「Better to Ask the Way Than Go Astray」
Mahoutsukai no Yome continues to be the relentless powerhouse anime of the Fall season, a technically astounding and narratively powerful adaptation that manages to make what’s beautiful about the manga even more beautiful. This episode was not quite the magnum opus last week’s was (nor did it try to be), but it didn’t come remotely close to putting a foot wrong. There’s a lot of confidence on display here – in the story and the staff’s ability to tell it, and in the audience to buy in without having exposition forced down their throats.
Someone noted a slight similarity with this show to Natsume Yuujinchou in the comments last week, and I an definitely see that. I myself have referenced Mushishi on more than one occasion, and it strikes me that in a funny sort of why, Mahoutsukai is a hybrid of the two – Natsume resembles the song it’s singing, but it’s doing so in Mushishi’s voice. Mind you, this series is very much its own animal – but there are unmistakable echoes of Natsume Takeshi’s story in Chise’s (all the more so in the prequel OVAs). Tonally it’s cooler than Natsume for certain, and darker too – but warmer than Mushishi.
I think the narrative structure of The Ancient Magus’ Bride carries elements of both Mushishi and Natsume Yuujinchou as well, in the latter case in that it often alternates between more conventionally plotted conflict-resolution story arcs, and contemplative and melancholy ones. And I find myself responding in much the same way in terms of which mode I prefer. I love Mahoutsukai best when it muses on the emotional turbulence where the world of magic intersects with the mundane, and on the struggle of its protagonist to find their place in a world in which they feel an outsider.
Of course, in contrast to Natsume, this series has two characters whose struggle to find a place in the world is central to the story. As Elias dawdles at home, lacking the will do much of anything in Chise’s absence, she dreams of him as she nears the finish line with her wand. Lindel puts the finishing touches on it, using one of his song-spells to affix her red hair to the handle and inset two beautiful blue stones into the head (which Chise has carved into the shape of a bird). This is a gorgeous scene, and it’s a gorgeous wand – imbued with Chise’s not inconsiderable power, though she doesn’t realize to what extent.
That’s not all the wand is imbued with, of course – it’s also a little piece of Nevin’s beautiful, peaceful soul, and a bridge that connects he and Chise across the divide of death. When the wand is finished Chise unwittingly uses its power to take her to Nevin in the place where the paths of the living meet those of the departed, and he proceeds to be what she most needs – someone to whom she feels safe baring her fears. Chise is young and thus would be impatient and unsure in her judgment to begin with, but she’s also covered with scar tissue from the many wounds life has given her. Nevin is the embodiment of patience and empathy, the perfect audience to whom Chise can open up and be honest for once in her life.
It’s gutting to hear Chise say she feels “greedy” for daring to allow herself to connect with Elias, because this is something I’ve seen myself in abandoned children – there’s often a strong sense that they don’t deserve to be loved unconditionally, and a guilt for wanting to be. Of course Nevin offers the simple wisdom that Elias has given her no reason to feel afraid that he’ll break their connection, but his most sage words cut much deeper – he tells Chise that she must be selfish and say what she wants more often, and he reminds her that by devaluing her own life, she devalues the lives of those whom she’s impacted already (including his own). It’s hard for Chise to have Nevin defend her mother on the grounds that she was in a sense selfless by choosing to take her own life when she’d given up, rather than Chise’s, but it’s part of a larger message – her life is a gift, for those she’s able to help but most importantly, for herself.
It’s often the way of Mahoutsukai’s contemplative episodes to offer 20 minutes of melancholy reflection, intercut with one or two jaw-dropping set pieces (often set to vocal music), and so it is here, not just with Lindel’s song but Chise’s journey on wings of flame back to Elias – and home. It’s a stunning sequence, and a fittingly grand way for Chise to re-enter Elias’ life – and for Mahoutsukai no Yome to give us a feeling of closure as its first cour comes to an end.