The “Memento Mori” World of The Ancient Magus’ Bride

I think that “this world is not beautiful, therefore it is” tagline from Kino’s Journey is also very fitting for this show.

In literature, many pieces unite in order to make an interesting tale. One of those pieces is the setting, which is the place, the time, and the social situation in which a story takes place. More specifically, the place is the location, the time is when the story takes place, and the social situation is the cultural environment…

For most stories, the setting is an essential characteristic. Oftentimes, changing the setting will drastically impact the story. Let’s use the novel Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl as an example. This book consists of diary entries written by a Jewish girl during the Holocaust of World War II. The diary describes how Anne and her family hid from the Nazis in order to escape the death sentence of the concentration camps. Would the story be the same if the setting was changed? What if it was written ten years earlier, or took place in the United States? The story would have been much different due to these changes in setting. – Angela Janovsky

When most people talk about Ancient Magus Bride, they generally talk about the fantasy world and how much the author pays tribute to classic tropes beyond what Tolkien or George RR Martin popularized. And I honestly can’t blame them, because even though I’m sure they exist, I’ve never really seen a fantasy story utilize its setting quite like this anime’s. When I think of dark fantasy, I tend to default to the macho kind like Conan the Barbarian or Garo: Carved Seal of Flames, or the “crushing sense of loneliness” kind that you get from Dark Souls or Made in AbyssAncient Magus Bride’s setting is more like something Hayao Miyazaki would dream up if he was in a depressive mood – a world fraught with dread, but there is wonder underneath if you look hard enough. But no matter what’s going on screen, said world is always alive. More importantly, it’s its own unique character, having its own arc that coexists with the main characters’ personal journeys.

Setting is a very important part of the storytelling process for all the reasons school and literature theses has taught us. It gives narratives individuality and grounds conflicts into something we can identify with. If a story can just take place anywhere, let alone generic highschool number Cancer, then that generally conveys the author doesn’t care much about his product, which in turn will cause the audience to feel the same way. Even with that knowledge however, a lot of people have different priorities when it comes to giving the setting a grade. Some want it to look as cool as possible. Some think the setting and story should go hand-in-hand. Some just want to explore what the setting provides without caring about plot or character. And of course, a lot of the best settings can fulfill many of these needs without sacrificing quality.

If I were to sum up what makes Ancient Magus Bride’s setting stand out in two words, it would be “memento mori”, the Latin phrase that reminds us we are mortals who will eventually die over time. The main character, Chise Hatori, is a special being known as a Sleigh Baggy who is capable of immense magical prowess at the cost of dying young due to the strain her powers put on her body. As such, she lives every moment of her life with the knowledge that she’s not long for this world, whether she be talking to another dying creature or when she’s eating breakfast whilst suffering Ainsworth’s sexual harassment. And as she finds out very quickly, she’s not the only one with a limited life span. From dragons that turn into trees upon deaths in order to keep forests alive to cats who are on their ninth and final life, Magus Bride never lets the viewer forget that regardless of whatever length the author chooses for her story, the characters who live in its world will not be around forever.

Memento mori is but two powerful words which still echo in our psyches as a spontaneous, resplendent reminder of something that may seem obvious. The concept, perhaps overtly morbid to our own sensibilities, is not necessarily bleak. It could be seen as an invitation to take advantage of the time we have on this earth (in the manner of Carpe diem) and to seek a distinction amongst all the vanities of the world. But Memento mori is also a memory of life. Because we’ll all die, we needn’t ever forget death, but for now, we’re still here… – Maria Gonzalez De Leon

All of us know that we’ll eventually die, but most of us agree that when death comes for us, we’d want to be old men or women having one final dinner with the family and possibly being cancer-free. If anything, it’s because we know our deaths are coming that we try to enjoy life to the fullest, making the most of our time so that when it comes, we can look back at the world with no regrets. It’s similar to how the majority of highschool students (aside from the really responsible ones of course) try to enjoy their relatively responsibility-free lives having their parents take care of things – especially in Japan where the working environment gives you less free time than a couple who just gave birth – because they know that they’ll have to eventually say goodbye to the fun times in a couple of years. And trust me when I say that once you’re in your mid-twenties, sixty years can feel like the 3-4 years you experienced in high school.

There are a lot of common sense rules associated with death. If it’s caused by someone else, then that person committed murder, regardless of whether the other party consented or not. Children should not die before their parents (or die at all if they’re children). Somalia and other poor countries are not places you want to live if you want to reach your thirties. Basically, there’s a time and place for everything, and that especially includes death because once you experience it, there’s no way to go back. However, it is also common sense for most people to not want to die at all, partly because what happens to bodies when they die isn’t exactly the most pleasant thing to watch (not to mention the pain you generally feel), and mostly because there’s no way to know what’ll happen to you after you die. Maybe you’ll cease to be. Maybe you’ll live life in another dimension. Maybe you’ll burn in hell. There are so many religious interpretations of the afterlife, and the sad truth is that they’re all valid because there’s no one truth to clarify things.

A lot of us learned the downsides of not dying due to growing up with novels like Tuck Everlasting and anime waifus like C.C. from Code Geass. And if that wasn’t enough, Magus Bride itself has its own “immortality sucks” character with Cartaphilius aka Joseph, who is cursed with an immortal body that constantly gives him pain and deals with it by essentially becoming a monster who experiments with body the living and the dead, which more often than not inflicts misery on others. Easy question in regards to him: would you rather die or live the dude’s life? However, when death comes for us early, depriving us of the time we can spend on enjoying Earth’s luxuries that our loved ones have, and consequently our loved ones don’t get to spend as much time with people they enjoy the company of far more than others, isn’t that just too far in the opposite direction? How else should we respond but by declaring the unfairness of it all? And when something is unfair, how many people wouldn’t do everything in their power to make it fair, ignorant of the unfairness that they may cause others in the process?

