I’ve been making a greater effort to reconnect with my weeb roots lately, and it occurs to me that anime is one medium that seems to be doing a good job of retaining its quality – if not getting better.
This has less to do with the intrinsic qualities of anime than it does with economics, I think. Movies and video games, for instance, have an ever-increasing amount of money riding on them, and so you see increasingly safe bets being made, with a lot of the same properties being rehashed and a greater push towards homogenization in general. There’s greater quality control, but much less of a chance of discovering something new that just takes you completely off guard.
Though there are also some cultural factors at work here. Western TV doesn’t have this sort of pressure, and has indeed become the prestige medium as a result. But due to various reasons we’ve come to equate nihilism with prestigiousness and intellectualism, and so you have a different kind of sameiness here in its near constant reinforcement of a rather narrow and mean worldview (with exceptions; even though I think it’s a tad overrated, I still view Stranger Things as important for showing just how hungry people are for a TV show that provides unpretentious fun and likable characters).
Now, anime is dirt cheap relative to a lot of western productions, and in spite of its increased worldwide presence and the effect of Studio Ghibli, still largely exists in its own subculture. So you find a lot of different kinds of shows and a lot of fresh IP s – it isn’t all the Dragon Ball Expanded Universe, or whathaveyou. There’s a lot of crap as well, and sameiness in terms of genre beats and recycled tropes, but there’s a level of variety here that seems to have vanished from a lot of mainstream pop culture. There’s more of the “hey, that looks neat, maybe I’ll give it a try” discovery, and less of the “I know I’ll be mildly entertained/bored by the new Marvel movie, so I’ll just wait until it’s on Netflix”fatalism.
The way in which anime has improved is largely extrinsic: I remember the bad old days when it was a rare and expensive import, and whatever was on the TV was often heavily bowlderized. Nowadays it’s relatively easy to see legally in the west, and with greater variety and lower price tags.
It’s not so much that anime is better as much as it is that everything else has gotten worse.
But I started this post intending to gush about The Ancient Magus’ Bride, not to piss and moan about everything else. I’m only four episodes in, which isn’t enough to have too much of a critical opinion of, but so far it has me by the throat.
It takes place in a slightly cooky fantasy version of our own world where magic, faeries, dragons, talking animals and the like are very present, if somewhat hidden. Our heroine is Chise, a teenaged girl with unique perceptive abilities with regard to the supernatural, and who has apparently had such a tormented existence that we find her selling herself into slavery and being bid upon in some bizarre underground auction.
She gets purchased by Elias, the Ancient Magus of the title, who is also rather ambiguously human, having a horse’s skull for a head and generally looking a bit like that mythical Welsh creature whose name currently escapes me. He takes her to England for the purpose of grooming her to be his apprentice and, uh, bride.
So right off the bat we have a creepier version of the Beauty and the Beast tale, albeit one which doesn’t have romance much on its mind so far (Elias doesn’t seem to be thinking of having a bride in the typical sense of the word). But the central dynamic between the two leads works so well, in part because it doesn’t romanticize or gloss over the power dynamic at work (Chise has a lot to rightfully be fearful and suspicious of here), and because it’s played out in a relatively low-key fashion. It’s also a good exploration of the master-apprentice relationship, about the various negotiations involved in leading, and being led, on the path to a vocation. That this is bound up in Chise’s attempt to regain her self-worth adds the existential stakes.
The other half of the equation is in the worldbuilding, which feels closer to Lord Dunsany than to Harry Potter, with an ambiguous setting that has both charm and menace. Things here can be both beautiful and terrifying, and information is doled out at just enough of a pace to be suggestive and elliptical rather than confusing. We see something of the Church (of England?), but not enough to get a good read on how Christianity and religion in general functions here.
That’s just the first four episodes – great episodes, though; if it keeps this up, it could become a favourite of mine.