When I first started watching The Ancient Magus’ Bride on Crunchyroll, I was struck by how it began. Here was a protagonist so far in the depths of despair that she seemingly sold herself in auction to whoever might have her, reasoning that at least someone in this world would want her, and coming to the conclusion that whatever might happen, it would be a marginally better alternative to suicide.
This setup exists in the manga as well, to the extent that some fans call it “Stockholm Syndrome: the series.” The protagonist is bought at auction by Elias the powerful mage, he takes her to his house calling her his bride, and so begins the series. I could see this critique: for the first several episodes, Elias occasionally remarks to be careful, that he owns her. Chise, the viewpoint character, seems to have no sense of self-worth and constantly demeans herself and her actions.
It was not just other women who voiced this concern: there were men too, who viewed the dynamic between Elias and Chise as abusive. It reminded them of Beauty and the Beast, they said: the captive rationalizes the abuse, and falls in love with her captor. They did not want to see it past the first couple of episodes, male and female alike.
And yet, it still seemed to me Chise had agency. She was in the depths of severe depression and was considering suicide. The animation did not show her full story right away, but we saw her contemplating suicide from a school rooftop before making the eventual choice to take buyers on their offer: in the manga, and as details of Chise’s life in the anime slowly are revealed, we saw that not only had her magical status brought her abandonment and despair up to that point, but we saw Chise making a bargain with the auctioneers. In fact, in the story, she pocketed half her selling price, which came to 2.5 million pound sterling. While yes, she was acting out of self-destruction, she retained some degree of agency in doing so. More to the point, the series asked for the viewers to at least have some empathy with Chise in this: viewers did not need to support her self-destructive decisions, but were asked to try and understand what may have led Chise to believe that it was the only option left to her.