Mahou Tsukai no Yome: The Ancient Magician’s Bride

Mahou Tsukai no Yome, or “The Ancient Magician’s Bride,” raises the important question: Even if you can come up with a way to justify a horrible trope, should you still write about it? I think the answer, at least as far as this manga is concerned, is no.

This manga is about a weird, inhuman creature called Elias who decides to buy a human girl in an auction in London. The girl, 16-year-old Chise, has sold herself into slavery after the abandonment of her parents and torture of her relatives because she figures at least she’ll have a roof over her head. Elias purchases her because she has a rare and exceptional magic power, and because he intends to make her his bride.

Needless to say, this is an incredibly disturbing setup, and even the braindead Anime News Network reviewer noticed (though the review’s conclusion is blackly hilarious — it’s like “A-!!! Beautiful art and story!!! But sex slavery :( “). And, needless to say, it turns out the horrible inhuman demon is both a secret woobie and a secret bishie. That’s why we’re here, though; it’s in the title. Despite the manga’s insistence that Chise is the main character and she and Elias have ~~feelings~~ to overcome, he’s the focal point and their hooking up is a forgone conclusion. After all, it’s not called “The Ancient Magician’s Apprentice.

I got through the first few chapters and it seemed like a typical Stockholm-style manga, but that Woobiedemon literally bought Chise as a slave seemed like something even the author had to confront at some point. And indeed, the ANN’s second review insists up and down that the book deals with its own setup. So I read the rest of it.

The problem is that the way the book deals with the setup is by bending over backward to make Elias not understand why what he’s doing it wrong, and by making it so Chise has no better options than to stay with him.

See, it’s unclear whether Elias actually knows what it means to marry. He’s not human — no one knows exactly what he is — and he doesn’t understand emotion. He got Chise because the magician’s guild (or whatever) was pestering him about training up a successor, and he thought it would help him understand humans better to have one in the house. When he realized she had this rare magic power, he simply had to buy her. It’s unclear where the whole “marriage” thing came in, but it’s likely he just thinks it’s What People Do. There doesn’t seem to be any sex involved, or even the idea that he knows what sex is.

The story both shows and tells this. Elias is incredibly childlike when it comes to interaction with others, and he doesn’t really seem to desire any physical closeness with Chise. He trains her in magic and brings her along on magical errands, and the bulk of the story involves their adventures in magicland. And their magicland adventures are actually really interesting and engaging, and the setting is pretty unique.

None of this changes that a dangerous creature prone to violence who doesn’t understand emotion isn’t boyfriend material.

The story does seem to understand on some level that the setup is disturbing — it has two of the larger side characters take Chise aside and try to tell her the setup is fucked. But as the title demonstrates, the romance is a foregone conclusion — Chise brushes off their concern. Can’t they see how kind he is to her? Does is matter if he treats her like a particularly smart dog if he feeds and plays with her? She’s specifically told he sees her as a “pet” and an “experiment,” but all she can do is internally waffle about how very not abusive he is to her. The story treats their concern as genuine but misguided, as if to say to the reader, “You’ve seen it. He hasn’t hurt her. In fact, he’s been pretty nice to her! So that unease you’re feeling? It’s silly.” And, as the ANN reviewer demonstrated, people are willing to fall for these false reassurances.

The problem, as always, is that the inherent power imbalance between them can’t be written out. Elias holds all of the cards. She explicitly says she’s only with him because of his kindness, and she’s terrified of him taking that away. She confesses as much to a side character, only to be told, of course, that he’s never threatened to do that so she has nothing to worry about. Elias constantly withholds important information from her like, oh, the fact that she apparently has a case of terminal magic and will die in three years. But don’t worry — he only didn’t tell her because he wants to save her and he’s sure he can. She also finds out that he used to murder and eat people, and apparently after he brought her home was having trouble resisting the urge to devour her. He didn’t, though, and now he would never, so that makes it okay! The story is constantly twisting itself in pretzels to siphon the horror out of the interactions, but it just can’t.

