The Ancient Magus Bride (魔法使いの嫁 Mahō Tsukai no Yome) is a 24 episode dark(ish) fantasy anime written by Kore Yamazaki and Aya Takaha. Directed by Norihiro Naganuma.
“The Ancient Magus Bride” is the story of Chise, a depressed and self-loathing teenager who sells herself into slavery as more or less a way of surrendering the battle of life to the whims of chance. She is bought by Elias, an inhuman magical creature who intends on making Chise both his bride and his apprentice. On paper, this is very very dark and creepy. And when they insist on focusing on these aspects, there is definitely a cringe factor. But thankfully, for most of the series the anime focuses on the apprentice aspect of their relationship. Chise ends up being too much of a free spirit for the fact that she is “owned” to ever really be a significant factor, and while the future bride thing does come up occassionally, it never dips into anything sexual. In fact, if one had never heard of marriage before one would think “bride” might mean nothing more than a promise to be someone’s friend. Given that Elias has a very rudimentary understanding of human emotion, I’m not sure that’s not what he means by it.
Chise spends the series learning about magic from Elias and others in his world and goes on adventures steeped in British folklore. This is where the real fun of the series comes in. Witches and fairies, banshees and dragons — the series uses traditional and recognizable figures but organizes them into new relationships. The setting is one that could easily contain so many more stories than just this one and its fun to feel like you are in such a rich world.
Below the adventures into the supernatural lands, the real subject matter of the anime is dealing with childhood trauma. Chise was the victim of tragedy in her early life and a mother that abandoned her. While learning magic, what Chise really learns is to value herself. It’s not an easy path and the steps that the story has her take are perhaps controversial. In one of the key moments of the story, a mentor to Chise tells Chise how grateful he is to Chise’s mother — not for the mother’s mistakes, but for being there in the first place. It’s a powerful scene that gets through to Chise that people do care about her, but it’s a hard pill to swallow because it seems to undervalue just how close that mother’s abandonment came to ending the life she created. Much later in the series, Chise makes her own decision about where to land on the spectrum between resentment and forgiveness. It’s a powerful statement she makes precisely because it is unique to her situation. The series would fail if it attempted to be a generalized look at getting over trauma — Chise says too many things (like “just get over it) that reveal she still has work to do — but as a story about a specific individual dealing with a painful past, it’s quite insightful and nuanced.
As mentioned above, there are some troubling aspects to the very premise of the series, aspects that the series will almost let you forget but will then bring back just long enough to make you uncomfortable again. Beyond the bride thing, there’s also the fact that Elias is not altogether a nice guy. In fact, he is sometimes quite dangerous to Chise. There’s an icky sense that because he doesn’t “mean” to be out of control, it’s only fair that Chise allow herself to live with this danger. And again it comes down to whether this is descriptive or prescriptive. As a description of how some relationships are (and especially were in the past), a teenage girl learning how to live the best life she can with a man who owns her and is mostly nice but sometimes not is far from unheard of. It’s when the anime tries to pretend there is anything admirable or romantic about the situation that the cringe returns. Fortunately, those moments are rare and never definitive.
Relationships are messy, and sometimes — especially for teenagers — even unhealthy relationships are just something you have to make the best of. This anime is the year in the life of a young woman who takes a very strange circumstance and uses it to grow.
Weeb level: 1/10. If you’ve never seen an anime before, you’d have no trouble diving into this one. A knowledge of British folklore, in fact, would probably be more beneficial.
Fanservice: 2/10. Chise is thankfully never sexualized or drooled over by the “camera.” There is a fair amount of nudity among the magical creatures, but nothing overly gratuitous.
Quality: 7/10. This isn’t a mind-bending philosophically deep anime. You aren’t going to come out of it feeling like you’ve been touched by the Old Ones. It is a well told story though that exists in a very rich world.
Where to watch: Crunchyroll and Funimation.