CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of depression, self-harm, trauma, and emotional abuse.
SPOILERS for the entire Ancient Magus’ Bride anime.
At first glance, Chise’s life looks golden. She’s blessed with innate magical powers that can bring her inner desires to fruition. She’s provided room and board by one of the best mages in the world. Practically every person she comes into contact with in her fairy-infused life adores her and, if she’d only relax, she could live a life with everything provided for her in the idyllic English countryside.
But Chise’s life on the surface is a facade. Underneath a still demeanor and all her magic capabilities is a 15-year-old girl with barely enough energy to keep her head above the water. The Ancient Magus’ Bride dresses its narrative with sparkly romance, but Chise’s journey is far more personal. I know it, because it’s my journey too.
Depression hit me like a ton of bricks in my early teens, and I’ve never been able to completely get out from under it. Every night for the past 15 years, I down my Zoloft and a couple Vitamin D supplements to ward off the overwhelming self-doubt and that frames all my personal and professional relationships as futile exercises in self-preservation. It’s the inner voice that climbs up on my shoulder during a rainy day drive and says, “It would be such a relief if you just slid off the road.”
My depression looks at things like human longevity and is immediately terrified at how long the daily battles will last. My depression is weary. I am intimately familiar with its top, bottom, left, and right angles because I have mulled over every inch of it while trying to shake its body from my shoulders and its hands from my neck. The Ancient Magus’ Bride is the first anime series I’ve watched in 15 or so years that accurately reflects my own struggle back at me in all of its complex forms: self-loathing, self-sacrifice as penance, and ultimately healing.
When we first meet Chise, she’s still actively traumatized from the abuse and death of her mother and abandonment by her father. She’s ceased to belong anywhere or have anyone resembling “family” when she signs herself up for auction to the highest bidder. This is a world of magic, but it’s also one of monsters as she is, at this point, entirely aware.
Her fate could easily have fallen into worse hands than Elias’, and it isn’t too far-fetched to say she would have welcomed it. At the beginning stages of the story, Chise doesn’t actively seek death, but she only passively exists. If Chise slid off the road, she would not correct her course to avoid destruction.
This point is illustrated in her weary-eyed countenance and then reinforced when she falls into a deep pool during her visit with Lindel and the dragons in Episode Three. Chise begins to drown and accepts this turn of events, not even attempting to swim to the surface until she’s pulled out by another character.
This episode marks a turning in point, as Chise begins to acknowledge her depression and trauma and reevaluate death as a concept when one of the elderly dragons calls her out. This leads to the two building a bond when her magic allows him to experience flight one last time before he passes away. It’s a beautiful moment, but Chise’s fight is a long one, and one moment of consideration isn’t going to undo years of self-loathing; nor is an educated savior, no matter how magical he seems.
Elias’ bestial transformations are shown in stark contrast to his intelligent, logical side that Chise originally encounters. He urges Chise to think of herself and see her own value. This is the first stepping stone to Chise rediscovering herself as a worthwhile, likable person and reaching out to expand her social circle. It’s also what tempts her to rest on codependency. Elias will teach her all she needs to know, he’ll feed her, he’ll clothe her, and treat her like a good little puppy, so long as she does just what he says.
Here’s the thing about self-loathing: it’s easy to not evaluate where you get your positive reinforcement from or the conditions it’s built around, because you don’t really think you deserve it anyway. Chise certainly doesn’t, so she sets out to earn it and, hell, if she martyrs herself in the process, that’s even better.
In Chise’s current state, that means both protecting and earning the admiration of her loved ones and ending her prolonged suffering all in one go. So she starts to take risks despite her precarious physical state. It’s a self-destructive fantasy that relieves a person of the stigma of suicide being selfish, because who’s going to claim that you’re selfish when your death was in order to protect someone else?
The women in Chise’s life—Angelica and Alice, the alchemists from the College, and finally the changeling Shannon—call bullshit on Chise’s altruism after her continued near-death experiences. Shannon attempts to heal her in Tir na Nog by simulating the abuse by Chise’s mother, and the scene purposefully ties back to Chise’s first fall into the water in Episode Three. It marks a turning point for the young mage, as it’s the first time she actively fights to preserve herself.
Chise doesn’t want to die anymore. This is huge for her, and it’s from that moment that she can repair her inner confidence—because while Chise was busy learning not to hate herself, she got entangled in a textbook toxic relationship. She’s going to have to learn the hard way that you can’t fix yourself through someone else’s approval, and you certainly can’t fix them, either.
It is enticing to take on a pet project, a person dealing with their own issues, and attempt to “fix” them to avoid reflecting on yourself. My romantic history is riddled with these relationships, one of which culminated in a marriage at age 20, a child at 22, a cross-country move away from all my family and friends, and a lot of shattered dishware and screamed expletives.
My “Elias” didn’t literally transform into dark beast, but he wasn’t above scaring me with that same primal insidiousness. Try as I might, I could never discover that perfect balance of actions and words to stymie his infantile, insecure rage.
There is not enough love in the world to save someone with no interest in saving themselves. Elias and Chise’s relationship, originally presented as a mentorship where the skull-faced guy is going to teach the damaged girl how to live again, is turned on its head as the series slowly strips away Elias’ “child-like” emotional state to reveal a domineering and selfish creature.
He begins actively working to rob Chise of her newfound agency by undermining her friendships, limiting her opportunities for personal growth, spying on her, and restricting her ability to leave her own home. The company she’s kept into the series’ last quarter no longer reflects who she is inside. It’s with her newfound powers and the conversations she’s had with the women around her that leads her to do something amazing: She walks out.
It’s at this final point that Chise has to make a deliberate choice, and honestly one that looks like it undermines the carefully placed steps she’s taken to reach her full potential. Chise takes Elias back and accepts him, warts and all. The anime frames this particularly poorly, as it seems to present Chise’s newfound strength as something she can use to withstand her partner’s monstrous flaws so the two can continue to grow and heal together. It’s a glaring mark on an otherwise strong narrative of female empowerment and abuse survival. But, at least for me, it doesn’t negate the deep feelings that resonated within me while watching Chise’s personal journey.
Chise’s transformation through these many stages into a self-actualized person was profoundly hopeful to me. It took me nearly six years to walk out, and while I’m twice her age, it was incredibly empowering to watch this character blossom. Chise’s road was arduous, but she rediscovered her own joy, values, and power. She’s able to move past her childhood trauma, reject codependency, and come into her own.
Depression is messy. It’s sly, quick-witted, enticing, and destructive. Yet Chise’s story is inspiring because when depression says, “Slide off the road,” she says “No, keep driving.”
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