All in all this was yet another excellent episode of Akagami no Shirayukihime, which is as singularly character-driven as any show we’ve seen for some time. I think it practically exemplifies the term, in fact, and given that I tend to prefer anime where the characters drive the plot and not vice-versa, it’s really no surprise that I’m as fond of this series as I am.
As it happens I find myself somewhat weary of the central theme of this episode – namely the rich man’s burden – though that’s not the fault of this show itself. It’s just that we see so much of it in anime that I sometimes want to point out that yes, being royalty does have serious downsides – but when the alternative is poverty, disease and an early death (as it was for most commoners in medieval times – and not just then) the burdens of a prince don’t seem so onerous. I’d like to see a few more shows about those other burdens, but I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
If you are going to make a series and an episode about why it’s not easy to be someone like Prince Zen, I think you’d be hard-pressed to do it better than Snow White with the Red Hair did it here. The young (maybe 13) Prince Zen makes the perfect protagonist for such a story, because he’s still a child and he can’t really be expected to understand how lucky he is in most respects. And we know he grows up with an intense curiosity about how people who aren’t landed royals live, and seems to have a genuine empathy for the travails of the common man. For a young boy like Zen, the events of this ep must have felt like the entire world crashing down around him.
As the episode begins we’re still in the present, and Zen is worried because tongues are wagging about the girl widely rumored to be his fiancee. This isn’t a good situation for Shirayuki and Zen knows it, so he assigns Obi to be her guard “for a while”. Obi has earned Zen’s trust, clearly, though I think he’s still very much in a probationary period with her. But she does relent and allow him to stay by her side, and he even ends up helping she and Ryuu pick the crop of Roka fruit – which is distilled for six months to become medicine, but can make you drunk with its aroma when fresh. This is an interesting sequence, especially when Obi pulls the cloth away from Shirayuki’s face without explanation – seemingly an impulsive act, and one which may betray growing feelings for her on his part.
The key moment of the episode, though, comes when Obi asks Shirayuki if she ever wished that Zen wasn’t a prince. This would be a bad question ever if there weren’t special circumstances, because accepting others as they are is very much a central component of this relationship and this story. But there are special circumstances, and when Zen overhears the question he thinks back to his childhood and the time he had an attendant forced on him by a prince. That was Izana assigning Mitsuhide to watch over him, and Zen reacts very much as you might expect – he resents the intrusion on his life, and the fact that he’s being chained to someone who only spends time with him because he’s been ordered to.
The real complicating factor here is the presence of Atri (unmistakably Paku Romi), a boy of about Zen’s age who’s come to the castle as an archer. Zen values the secret friendship he’s struck up with Atri, though both are always aware that it would never be allowed under normal circumstances. This is the burden at the center of the story – for Zen, it’s impossible to have any relationship that isn’t colored by what he is, and not who he is (the implications for his present relationship with Shirayuki are obvious). Mitsuhide suspects something is amiss with Atri, and he’s eventually proved right – the boy is the vanguard of a band of rebels loyal to one of the lords Izana scammed out of their fortune and position in the castle-building strategem. But that doesn’t make the tragic ending of the friendship any less heartbreaking for Zen – or the present more painful, as Atri’s last words were to speculate what might have happened had Zen not been a prince.
There’s a lot going on here – this is an important episode for several characters. For Obi it represents a milestone in his status with Zen, though his odd behavior with Shirayuki raises interesting questions. It makes Mitsuhide’s bond with Zen seem that much more remarkable, considering how it was forged. But most of all it speaks to the relationship between Zen and Shirayuki, as she’s really trying to forge a bond with Zen that transcends his status (and by necessity, hers) but in point of fact, that’s probably impossible. This remains the largest obstacle to the two of them becoming a couple – not only or even primarily the difference in their social standing, but accepting that difference will always be with them as long as they try to be together.