threshold of what I can stomach. If things like this tend to put you on edge as well, I would suggest potentially reading episode synopses to determine whether there are any you should steer clear of, or at least start the series knowing that you'll need to watch out for the more troubling elements. Thus far, it hasn't been enough to put me off the series (nor dull my curiosity about what's going to happen next), but I'd say it's something to know about going into it, nonetheless. The other critique I'd give this series is that, though the sprinkled-in worldbuilding style works great overall, it does mean that some elements don't make a lot of sense when they're introduced and even stand out as overly bizarre. Likewise, there are moments when, because so much is still hidden from the viewer's perspective, the story can feel as though it doesn't have a lot of direction. Again, it's not enough to be a huge concern, but it does serve to either throw me for a bit of a loop or cause me to lose focus on the story from time to time. Overall, though, this series stands out as is absolutely gorgeous, arresting, and engaging on a level I haven't seen for some time. I love the unique feel of the story itself, the characters, the beautiful settings, and even the voice acting for the dub version, which is almost universally stellar. I look forward to finding out what other secrets are revealed as the story goes on and getting to know Chise and Elias’s strange and wondrous world even better.
Kristen Swendsrud