Here’s a question: in fiction is it enough to create nice, likeable people that make you want to spend time with them, or do you need to do more? I suspect different people would give you different answers. I’m not sure Akagami no Shirayukihime is asking that question, because it’s offering a lot more than just nice characters. But there’s no question that one of its biggest selling points is just how winning the cast is, and how inviting the world-building.
This is one of those shows that just keeps making words (like “laid back”) pop into my head, and this week it’s “gentle”. There’s a gentleness to this show that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. We have conflict to be sure, but this story is not conflict-driven. With nothing are we beaten over the head – things just unfold in a wistful way, and we’re gently swept along as we watch. What a nice feeling that is, and even when the painful moments happen they’re more a gentle tug than a punch to the gut.
This week’s major addition is Ryuu (Sanpei Yuuko), the little court herbalist we briefly saw in Episode 2. If you’re not going to get an actual boy to play a boy you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Sanpei, who’s a pro’s pro at it, and she’s great here. But Ryuu is a great addition because of how he’s written (and drawn): he’s cute without being mannered about it. He’s preternaturally self-aware for a child (I believe he’s supposed to be 12), but that allows him to see how his ability makes adults (and we can assume other children as well) uncomfortable, and he has an awkwardness (he hides behind a book to avoid eye contact) and vulnerability that’s instantly pretty heartbreaking. For a kid character, it’s hard to imagine a much better introduction.
Shirayuki is, of course, trying to become an apprentice court herbalist herself, and this week finds her taking the exam. I love anything to do with this subject in Akagami, because I’m nuts for the art style and the depiction of the gloriously colorful herb gardens is the perfect canvas for the series to offer up Impressionist masterpieces (which are perfectly complimented by the music). The Chief Herbalist is Garak (Kaida Yuuko), and she’s keenly aware of how Shirayuki’s connection to Zen could allow her to bypass the examination process altogether if she desired. But Zen is just as keenly aware that Shirayuki would never allow that. The question is really whether Shirayuki is naive enough to believe that in the end, that connection can actually have no impact – clearly it does, though just as clearly Shirayuki earns her way into the position.
Shirayuki and Ryuu have a brief meeting in the garden before the exam, where she picks up a nugget of useful information about harvesting herbs at the right time of day to ensure maximum efficacy before he becomes a bit overwhelmed by her presence and flees. It’s Ryuu who’s devised the unspoken part of the exam, having planted a “Yura Shigure” flower incorrectly, causing it to leach toxins into the irrigation water supplying the surrounding herbs. The idea is for the candidates to spot it and make note of it, but Shirayuki does this one better – she actually replants the Yura properly and all the surrounding plants too, and drafts Zen (who’s come to surreptitiously spy on her) into helping.
Not surprisingly, this is enough to get Shirayuki through her exam, and it seems likely Ryuu has asked for her to be his apprentice. The interaction between these two is really wonderful, even something as simple as names – Ryuu is uncomfortable with honorifics given his age, but for him actually calling Shirayuki by her name is a huge mountain to climb. She defends his honor when a patient derides him as a scary boy obsessed with plant poisons, an act which clearly means a lot to Ryuu despite his denials. Unable to comprehend this strange new force in his life, Ryuu is offered some advice by Zen – approach her directly. But for Ryuu, that’s easier said than done.
The other highlight of the episode is the sequence beginning when Garak shows Shirayuki Zen’s medical records. In a way, we can see this as her getting to know him – and when she reaches the section describing his efforts beginning at age thirteen to develop an immunity to poison, she’s brought to tears by reading about his suffering. Witnessing this and not understanding the reason, Ryuu rushes to find Zen – clearly he’s not used to running, but Ryuu knows that he doesn’t want to see this girl cry. Zen goes to her, understands immediately what’s happened, and takes her into his arms.
There’s little dialogue here, but little is needed – the moment speaks for itself. And in the aftermath, Shirayuki’s first thought is for Ryuu, who was worried for her – she rushes to his side to thank him and make sure he’s OK. It’s here that she asks him to call her by her name, and he reveals that the bright red Yura Shigure is his favorite flower. All of these little moments are quietly beautiful – they’re practically overflowing with the nectar of human compassion. It’s so elegant and simple – these three kind people, so powerfully moved by empathy and concern for each other. Much is unspoken – Zen’s growing love for Shirayuki, Ryuu’s blooming adoration for her – but that’s just the way this series seems to operate. And with moments as superb as this, I certainly wouldn’t want it to change in the slightest.