I fail at being ‘the cool kid.’
Mahou Tsukai no Yome / Ancient Magus’ Bride is the anime to watch this season. I started it, got two or three episodes in, and stopped. Initially, I couldn’t shake the creeping heebie-jeebies about the set-up.
For those who don’t know, here’s the set-up:
With her mother dead and father long gone, Chise Hatori has spent her childhood being passed unwanted from relative to relative, until she finally makes her unfortunate way to a strange and improbable auction block. Offered as a “sleigh beggy” to the highest bidder, Chise is purchased by the (literally) boneheaded Elias Ainsworth, who promises to take her on as his apprentice. Elias is a mage, and his world is one of dragons and faeries – but before Chise can begin to get accustomed to all that nonsense, Elias drops another bombshell. Apparently Chise isn’t just intended to be his apprentice – she will also be his bride.
Yeah, a slave auction.
I found a review of the first episode on Anime Feminist that told me to trust in the story, and checking-in with other people I got the same advice. Just wait. It gets better.
And… they’re not wrong. In the end, I loved more than I hated. But, it both gets better and doesn’t. In a nutshell, I’d say that the mangaka is aware of the creepiness of her set-up and thus doesn’t shy away from revisiting issues. That’s both good–because it’s a thoughtful exploration, but also… still creepy, right?
I decided, however, to read Mahou Tsukai no Yome / Ancient Magus’ Bride instead of watching it. I’m a SLOOOOW consumer of anime (I’m STILL on Natsume Yuujinchou / Natsume’s Book of Friends and I have at least three more seasons to go.)
I finished all the chapters currently available (at the time of this review, 44,) and I still have very mixed feelings about this manga.
To give Yamazaki-sensei credit where it is due, she could have brushed this… shall we say, ‘problematic’ beginning under a rug.
After all, her supporters are spot on. Yamazaki-sensei develops both Elias (the titular Ancient Magus) and Chise (the Bride) to the point where even this hard-to-sell reader found them AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP worthy of sympathy and support.
But, she doesn’t forget where things started, and so you can’t either.
In fact, just when I’m starting to root for Elias and Chise to live together forever, the mangaka takes us back to the auction house. A dragon whelp has been stolen and put up for sale and so Chise contrives a way into the audience with the plan to save the dragon by buying it herself (much as she was bought.)
It’s an uncomfortable scene.
Chise, being this strange sensitive known as a ‘sleigh beggy,’ can hear the dragon’s cries. The dragon is scared. She wants to go home. She watched her companion be slaughtered for parts and is afraid the same thing will happen to her. This isn’t an adult dragon. It’s a child. We were given a scene in the early chapters, where Chise is in the land of the dragons, where she plays with dragons of a similar age to this one. They are portrayed as childlike and adorable.
The thought that anyone would treat a child like this is deplorable.
Yet the auctioneer is written as sympathetic, even as he’s saying things like, “We can’t let the dragon break free, the others will use the opportunity to escape.”
Let me underscore that for you: Escape.
The whole scene makes it 100% clear that there are, in fact, creatures there, for sale, who are NOT there of their own freewill.
And that Chise, herself, when she was sold, was not yet sixteen…
Worse, this particular chapter doesn’t end well for the dragon. She freaks out and goes on a rampage and we’re supposed to be worried about Chise and Elias (and Chise’s familiar, Ruth,) but I never stopped worrying about that dragon baby. The dragon baby, who, so far, hasn’t made it home, and ends up, it appears, permanently insane (and later, it seems, recaptured by Joseph/Cartaphilus, aka: the Wandering Jew.)
I hardly know what to make of this character. He is legitimately the most odious, most sociopathic character(s) in the series. (In many ways it’s worse that Joseph is separate from Cartaphius, since Cartaphius is clearly the Wandering Jew, who seems ghastly and irredeemable, and Joseph is portrayed as weird, but kindly.)
Ever since Full Metal Alchemist, I hate anyone who makes chimeras… and Joseph/Cartaphius does it clearly makes them for fun, but he also harvests body parts to try to stave off the constant pain of his rotting body…?
Regardless, he’s icky. He’s also the guy responsible for poaching the dragons and dissecting the little one’s companion. He’s driven other people to madness.
And, he’s not just called the Wandering Jew by the wizarding society, but we actually get the “story” of his curse, which is rooted in the anti-Semitic concept the the Jews are responsible for the death of Christ.
Now, I’m not trying to say that Yamazaki-sensei is being intentionally anti-Semitic with this character. She does go there with this image of Jesus on the way to the crucifixion, but it’s not clear to me that she has any idea how loaded this story is for a Western reader.
It’s troublesome to me that Joseph/Cartaphilius is clearly the Big Bad. But, I’m waiting to see how his story ends before I pass any kind of judgment.
Thing is, even if I’m deeply uncomfortable with the Wandering Jew and the origin (and sexualized) nature of Elias/Chise’s relationship…
…there is no doubt in my mind that there are lots of wonderful parts of this story. I love the dragons. I love the mini-arc that involves a leanan sidhe and the mortal man she falls in love with. I adore how unabashedly creepy the fairy are in general, and how monstrous (and inhumanly human) Elias remains throughout. I like a lot of the side-characters, including Renfred and Alice.
So, I’m going to pose a radical thought for your consideration, gentle reader.
It’s okay to love flawed work.
A piece of fiction can have deeply problematic moments and still be beautiful and transformative. You don’t have to hate something unequivocally just because it’s not absolutely perfect.
I kinda think Chise would agree with me on this one..
In many ways, that’s what fandom does.
Because we take this stuff seriously, we think about it hard… and because we love it, we’re its strongest critics.
So, yeah, like all my friends before me, I recommend this. I have a lot of caveats and I think it’s far from perfect, but it’s a good story none-the-less.
Don’t forget that I’ve recommended a manga by Yamazaki-sensei before. She also wrote Futari no Renai Shoka / Our Romance Bookshelf, which I also found kind of troubling for the massive age gap (though I still recommended it!)