1. Shoujo Fantasy adaptations
It would perhaps be hyperbolic to raise the “Where would anime be?” argument around shoujo fantasy – there’s still great stuff in other demographics and genres (especially seinen) even now, though not as much as I’d like. But boy, I sure am glad we get shows like Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii, Akatsuki no Yona and now Akagami no Shirayukihime. I’ve always favored this genre as a subject for anime adaptation, and it really has become an oasis as more and more shows look more and more alike.
One could apply the “Which of these is not like the others?” SAT question to those three shows and get an obvious answer, To be clear – I like Studio Pierrot. It’s no coincidence that in terms of overall enjoyment their batting average has been as high as any studio for me over the last couple of years – they make sound adaptation choices, and in terms of writing and direction are rock-solid. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled to see Akagami wind up with Bones, because unlike Pierrot they usually bring their A-game when it comes to production values, and their B-game is still pretty darn good. Pierrot did quite well in that respect with Sordedemo and Yona, not nearly so well with Kingdom and Baby Steps – but it seems self-apparent to me that Shirayukihime is on another level.
Speaking of A-game, one could have surmised based on the announced staff list that Bones would be bringing theirs here. No studio does sweeping and cinematic TV anime like Bones, and none of their directors better than Ando Masahiro. For music he’s teamed with Zetsuen no Tempest collaborator Oshima Michiru, and she delivers the most beautiful soundtrack of the season so far. Art Director Okazaki Erika has worked on some of the most beautiful anime of recent years – Red Data Girl, Kaminai, Fate/Zero. Character Designer/A.D. Takahashi Kumiko is a veteran of FMA, Eureka Seven and Inuyasha, among others. The list goes on and on – this is pure quality, and it shows through in every frame of the premiere.
Story-wise. Snow White with the Red Hair is a bit of an odd duck in that it starts with what could very much be a stand-alone story in the premiere – it has a setup, conflict and resolution in their entirety. It’s not, of course – there’s a whole manga behind this series, and it’s still running. We met Shirayuki (Hayami Saori) as she’s searching for medicinal herbs in the woods, and soon join her as she’s dispensing medicines in her apothecary shop in the village of her birth. Shirayuki is young and beautiful with her striking red hair (no anti-ginger bias exists in this country, it seems), and she’s well-loved by the villagers. It’s the very picture of medieval country idyll.
Intruding on this peaceful scene is Prince Raji Shenezard (Fukuyama Jun, playing it big as always). He’s a bit of a buffoon, but a handsome one – and an informant brings him information on the most beautiful girl in the kingdom on Tanbrun, with the flaming locks. He immediately dispatches his strongman
Sakaki (a nameless flunky) to bring her an ultimatum – become his concubine. Since Sakaki (no, he doesn’t appear to have six fingers) gives the girl a day to report to the castle rather than kidnap her, Shirayuki cuts off her long tresses and chooses to flee – but not before taking the time to prepare final packets of medicine for her beloved clientele. She flees through the woods to the neighboring kingdom of Clarines, where she spends a cold and hungry night outside an abandoned house.
One of the things you’ll note here is that Ando (and mangaka Akiduki Sorata) allow the cast’s actions to define their characters without heavy-handed explanation for the audience’s benefit. Shirayuki is clearly selfless and highly considerate, as witness her priorities before leaving – yet she’s also quite naive to believe she could simply flee a day’s walk away and not have the prince follow her. She’s also the sort of girl that would spend a night outside rather than enter an empty house unbidden. And in the morning, the arrival of a young man named Zen (Ohsaka Ryouta) and his companions Kiki (Nazuka Kaori) and Mitsuhide (Umehara Yuichirou) is a further display of this restrained narrative approach. Certain things are almost immediately clear – Zen is confident and chivalrous. Kiki and Mitsuhide speak casually to him, but it’s clear they’re in his service – there not just as companions, but protectors.
There’s an immediate bond and a real chemistry (plus a deliciously unmistakable moment of fairy-tale symbolism) between Zen and Shirayuki, cemented when she injures her own arm in order to prove to him that her salve isn’t poisoned (and his concern over that is a clue of his own importance). Shirayuki is immediately taken with the young man’s deceptively thoughtful manner of speaking, and when she finally admits the truth of why she’s there, he’s outraged on her behalf. Sakaki’s plot to fetch her back is ironically the catalyst for the last barriers between Zen and Shirayuki to come down, and Zen reveals himself to be none other than the Second Prince of Clarines – and more than a match both for a poisoned apple and Prince Raji.
If this story sounds a bit like a cross between Snow White (duh) and The Princess Bride, that’s no coincidence – Akagami no Shirayukihime is very much a spin on a classic European fairy tale (just as TPB was). Based on what I’ve read of the manga I would say this is definitely more in the fairy tale vein than Soredemo, and certainly Akatsuki no Yona. Some of the characters are a bit over the top (Prince Raji comes to mind) and it’s often pretty easy to see who’s good and who’s evil in any given situation.
But even if it isn’t always the subtlest series around, Akagami no Shirayukihime is irresistibly likeable – this is a feel-good story where the heroes are genuinely nice people (though more nuanced than the premiere lets on). It’s a fantasy in more ways than one, wonderfully escapist without being mere escapism. And Hayami and Ohsaka have fantastic chemistry together – it’s not easy for an actor who’s become as ubiquitous as Ohsaka to disappear into a role, but this is a more refined, mature performance than we’re used to from him. All in all this series is exactly what I expected – thoroughly charming, and arguably the best new show of the season.
OP: “Yasashii Kibou (やさしい希望)” by Saori Hayami