Yeah, that? Anime. Next?
I can’t imagine too many viewers weren’t gobsmacked by the first episode of Mahoutsukai no Yome: Hoshi Matsu Hito. But you know, I did warn you – if you watched or read any of the stuff I did from Anime Expo this year, you know the trailer (to be truthful, it was three minutes of pure glory more than a trailer) absolutely wowed me in a way I haven’t been wowed very often. And the full version – at least so far – is every bit the visual masterpiece I hoped it would be.
Yamazaki Kore’s Mahoutsukai is a very popular manga indeed, having sold several million volumes in Japan and made multiple appearances on the New York Times manga bestseller list in English. It’s already been nominated for a Manga Taishou award. I haven’t done much more than skim it, largely because it’s still so new and I didn’t want the frustrating experience of having to catch up with the publication quickly and have to wait on monthly releases. But I’ve loved what I’ve seen, and even before I saw those perfect three minutes of footage I was keenly looking forward to the inevitable anime.
Well, it’s here – sort of. I was surprised a series this popular should get a three episode OVA rather than a full series commitment, and an original prequel at that. But I suppose the reason is the same as mine for not having read much of it – it’s quite a young series. I’m sure a proper adaptation will follow on the heels of Hoshi Matsu Hito, but for now we must content ourselves with three episodes spread out over almost a year – and given that the 23 minutes of the first one felt like about 23 seconds, that’s a bitter pill indeed. Still, it’s one I’m more than happy to swallow, because this was a superb effort on every level.
Mahotsukai is what I want from Production I.G. (yeah I know this is technically Wit, but we all know it’s Production I.G.) and rarely get. This is the “My God – it’s full of stars!” reaction you get with Seirei no Moribito – the graceful, elegant and regal visuals and stunning music. I haven’t seen I.G. this committed to a work in a very long time (probably since Moribito in fact, and the 2007 series that followed it, Ghost Hound). Mahoutsukai is the sort of anime that puts I.G. in the conversation with studios like Bones and Madhouse when we’re talking about platinum studios, but too often they’ve delivered works that were technically impressive but somewhat sterile and lacking in ambition. Well, not so here.
I don’t have a pad full of notes as I sometimes do with episodes I love (I only have three words written down, in fact), because this episode does a fine job of setting up the story without a lot of explanation. Really, you just want to absorb yourself in the world it creates and float there. There’s modern London, there’s the estate of the titular magus, the fearsome-looking Elias (Takeuchi Ryouta). There are the forests and the bookshelves and the kitchen and the library. There are the sprites and faeries and youkai and talking dogs and the dust motes hanging like diamonds in the dappled sunlight. This is fantasy. This is magic. This is anime, as it somehow feels as if it was always intended to be.
I don’t know to what extent Yamazaki-sensei was involved in the crafting of this origin story, and how much of it comes directly from director and series composer Naganuma Norihiro. But it feels pretty seamless with the core story, that’s for certain. That story is a tale of the magus and the young girl named Chise (Tanezaki Atsumi, who was Mayu in Death Parade) who’s his disciple. They live in a land of magic, but Chise clearly comes from the land of humans – Japan, to be precise. Elias calls her his “human teacher”, and she works as his assistant. Her familiar is Ruth (Uchiyama Kouki), who switches between the form of a shaggy black dog and a shaggy black-haired boy.
The manga never really explained how things got this way, but that seems to be the plan for Hoshi Matsu Hito. And there are hints in the first episode, a backstory with echoes of Harry Potter. Chise’s mother killed herself and she was taken in by relatives, but she’s an odd child – she sees things humans aren’t supposed to see, and is terrified by them. That makes her an outcast among both her step-family and society in general, and it isn’t until she stumbles onto the cottage (a big cottage, true) of a man who calls himself the Forest Magician (Sakurai Takahiro) that Chise’s fortunes seem to take a turn for the better.
I’m certainly interested in seeing how we get from here to where we know the story is going, but truthfully Mahoutsukai no Yome for me is more about the journey than the destination. It’s just such a beautiful piece of work – so absorbing, so magical (much credit to composer Matsumoto Junichi’s music for that) and so brilliantly realized. There are elements of Ghibli here, and something of Shinkai Makoto’s realistic impressionism in the look (Art Director Takeda Yusuke is a serious A-lister, with Moribito among other works on his resume), but Mahoutsukai is very much itself. It completely enraptured me from the first frames I saw in Los Angeles, and its grip never loosened by the time (impossibly quickly) the end credits rolled. As long as anime is capable of producing works like this, there’s reason to be optimistic about its future.