Chise, meanwhile, is written to be so broken that it’s actually believable she’d stay with him, and that’s the other half of the problem. She’s Stockholm syndrome personified. She explicitly says that she’ll stay with him as long as he treats her like family because no one else ever has, and she calls herself selfish for wanting answers from him about her situation. She hates herself and views herself as worthless, so the idea that she’s a human guinea pig doesn’t bother her. Nothing scares her — even Elias’ monstrous true form — because she has no fear of death and no self-preservation instinct left. She’s a fully-constructed character — the way she thinks and acts makes sense based on what we know about her — but that doesn’t change that it’s horrible. And it’s that last bit the book doesn’t seem to realize.

Because no matter how woobish Elias is and how badly Chise needs a family, she is still his slave.

The story is frustrating, because it keeps threatening to address this head-on, but I honestly don’t think it can, and I think the author knows that. The story is about 30 chapters right now, and the last 15 or 20 involve the two of them dancing around some “talk” that they’re going to have that’s somehow going to make this all fine, but the author always comes up with an excuse not to have it — a knock on the door and it’s a demon, he needs time to prepare mentally, she’s so exhausted she doesn’t feel like it, she’s injured on a mission. I’m left with the sense the author can’t figure out how to fix this, and figures that as long as she keeps promising it’s fixable and writing Chise as happy with things, eventually readers will just accept whatever explanation they end up getting. From a plotting standpoint, this is incredibly frustrating — the story keeps dodging itself for no reason and by the billionth time I was told this talk was getting put off I just felt like I was being strung along. But it’s also revealing, because I don’t think anyone involved — the author or fans — want this conversation to happen.

The last bit of my goodwill was wasted around chapter 28 or so. Chise has a friend over, and Elias starts to feel jealous of the time they’re spending together without him. But he doesn’t quite understand the feeling, which, okay, so he leaves the house. Chise goes to find him and he proceeds to trap and strangle her. She tries to reason with him, but he just keeps wrapping her up tighter. Finally, her dog-familiar saves her.

But it’s okay! He was just jealous, poor thing, and he didn’t really hurt her, so she’s not mad. It’s so hard to learn to have feelings! So hard. On him.

There’s clearly a fetishistic element to the setup here — the only reason to have the whole “slave” element, which basically never comes up after the opening, is because the author gets off on the idea of a powerful tsundere owning her. This is clear not just because the setup is shoved under the rug, but because it’s so easy to write around the more awful elements of it. I’ll do it now:

Chise is a young woman of 20 or so struggling to cope with a magic power that only becomes more unbearable by the day (think XXXholic-style). She’s discovered by the secretive magic association which tells her that the only person who has the ability to help is the mysterious, inhuman Elias… which is all well and good, because they’ve been pressuring him to take on an apprentice, and those like her with magic power are required to have a teacher. With little to lose in her life being shuffled around by relatives, she agrees to move to the English countryside to train with him.

There! Now they can go on misadventures all they want and there’s no creepy master-slave rape implications. You can call it “The Magus’ Apprentice” and then have the romance unfold in an imperfect but far less horrific way.

But this brings us back to the question I asked at the opening: do we really need another one of these stories?

The fact of the matter is that, even if you strip out the worst parts, this is yet another story about how men who are violent and struggle with emotions can become perfect husbands if you just love them enough. And in a world where 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, the message that love can change them is incredibly dangerous. Even if Elias is just making mistakes and really does mean well, most men like that aren’t and don’t.

You don’t get to sell your story in a vacuum. Even if in your case there’s a good reason for the woobie to struggle with violence and emotions, your story simply cannot exist independent of all the other instances of that trope, nor can it exist without its real-life analogues. If you don’t want to deal with the swirling vortex of awful surrounding this trope, you don’t write the trope, because a trope can only exist in aggregate, and you either join that aggregate or push away from it. There aren’t other options.

And let’s be serious, there are a billion of these goddamn stories. This is just reskinned Twilight. Even in a world where “he only hits me because he loves me” wasn’t already the status quo in real life, this setup is offensively unoriginal, and it’s honestly made worse by the fact that the actual magic part and the side characters are really interesting. You can have a fantasy setting with a romance focus, but completely sidelining your setting for banal romance is never going to be a good authorial choice.

In conclusion: this is why you always read manga online before you buy. I dodged a bullet here.

30 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    This is just reskinned Twilight.

