The Ancient Magus’ Bride Part 1 (Episodes 1-12) (Cert 15)
4 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 290 minutes approx
Judging by this first instalment of this dark fantasy series, the title The Ancient Magus’ Bride feels a little misleading as no marriage has taken place yet; scratch that, there hasn’t even been a formal proposal let alone a wedding! Maybe that is to come in the future of this unconventional romance bubbling under a tale of magic and mayhem.
It begins on quite a gloomy note with depressed 15 year-old orphan Chise Hatori signing herself over to be auctioned as a slave since it means being part of a household. Chise is paraded before a room full of eager bidders but before they start, a large masked figure enters and offers the sum of 5 million pounds that seemingly can’t be matched.
This giant figure is a reclusive mage named Elias Ainsworth, his mask hiding a horse-like skull head. He frees Chise of her chains and spirits her away to the remote cottage home he shares with his mute servant Silver. Elias confesses he wants Chise to become his apprentice in magic arts and maybe, if things work out, she would become his bride too.
So what makes Chise so special that Elias would spend so much money on her and offer her the lifeline she has always needed? Ironically, it is the very thing that made Chise a pariah all her life – her ability to see strange supernatural creatures that other can’t. In the parlance of the magical world, Chise is a Sleigh Beggy, a mage that attracts the love of magical creatures although they could easily harm her too.
Across the twelve episodes and three OVA prequel found in the extras, we follow Chise’s journey from unwanted outcast child to prospect powerful mage whose pure heart and genuine altruism wins over the darkest of forces with help from the most unusual suitor for her affections.
Based on the manga by Kore Yamazaki and produced by Studio Wit, this is a romantic fantasy that flirts with the conventions of both genres with a gleefully dark bent. Rather than portray magic as a gift and its practitioners as revered saviours, the story explores the downside of possessing unique abilities and how they are feared and misunderstood by the layman as something demonic.
Yamazaki’s inspiration appears to be equal parts Harry Potter, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Beauty & The Beast with visual nods to Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai. Chise was shunned by everyone for being different – her own mother openly wished she had never given birth to Chise, the rest of her family abandoned her, and school was an eternal nightmare because she couldn’t explain the terrifying visions that haunted her everywhere she looked.
The otherwise grotesque Elias knew this about Chise and came to her rescue, offering her a home and tutelage in nurturing her latent magical abilities, his romantic intentions appearing more like an afterthought with little pressure put on this aspect. Because Elias was the first person to show any kindness to Chise and willingness to open his home to her, she agrees to become his apprentice, providing the germination for any mutual affection to grow between them.
With help from fellow mage and magic technician Angelica Varley (reminiscent of FMA’s Izumi Curtis) Chise learns to use her powers, needing a special ring to limit her output, whilst joining Elias on his missions on behalf of the church dealing with instances of supernatural abuse by malevolent mages. The first two adventures sees Chise makes friends with the dragon world and find her familiar in a dog she names Ruth, who can transform into a man.
One critical lesson Chise quickly learns is a Sleigh Beggy has a limited lifespan and using their powers drains them of their energy, requiring long sleeps of up to two days to recuperate. After years of misery and loneliness it is tragic that Chise finally finds her role in life only to learn it will shorten her life, but she soldiers on as making a difference to people’s lives is sufficient incentive for her.
Despite sounding relentlessly depressing and fatalistic, there is some gentle humour to be found here, sometime introduced at inappropriate moments but that is anime for you. The romantic subplot is never overbearing, any sentimental subtext coming from the respectful affection that blossoms and the fall out of external tragedies, some violent and gruesome, others natural but still heartbreaking.
Chise’s backstory is explored in depth in the three OVA episodes which were released as a prequel but are best watched after knowing the basic story; I’d even venture they’d prove more satisfying than the main show. Elias remains a figure of mystery despite a look into his history, with questions lingering about his real intentions towards Chise.
Being set in an alternate England reaffirms the idea of magic being a quaint art form of a jolly old England Japan imagines it to be, allowing warmth and whimsy to permeate through the aesthetic, with a quasi-modern touch as illustrated by the appearance of the London Eye in the first OVA episode. Other worlds exist in this version of England, like the Land of Dragons, hidden from general view.
Studio Wit are really proving themselves to be a major force in anime and this show is another impressive looking notch in their belt. The OVAs are actually superior to the main series in terms of precision of animation, recalling Ghibli in atmosphere and sound design, but the overall presentation of both puts other high concept fantasy shows to shame.
With a number of themes being explored, The Ancient Magus’ Bride is a rather uneven show at times that takes a while to finds it feet, yet has a beguiling charm and heart to it that sneaks up on the viewer and catches them unaware. It is enigmatic without being obtuse and runs deeper emotionally than it looks. A surprisingly stirring first half that part two has a lot to live up to.
English Language 5.1 True HD
Japanese Language 2.0 True HD
The Ancient Magus’ Bride: Those Awaiting A Star OVA Parts 1-3
Twitter Q&A: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Cast and Crew
Episode 8 Commentary
Textless Opening Song – “Here”
Textless Closing Song – “-cycle-”
Rating – ****
Man In Black