The Ancient Magus' Bride
by Anne Lauenroth,
How would you rate episode 22 of
Ancient Magus' Bride ?
When watching films and series, one of my pet peeves is always the soundtrack. All too often, the role of music is reduced to that of a rug, meant to cover up any messiness underneath, an emotional crutch slapped on to signal the audience when it's time to cry. In this indistinct carpet of noise, one piece of music will blur into the next, with none of them leaving a lasting impression once the credits roll. The Ancient Magus' Bride is not like that.
With its powerful insert songs and musical themes, this adaptation always had an excellent soundtrack. What I appreciate even more than the high quality of the music is the show's awareness of when to shut up. It's rare to see a series so capable and courageous at embracing silence, but Norihiro Naganuma and Junichi Matsumoto know that their shots will hit the target more powerfully if the audience isn't already numb from audio overload. You can't cheat your way out of bad dialogue or crappy plotting with silence that draws attention to both those things, so the quietness that carries much of this episode helps prove its dramatic achievements.
While there is some creepy score in place to accompany Chise's discovery of Joseph's "lab" (including the still-living dragon), no music whatsoever supports the eye-for-an-eye exchange, making it impossible to escape the mental revulsion emotionally. After the familiar image of the curtain blowing in front of the window sends us back down memory lane to the moment Chise's childhood came to an abrupt end, the next piece of music sets in with her mom coming home. At first a lonely piano that sounds like someone's improvising and not quite sure where to go, it blossoms into a more confident melody when Chise's dad returns, followed by a slideshow burst of happy childhood memories.
It's silence again for the visit of Joseph's fragment, with nothing to soften the unease but the pulsating sound from Chise's arm, which makes things worse without distracting from the moment. The sound design is generally effective beyond the use of music, with the exaggerated closing sound of the door emphasizing finality just as the camera's wide-angle shot rubs in Chise's powerlessness. Not a single note of music is granted to ease the immense discomfort of watching Chika strangle her own daughter; we're forced to listen to the woman groaning and sobbing and the little girl gasping and choking. It's immediate, brutal, and so much more intense than any dissonant or dramatic tune would have been, just like the sound of the wind and Chika's body hitting the ground with a thump. When the big emotional and musical moment arrives, it works all the better because of how sparse the music has been up to this point. The track itself is not overly dramatic, but it reflects Chise coming to terms with her past and memories, so it's both fittingly peaceful and effective.
Apart from the excellence on the audio side, it's very satisfying to see everything else coming together both visually and thematically. Chise has tapped into the memories of others several times now, trying to find ways to reach and help them. All the while, her own happy memories had been closed off, trapping her in a world where she was never loved or wanted. We see now that this has been a world of her own making. It makes perfect sense for the finale (and this episode pretty much felt like the finale for the story of Chise's recovery) that she would have to do the same for herself to break free from the past.
On a personal level, I can always appreciate a good scene that forces characters to work through various layers of self-deception, but it's also great when that happens in a way that acknowledges past events as meaningful to the main theme and plot. In retrospect, Mina and Matthew turning into flowers in their moment of redemption wasn't just a pretty design choice, but connected to Chise regaining a glimpse of a happy memory the first time she performed magic at Angelica's. Remember those beautiful crystal flowers? It's in a field of the same flowers that Chise now sends off the memory of her mother, an image Chise created inside her to cope with a reality that a child her age simply couldn't process at the time. This makes her repeated conversations with Nevin's memory relevant beyond being a sentimental pep talk, as they help Chise accept her real mother's love for what it was without feeling the need to forgive her.
Chise doesn't have to forget or forgive her real mother in order to heal, she has to correct the mental image inside her – the distorted mother that really wanted her to die – and overwrite it with the still sad but more complex reality. Little Chise wasn't able to see the full picture or cope with the fallout. But even if she couldn't access her memories, something on an unconscious level kept her from going through with her own suicide just like her mother didn't go through with killing her. That's why Chise could allow herself to form new bonds that led her back to this epiphany step by step.
Joseph trapping Chise inside her traumatic memories for his amusement doesn't just happen to deliver backstory exposition. It empowers Chise to face him, which is wonderfully ironic. We'll have to wait and see how this affects his plan of exchanging a curse for a curse. With just two episodes left, it's pretty much a given we won't learn the answers to certain pressing questions, like why Chise's father left. And are he and her brother, who seems to have inherited the mage genes but not the Sleigh Beggy ones, still alive?
Resolving Joseph and Elias' parts in the story will take priority, especially since Chise has now moved on from the past to deal with the issues of the present. We're almost caught up with the ongoing manga, so the show might leave us with a cliffhanger or an original ending. I'm very much in favor of the latter over a non-ending that might never be followed by another season, and if The Ancient Magus' Bride can keep up this level of proficiency for the remaining episodes, I can't wait to see what they'll throw at us.
The Ancient Magus' Bride is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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