    Honestly, though, from what I’ve read here, this seems like a Twilight that has just enough self-awareness and good sense to be unable to enjoy itself fully, which makes it a little more sad and pitiable. That’s just my impression; I may be completely wrong.

    You can have a fantasy setting with a romance focus, but completely sidelining your setting for banal romance is never going to be a good authorial choice.

    Insert F/SN joke.

    I’m kind of surprised by the lack of Wither comparisons here. Has it been too long, or are we just collectively better off forgetting Wither exists? Is Elias more of a Vaughn or a Linden?

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    1. Act says:

      RE: Wither: what I was actually thinking of when I was writing this is that it manages to be better than Wither in that it’s well-written enough that Elias’ ignorance isn’t an informed trait. Whereas in Wither Linden had to have known and understood what was going on and the only way the world made sense was that he was a manipulative asshole, I totally buy that Elias wasn’t trying to hurt Chise and he doesn’t get how creepy the whole thing is.

      That said, while that makes Elias less terrible,  I s’pose I came out feeling that the situation was exactly the same amount of awful.

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      1. illhousen says:

        Mostly, what I’m getting from this is that the motivations and personality of abusers really aren’t the problems of their victims. Like, it matters when it comes to assigning blame and punishment, but the situation itself must be first made better for the victims, woobie or no woobie.

         So, even though Elias may not be totally terrible, he’s still bad for Chise, and that’s what’s really important here, his own personality and excuses are secondary.

        On completely unrelated note, would you mind if I reviwed VA-11 Hall-A, or are you interested in doing it yourself? I’ve asked you in a email, but not sure if you’ve got it.

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        1. Roarke says:

          On completely unrelated note, would you mind if I reviwed VA-11 Hall-A

          Bwahahaha!

           

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          1. illhousen says:

            Don’t gloat, it’s not going to be totally positive, should I do it. I’ve found things to LOATHE.

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            1. Act says:

              ugh give me like a week to play it before I subconsciously steal your opinions

              I’ve played nothing but ARK for like two weeks.

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            2. Roarke says:

              Oh, I know you did. I ain’t 100% on that game myself. Not gonna stop gloating.

              Bwahahaha!

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            3. illhousen says:

              OK, Act. Sorry for pestering you.

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            4. Act says:

              No te preocupes ^^;

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    2. illhousen says:

      Insert F/SN joke.

      Good thing Elias doesn’t have Command Seals, eh?

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      1. Roarke says:

        Command Spells wouldn’t make a difference. The problem in the story is that the power balance is already completely in his favor, just as the premise of the story.

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        1. illhousen says:

          True, but the only other joke I have involves dickworms.

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          1. Roarke says:

            Hey, at least no one was raped for 10 years to justify a romance! /progress

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            1. illhousen says:

              Yeah, it only took lifetime of abuse this time around.

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  2. Roarke says:

    Does is matter if he treats her like a particularly smart dog if he feeds and plays with her?

    I try not to look out for typos too much, but this sentence feels incredibly wonky.

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    1. Act says:

      A) You should look out for typos, as I’m a terrible self-editor

      B) It is and I went back to rewrite it a few times and kind of went “eh, fuck it” each time because it’s not all that important and I’m lazy.

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      1. Roarke says:

        Sometimes the brain just refuses to make a smart. I understand.

        edit: re: A) I’m always on the lookout for typos, I just don’t comment unless they’re particularly weird.

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  3. the only reason to have the whole “slave” element, which basically never comes up after the opening, is because the author gets off on the idea of a powerful tsundere owning her.

    It’s possible to discuss fucked-up romance tropes – including weird fetishy stuff being passed off as general-interest romance – without using “this woman has a weird fetish” as an insult.

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    1. Act says:

      Not sure where you’re getting “insult” from, unless you consider declaritive statements to be insults. People write fetishfic for their own benefit all the time; any value judgement you get from that fact is on you.

       edit: Unless this is a passive-agressive way of saying you don’t think this is fetish-driven, which I just realized is the only way your comment makes sense. Which, I mean, the story had all the earmarks of that — it seemed pretty clear to me. Doesn’t really change that it’s a bad plot and it should feel bad. Twilight wasn’t any less reprehenisble just because Meyer got off on it.

       

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  4. Farla says:

    It’s interesting how it ossolates between going out of its way to insert the fucked up elements and then going out of its way to say that haha no it’s okay nothing bad happening here!

