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.