FEATURE: Why It Works: The Living World of Ancient Magus' Bride

Today we dig into the ways Ancient Magus' Bride's first episode brings its atmospheric world to life.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride’s first episode opens with thirty seconds of silence, as the show slowly establishes the atmosphere of a foggy London night. We open with a long shot of the city’s skyline before slowly focusing in, highlighting first a quiet street and then a closed door. Shots like this seem to exist outside of time; given London’s stable features, this story could be taking place any time across a span of hundreds of years. All we have to go on is the atmosphere - quiet and dark, lent warmth by the subtle glow of streetlamps and steeped in mystery.


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This show’s first episode is largely an exercise in atmosphere, offering little narrative thrust but establishing a sequence of tangible environments. If this is your introduction to this series, you’ll likely take away little more than a clear sense of place and a couple vague character relationships. Being a great fan of the original manga, I can recognize that this seems structured as a prequel - the relationship between Chise and Elias is the heart of the story, and Chise’s tale at the end takes place before the events of the manga proper. But as for now, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate how well this episode brings its world to life.


Angelica’s lab is the show’s next destination, hiding between that mysterious green door. There, we get to admire one of the strengths the anime has carried over from the manga - an emphasize on small background details, trinkets and treasures that imply unspoken adventures and give rooms a sense of lived space. All we learn about Angelica from the events of the narrative is that she’s creating a package for someone, she has a little magical familiar, and she herself can perform magic. But the small details of her workshop convey far more - elements like the sewing machine in the corner and the tiny anvil on her desk give us a clear sense of her daily activities. This sort of visual storytelling is not only more graceful and visually pleasing than direct exposition, it also invites the viewer to create their own relationship with the show - the things we focus on guide our experience of the material, and noticing offhand inclusions offers an inherent jolt of satisfaction.

 

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This episode is full of such offhand details. Magic is largely something that exists in the corners here; we see small creatures and lazy fae, all of which imply more mysteries yet to come. And when magical feats do take center stage, they are animated with fluidity and purpose. Beautiful animation is the “magic” of anime - it is often the central source of visual awe. By tethering so many of its best cuts of animation to overt magical actions, Ancient Magus’ Bride infuses its magic with the natural wonder of its medium.


But as with the opening, a great deal of this episode’s strength comes down to its evocation of atmosphere, not magic. And so as we turn away from London, our introduction to Chise works hard to place us in a sleepy rural morning, as light breaks over the hills. Chise’s morning opens with a sequence of pillow shots setting the tenor of her quiet bedroom, before she wakes and turns to the window. Our first direct shot of Chise pulls double duty, as the light swaying of her hair works to convey the gentle wind. And then we get a lovely shot of the countryside, as the predawn fog breaks with the sun, and the hillsides come alive with the morning dew.

 

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Everything about that sequence conveys the comfort and warmth of Chise’s home. Even without overt magic, the show is able to evoke the magic of the everyday. And this focus on scene-setting and lighting in particular will continue throughout the episode. Chise’s breakfast is bright and inviting, echoing the light conversation and silliness of her companions. The introduction to Elias’ study is dark and imposing, using the distance of the characters from the frame to create the sensation of an overwhelming space. And when Elias invites her to tell a story, the lighting becomes sleepy and warm, like the two of them are sitting down by the fire.


The episode’s second half is far less cheerful, and so the framing differs substantially. At first, Chise’s memories have no backgrounds at all - a trick that simultaneously emphasizes her isolation and the fact that she’s probably suppressed parts of these recollections. Following that, the sequence of her in another family’s home uses the one open window to great effect, consistently casting Chise as just outside of the light. And when Chise actually does go outside, the lighting becomes no more familiar. Compare the warm colors of the earlier scenes (in a shot that also highlights this episode's major visual failing - the impersonal geometric perfection of its background objects, likely the result of overreliance on CG layouts) to the stark, oppressive white of Chise’s adventure.


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Fortunately, Chise manages to return to warm lighting by the end of the episode, as she finds sanctuary in the beautiful library of the forest's keeper. Where this prequel will go from here is anyone’s guess, but I’m delighted to see The Ancient Magus’ Bride’s adaptation taking such care to convey the beauty and emotional poignancy of Chise’s world.

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Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now, and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.

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