    I’m guessing that the core element is about being the one exception. There have to be a whole pile of problems, from power imbalance to straight up killing and eating people, because the fact she’s safe with someone so horrible who has absolutely nothing stopping him from murdering her shows how true their love is. That’s why there can’t be that conversation – any movement toward stabilizing this so that she’s no longer solely at his mercy would remove this. And that’s why it’s okay if he hurts her – being the exception is more important then being treated well, so as long as it’s because he’s never felt this way about anybody else, it’s a positive thing. It doesn’t really matter if he’s not hurting her out of love or is hurting her out of love so long as it’s because of how much he loves her.

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    1. Act says:

      The strangling scene in particular was bizarre to me because it was so above and beyond anything that had happened. The eating people thing was presented as Tragic Backstory, and Chise even finds it out from another charcater, so we’re several steps removed from it and as of the last scanlation, they haven’t said anything about it to each other yet. It’s the Edward Cullen thing, where his resisting the urge for her is what makes their relationship so grand.

      The strangling was very sudden and much more violent than anything we’d seen before. I think you’re right in that it was very much a “I only hit you because I love you so much” thing, but the sudden escalation not producing any escalation of reaction in conjunction with previous bending over backward to temper the horror was incredibly odd to me.

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      1. Roarke says:

        The only time I’ve seen this kind of thing – romantic partners holding back violent urges towards each other – work well was in Tsukihime, with Shiki and Arcueid. I guess it helped that both of them were holding back, and so there was a more or less equal power balance. Also, it was treated as unhealthy and recognized as a problem by both parties, to the point where Arcueid leaves in the True End because she doesn’t trust herself not to hurt him (and his narration reinforces her point when he considers killing her to keep her around, which, wtf Shiki no).

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      2. Farla says:

        From osmosis, the jealous rage leading to assault sounds like the free space in romance manga bingo. I don’t read them much myself but it feels like every review of romance manga has “also btw in CHXX heroine threatened/assaulted/raped by love interest b/c jealousy” somewhere in the middle. And it’s almost always one specific chapter where this happens, like it’s a beloved trope that everyone writing feels obligated to include.

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  5. Nerem says:
    It’s weird that I’ve seen a similar version of this trope in Web Novels and it not be nearly as creepy because they don’t go for romance with it. I don’t remember the title now, but the main one basically involved the protagonist being someone who ended up in a video-game style dungeon forced to fight monsters for a decade and came out socially unaware but hideously powerful, and gets convinced to purchase a pair of sisters as slaves through a combination of unscrupulous merchant and pity for them.

    She basically treats them as her little sisters and doesn’t desire anything more.

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  6. CrazyEd says:

    So, did anyone catch the anime version of this? It seems pretty faithful to the manga, for everything that implies.

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    1. Roarke says:

      I actually pointedly ignored it, despite my Crunchyroll premium membership, because of its negative review on this blog.

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      1. CrazyEd says:

        I dropped the manga long before I found this site, but I pretty much agree with the review. I didn’t really think about it specifically in terms of feminism, or being the same sort of kink-motivated story as Twilight, at the time, but having read this, I definitely see that angle of it.

        I forget how far I actually got into it, but I definitely remember chapters and chapters of Elias and Chise putting off The Talk That Will Make All This Unproblematic, and dropping it in no small part because it never happened.

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        1. Roarke says:

          Yeah, there’s a frustration to be found in any story that puts off its own main conflict. Serial works have a hard time with that.

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          1. Farla says:

            I think the key element is that the main conflict should be the passive vehicle for the rest of the story to take place in, rather than the driving force to keep reading. Ideally people shouldn’t even want the conflict to end because it’d mean the story ends.

            Once you’re having chapters that are “will conflict finally be resolved?!?!?…find out next chapter!!!!” the rest of the story has been used up and it’s just stringing the reader along for no reason.

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            1. CrazyEd says:

              That’s a good way of summing it up. I once had an argument with somewhere where I tried to explain to them that Hunter x Hunter was never really about Gon’s attempts to find his father, as evidenced by the fact that Gon met his father like 100 chapters ago and the manga’s still going. That was the call to adventure, but it wasn’t the main story.

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