「The Balance Distinguishes Not Between Gold and Lead」
I think there’a a tendency to try to deconstruct episodes like this week’s Mahoutsukai no Yome more than we should – to parse the symbolism and search for hidden meanings and gush about the art and cinematography. In truth, it was just sad and beautiful – nothing else is as important as that. I always worry when met with such brilliance that anything I might do in the aftermath could only diminish the experience, not enhance it.
When I saw the first three episodes of this series in the theatre a few months back, this was certainly the one that stood out to me (all the more so on a big screen). And it didn’t disappoint the second time around, though in truth this was actually my third run-through if you include the manga and the emotional impact was more a lingering ache than a punch in the jaw. It’s certainly the best anime episode this season so far, and it would be no surprise if it still was when the season comes to and end.
As we saw at the end of last week’s episode, Chise has been taken by a dragon and rider – and that rider is Lindel, the caretaker of dragons in Iceland (their last stronghold). Even in the manga I never saw Lindel as hostile so the cliffhanger wasn’t so much whether Chise was in danger, but what new wonders we would see next. Dragons may be more “docile” now, as Elias (who Lindel calls “Thorn”) says, but they’re still ancient and powerful beasts at odds with the modern world. Like mages. they’re a dying breed – pushed to the remote corners of man’s existence, in the pockets of space that escape his attention.
After the dragon carrying Chise in its jaws unceremoniously drops her in a freezing pond and Elias (with the help of a few fire faeries) comes to her rescue, we meet some of the dragons in Lindel’s brood – three younglings who immediately take to the strange human child in their midst, and most memorably Nevin (Ootomo Ryuuzaburou). He an old Uil dragon who’s close to the end of his life – patient and wise and gentle, and seemingly at peace with what’s coming. Upon its death an Uil will become one with the land, a fertile bed from which trees and grasses may grow.
Certainly there’s nothing so groundbreaking about that notion, which would be equally at home in Judeo-Christianity or Buddhism. But it’s presented in such a beautiful and elegant manner here. I’m not even talking about visually, though the art and animation is stellar and memorable – the poetry of the moment is perfect. The old dragon is thoroughly prepared to move on, and the young girl whose memories he peers into was all too ready to end her own life before its time. He could fly once, and no longer can – she never could, and almost chose to end her life in a mockery of flight. Through a melding of his magic and hers, Nevin is able to take one final flight – and to take Chise with him, to show her the true beauty of the existence she was ready to cast aside.
Well – it speaks for itself, pretty much, a beautiful and powerful sequence that shows off both this series and anime at their very best. The living should indeed never envy the dead – but Chise admits to herself that in seeing the peaceful way Nevin’s transition came (largely thanks to her power) she feels a pang of jealousy. She has a long way to go yet to be able to embrace what Nevin tried to teach her – and Lindel admonishes Elias that by giving of her power so freely, Chise might only have three years or so to live. Nevin’s final gift to Chise is that if she returns one day, she can use of of the branches of the tree that his body gave life to as her wand – an elegiac and bittersweet benediction to their short-lived friendship, and one final admonition for her to keep moving forward.