I understand their pain. Why did their mother get cancer at the young age of 45, when she had gone to great lengths to take good care of her health while other seem to indulge in many vices for years on end and live well into their 90s? Why did their brother get thrown out of the car and die when everyone else survived the crash with only cuts or broken bones? Why was their baby stillborn after an otherwise healthy full-term pregnancy, while we hear countless stories of babies born many weeks premature who survive? The fact is we consider death to be unfair whenever someone dies before we think it’s their time.

Try as you might, you cannot explain the unfairness away. No one who is bereaved wants to hear, “It was part of God’s plan; we are not meant to understand.” Well it wasn’t part of our plan, and it hurts like hell. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” is not only unhelpful, but some may argue insensitive. Chances are they werein the place they were supposed to be, going about their day like just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, the unthinkable happened. It is random; it is unpredictable; and it isn’t fair. – Maria Kubitz

But no matter the circumstances, you have to accept the death. Otherwise, the person who died will not be able to move on, and you will not be able to move on either, which tends to lead to some very unhealthy behavior. In Ancient Magus Bride’s case, those who cannot accept death pay a very steep price, and both the dead and the living generally do not get off scot-free either as a consequence. From the souls of two lovers who were trapped in a dark purgatory due to one of them committing cat genocide in an attempt to save the other that only ended up causing instant death, to the black Grim who constantly stayed by his dead master’s grave because he tricked himself into believing that she was just sleeping, this anime’s world cruelly supports the very notion that the death of one shouldn’t lead to the death of others. No matter how you interpret the end of everything, you cannot change the fundamentals to your own liking.

As for how to accept the death, it all depends on the person, but just know that there are no easy answers – or at least not an easy answer that won’t come off as insensitive. After all, we’re talking about death here: a state of being that’s generally associated with negativity and very rarely comes within deserved circumstances. And it’s not like we all have a Chise by our side who’s also suffering from a limited life span and yet has powerful friends and magic to help guide us on our way. That’s just something Magus Bride includes in its own death tales in order to make its storytelling gripping for the audience, and not something we should depend on when the going gets tough. All we can really do is what we can, whilst trying not to drag others down, and consequently ourselves, in the process.

However, despite being a cartoon that’s ultimately meant to entertain, I do believe that those who are ready to open their minds to death and can accept anime as a good medium for storytelling will find an acceptable starting point to form their own healing journey by watching Ancient Magus Bride. It is ultimately a positive show that wants its viewers to experience hope whilst not shying away from the dread and despair that said hope needs in order to feel genuine. Within every frame of animation (apart from when the show does one of its stupid “look we’re chibi. Laugh!” moments) there’s always a sense of trying to find the beauty in things, even when it’s clear that God had created a world that is far from fair for the people who live in it. Sure a lot of those beautiful moments have sinister undertones that can lead to an early death, but there’s a difference between opening your mind to something and being so naive that you fall for everything.

At its core, Magus Bride will never let up on how despairingly unfair and wicked life can be. But if that was all there is to life, then why bother living in the first place? And on a less-heavy perspective, why bother watching Ancient Magus Bride at all if the only thing you’re going to get is constant pain and suffering? The obvious answer to that would be because you want to see more of the world, but the obvious question I fire back is “why do you want to see more of this world? Why do you want to unravel its mysteries? Why not just play more Breath of the Wild instead?”. Me personally? It’s because I’m fascinated by the many different methods and interpretations of death that Ancient Magus Bride’s world contains within it, and I want to discover more and see them evolve over time so that I can understand more perspectives on the subject that will hopefully apply to real life in some crucial ways when the time comes. Maybe it’ll achieve something really enlightening at the end. Maybe it’ll grow into a morbid place where happiness is just not worth trying to experience anymore.

Just like the subject of death and “memento mori” itself, how you choose to interpret this anime all comes down to the individual. And as long as we accept that fundamentally, this is a Japanese cartoon with decent production values, a very large fanbase, and is ultimately a work of fiction where similarities to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental, your interpretation will generally be accepted. You shouldn’t expect easy answers, or even any answers from the questions that’ll form from its existence. What you should expect though is something that can aid you through life’s worries whether it be as a temporary distraction or as a baseline for something more.

2 responses to “The “Memento Mori” World of The Ancient Magus’ Bride

  1. I respect that you like this show, but personally, I find it ploddingly directed; the chibi inserts distracting and off-putting; and the whole thing just straining so hard to be SAD and FANTASTICAL as to ultimately feel as though, as an audience member, I’m being held at arm’s length, to watch developments, but never really become emotionally involved in them. Also, Chise’s stoic passivity, even though it’s been lessened a bit in recent weeks, makes it very difficult for me to give a hoot about her as a character.

    I guess I’m in the minority, as most people realy seem to find the show engaging, but it’s been just mediocre enough that I haven’t even been tempted to look at the manga to see if that’s better.

    • I watch the dubbed version of the show because the comedic scenes in Japanese were annoying me. Don’t really understand why Japan likes to exaggerate its “funny” moments so much in their cartoons. It’s kinda funny in live-action, but not so much in animation.

      And while it’s fair to say the show can overplay a bit, pretty much all drama is contrived to a degree. But you got to have it because otherwise there’d be no conflict, which tends to lead to no story, which generally means me falling asleep.

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