The Ancient Magus' Bride
Episodes 1-2

by Anne Lauenroth,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Ancient Magus' Bride ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Ancient Magus' Bride ?

In a world where the number of magi has declined, Chise Hatori is an even rarer specimen than most. As a Sleigh Beggy, she acts as a magnet for otherworldly creatures great and small. But what makes her a valuable asset for the magi community has only ever served to isolate her from her human family, until she feels so alone and unwanted that she resorts to selling her life to someone who would take her in.

Opening your story with the protagonist consciously forfeiting her own agency is an interesting choice, and Norihiro Naganuma's adaptation does well at conveying the gravity of Chise's decision. From the scratching of the pen when she signs her freedom away to the rustling of her cloak or the soft rattling of the chain put around her neck, all the sounds are amplified, adding weight to every move. Just when Chise has accepted her fate, her savior steps forward from the faceless crowd. Physically, Elias is the opposite of a white knight, whose first action after saving buying Chise is telling her not to keep her head down by yanking her slave chain. It soon becomes clear that he's not trying to be domineering, he's just inept at communicating with a human. His inexperience and lack of common sense will lead to equal parts inappropriate behavior and comic relief, but it doesn't seem as though he's changed his solitary lifestyle just to take advantage of Chise's vulnerability by making her his property. Though their relationship is still unequal after the first two episodes, Elias is already closer to becoming the pillar of support that Chise's life so painfully lacked before this.

"Let's see to it that you feel fortunate one day."

Elias' promise to Chise doesn't ring hollow, but he doesn't realize that he will have to compensate for years of his new apprentice's traumatic memories to fulfill it. Those who've seen the OVAs will have a deeper understanding of why Chise would go so far as to sell herself, but thanks to effective editing and sound design, the glimpses we catch of her past give us enough to extrapolate why she chooses to stay with a man who treats her like a pet over choosing the freedom promised by the Ariels. Even after all she's suffered through, Chise is willing to risk further disappointment and pain to find a place to belong – wonderfully illustrated by her physically hurting herself to break the faeries' spell. Right now, having a home is more important to her than having freedom, and she's very fortunate to have found one that may give her the opportunity to reclaim what she sacrificed to get there. For now, Elias answers Chise's commitment with the promise/threat to make the teen girl his bride, once again proving himself an unconventional prince. But The Ancient Magus' Bride doesn't trade in the Disney brand of fantasy.

In this world, magic is neither good nor bad, and it can go from breathtakingly beautiful to dreadfully dangerous in a heartbeat. When used, it must be handled with great care and respect to avoid possible repercussions, which are already hinted at in the second episode. The kindness and favors offered by Chise's magical new fan club don't necessarily coincide with what's good for humans. The Ariels are neither simply cute nor demonic, but part of a complex organic world that Chise has spent her life being afraid of. With the help of her mentor, she will now have to learn how to navigate it in order to survive, grow, and hopefully find happiness – appreciating its beauty without losing herself in fear.

With the first two episodes covering 2.5 manga chapters, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace, with exposition delivered in measured packages. Norihiro Naganuma's direction is unobtrusive, employing serviceable shot compositions that are rarely exciting on their own. By episode two, things start to drag a little, even though there's a clear purpose behind the camera lingering longer on Chise while the action is happening around her, as it emphasizes her cautious reluctance to take any action unless it is asked of her. Rather than lacking in creative vision, the show seems confident enough in its characterization and strength of writing to resist the urge to show off too much early on in the plot.

Instead of showering us with the visual and musical grandeur of the OVAs, magic and music both appear in short bursts rather than aiming for constantly immersive enchantment. Even when the fairies bring out the big guns to spirit Chise away into the sparkling night forest to the sound of strangely frightening bells and laughter, a certain distance keeps the magic from being too captivating. Chise isn't at a place emotionally where she would approach any of these wonders with delight. Overwhelmed, terrified, and disillusioned are pretty much her natural states of being before meeting Elias. Looking at next week's preview, I'm confident we'll get to the full-blown magic eventually, once Chise's able to be as mesmerized by her circumstances as the audience, hopefully. Until then, this more subdued approach feels like an apt choice to stay committed to her state of mind, and there's still enough visual quality around to be appreciated.

Apart from the comparatively unimpressive OP and ED, not all of the show's attempts at comedy hit home. When Elias turns into his super deformed mode following Chise's rejection of the faeries, it's almost as if someone, afraid of getting too emotional too early in the show, felt the need to break the immersion to allow us to catch our breath. It's a weird choice given that everything feels so emotionally honest otherwise, a good example of how not everything translates equally from one medium to another.

By the end of episode two, Chise has added a few facial expressions to her repertoire beyond resignation and fear. We also get a first glimpse of her impressive magical aptitude, which, while beautiful, immediately looks like it could get out of control. I was glad to learn that, at least in her very early childhood, Chise was loved. Given that feeling safe and loved in the first few years of life is crucial to a person's future emotional development, that's good news indeed.

The priest's visit and subsequent journey to Iceland are mostly setup, but they do add to establishing the show's world, where the church and magic have found a way to coexist (albeit begrudgingly), making up equal parts of Britain's culture and identity. I'm sure there's going to be something magical waiting for us in dragon country. After all, real-life Iceland might not be home to dragons, but it's still a place where the possibility of disturbing elves can apparently bring road construction to a halt. The Ancient Magus' Bride's holistic approach to magic and folklore, which is both refreshing and organic, should fit right in there. The show is tantalizingly close to A-quality if it didn't seem to be holding back on purpose, so I feel compelled to give it a most unusual grade.

Rating: B+++

The Ancient Magus' Bride is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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