[Review] The Ancient Magus’ Bride – episode 1

Chise grew up being tossed from relative to relative, always isolated by her ability to see things that others could not. Feeling she can find no value in her own life, she sells it to the highest bidder – and is bought by Elias Ainsworth, a strange, bone-faced man who calls himself a mage. Elias claims he wants to make Chise his apprentice, and for the first time in her life, Chise feels like she might have found a home. But the road to mastering magic is not an easy one, and Chise’s own magically gifted nature may still be its own kind of curse. Chise’s apprenticeship will demand personal strength and an inquisitive heart, for the dangers of the magical world are dark and plentiful.

Source: Anime News Network

I…

So…

Okay.

Do you trust me, AniFam?

A close-up of a redheaded girl, her head covered partly by a white cloth. She looks tired and hopeless. Subtitle: "I just want somewhere to go home to."

I’m a big fan of The Ancient Magus’ Bride manga (so is half the AniFem staff, in fact). I also had the chance to see the first three episodes of the anime in theaters this past summer. While I was overall delighted by the experience (I literally teared up near the end of the third episode, just so, so happy to see such a stellar  adaptation of such a great story), I also found myself dreading the inevitable AniFem Premiere Review I was going to write. Because, yup, I know it: there are a lot of red flags in this first episode.

To wit: Our depressed female protagonist, Chise Hatori, is willingly “sold” to the mysterious mage, Elias Ainsworth; he calls her his “puppy” on multiple occasions; he forcefully undresses her so she can take a bath; there’s a brief but unnecessary burst of nudity as she leaves said bath; she decides to stay with him despite feeling like he thinks she’s “just a toy”; and to top things off, the episode ends with Elias declaring his hope to make her his “bride.”

…Stay with me, okay?

A redheaded girl covers her face with her hands while a masculine figure with a skull head tugs at her long shirt. They are standing in a bathroom. Subtitle: "Besides, you're filthy, so I'll wash you."

Mixed in with those red flags is gorgeous art work, beautiful music, striking imagery, a rich fantastical world of magic and fae, and the beginnings of Chise’s story, including hints of her painful childhood and an ongoing theme about family and homes. She is an exhausted, hopeless girl when we meet her, so desperate for a place to belong that she finds herself between the options of suicide or slavery and chooses the latter so as to “give her life to someone who wants her.”

I think this first episode clearly sets up that it isn’t trying to belittle or trivialize Chise’s past or future journey, and that’s important and good. Where it’s less clear is how her story is going to fit in with that of her teacher, Elias. He seems to be encouraging her, asking her to “stand tall, and look forward” and hoping she can “feel fortunate” one day, so… but he did technically buy her, so… but then he immediately removes her chains, calls her “family,” and tells her she’s “free to reconsider” becoming his apprentice, so… but then he says he wants to make her his bride, so… so…?

Close-up of a redheaded girl with a chained collar around her neck. She has her head bent forward, hair covering her eyes, mouth opened in a snarl. Subtitle: "I've never once been fortunate!"

I feel you, newcomers. I was skeptical, too! It took months of people whose opinions I respect singing the manga’s praises before I finally picked up the first volume, and I spent the entire first chapter wearing an expression of permanent side-eye. One of the benefits of manga, though, is that you commit to a larger chunk of the story all in one go. By the second chapter, I felt a lot better. By the end of the volume, I was hooked.

I want to try to set you at ease, but to do that, I’ll need to hint at some future events. No specific spoilers, I promise, but if you’re already on-board with the show and want to go in blind, now’s a good place to stop reading. As for everyone else: If you hate any spoilers at all, then please just give Magus’ Bride 1-2 more episodes. I swear it knows what its doing. As for everyone else, you can scroll past the scenery porn for some general comments on where the series goes, and why I strongly recommend pushing past any early trepidation you may have.

A moonlight forest with tall trees shooting towards the sky and a crescent moon shining down on them. In the center is a tall figure in a dark cloak, another redheaded figure in his arms.

The thing about Ancient Magus’ Bride is that (as this premiere suggests) it’s fully aware there’s a lot that’s broken about its premise. It knows Chise was in a terrible place when the story began, and that her decision to sell herself as a slave is a tragic one brought about by years of neglect and abuse.  It knows that Chise’s lack of agency and self-worth aren’t healthy, which is why the majority of the series is about her recovery. Over the next several episodes, she will gain confidence, find a support network of found family and friends, and learn to exercise control over her own life.

Her relationship with Elias (I honestly wouldn’t call it a romance) is never not a little problematic, I admit to that. But Magus’ Bride is aware of that, too, and takes steps over the course of the story to rectify their initial power imbalance. Elias isn’t nearly as educated and mature as he seems to Chise (and, by extension, to us) in this premiere—he’s a child in many ways, in fact, with a much more limited knowledge of the human world than Chise. This includes a fuzzy understanding of human relationships and the labels attached to them, such as the words “bride” and “wife” (it’s implied in later chapters he thinks it just means “a woman who lives with me”).

A redheaded girl in a long white shirt sits on a couch while a masculine figure with an elongated skull for a head pats her on the head. Subtitle: "You're like family to me now."

Elias’s actions come from a place of ignorance and innocence, not malice, and as he comes to learn about Chise and humanity at-large he adjusts his behavior accordingly. He and Chise do develop a close emotional bond, but it becomes one of equals, with each teaching and guiding the other in different ways. No, it’s not perfect, but the series doesn’t treat it as perfect, either. It’s complicated and messy, a perpetual work-in-progress. Like with their own personal challenges, the two face it and work through it step by step.

This story’s world exists in a kind of perpetual twilight. Chise is neither mage nor alchemist. Elias is neither human nor fae. The fae are neither good nor evil. Chise and Elias are neither adults nor children; neither friends nor romantic partners. Its many characters and their relationships are fiercely important to one another, but the majority of them defy traditional labels. Neither this nor that. That’s a large part of what makes those relationships and the story at large so captivating.

A redheaded girl, her head bent and her torse mostly in the frame. A green stone with a hole in the center hangs from her neck. Subtitle: "No one ever told me that I could be there."

I can’t force viewers to stick around, of course, but I really, really hope you will. The Ancient Magus’ Bride will reward you with an enchanting world, a complex female protagonist who learns and grows from week to week, and a steady, quietly moving story of healing, family, and personal agency. Concerning elements notwithstanding, I feel confident saying it’s going to be one of (if not the) best shows of the Fall season, and I’m delighted to see this beautiful story come to life.

 

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  • TheSojourner

    So… rough beginning, but necessary to set things up for later. Gotcha. I had a feeling there might be some potentially problematic elements to the show, but context and how those elements are handled can make a huge difference.

    Plus, I also had a gut feeling I’d like this show and would have given it a few episodes anyway… because when I have that feeling, it’s usually right.

  • Amy Notdorft

    I’m so excited for this series, and I hope people stick with it like Dee suggests.

    I never even thought about how the premiere would come off if you haven’t read the manga… but it’s so true. I remember being skeptical when I first started reading (even occasionally now… though the side characters usually give me confidence that the author is aware of the problematic nature of Chise and Elias’ relationship.) Minor spoilers… but overall it reminds me a lot of Natsume’s Book of Friends… it’s about growth and healing and the dark, problematic bits tend to exist to that end.

    My significant other has actually found the series really insightful because his experience living with alexithymia and how it resonates so strongly with Elias’ character. It’s rare for him to find characters that speak to him in that way, so it might be relevant to others with the condition (or their friends and family) as well.

  • Jahu

    My first exposure to the series was actually watching the three-part OVA that recently (FINALLY) wrapped up, and its world delighted me like few fictional worlds have. I’m really excited to dig into a full-length series of it!

  • Looking forward to the series! As a fan of the manga, it might be jarring from the first episode to not know the context of the show (Elias is very far removed from humanity and his real form isn’t quite as humanoid as it first seems)

  • Lori P

    I’m still not 100% convinced. I want to give this show a chance because I’m a sucker for pretty art, but I feel like making the slave owner in a good light (even a little bit) is too big a red flag to shy away from, especially if he’s supposed to be just “ignorant/naive”

  • Caitlin

    Dee has read the manga, as have I, so believe us when we say these things. Ancient Magus’ Bride does some really interesting things with power dynamics!