It’s not as if last week’s episode left any room for doubt, but we’ve definitely put the fairy-tale wistfulness of the first cour of Akagami no Shirayukihime behind us. This is now an intense, plot-driven action series – the kind where young boys get sold into slavery and dunked in the ocean to make them talk and hapless goons are beaten until they bleed internally. If you’d told me this show would end up staring into the heart of darkness as much as it has, I’d never have believed you.
The nuts and bolts of the story have certainly come into clearer focus now. The two groups who’ve kidnapped Shirayuki are the the Lions of the Mountains and the Claw of the Sea, and it’s Kazuki who ties them together – having escaped from one to join the other. It seems the Lions see themselves as something of a semi-independent refuge for anti-royalists and general malcontents, a force for lawfulness as they see it, while the Claw are unapologetically pirates and scum. I’m not so sure the moral difference between the two is as clear as Akagami would have us believe, but it undeniably exists.
The one element that doesn’t quite hold water for me is Kazuki’s reasoning for kidnapping Shirayuki. Apparently as a bishounen who was sold off to be a “doll” (you can euphemize all you want, it’s clear what that means) for his looks, he heard the story of the prince and the red-haired girl and assumed the same had happened to her. That’s a bit weak as a pretext for everything that’s happened, to be honest, but it’s built into a good story so there’s not much point in holding onto it.
The scenes with Kazuki and Shirayuki held as prisoner on Umihebi’s ship are gritty, violent and unpleasant – almost shockingly so. It’s as if the mild-mannered and sweet-natured child you know so well has started swearing like a sailor. But there’s an awful lot going on everywhere, and a dizzying web of tangled interests at play. Zen is out to rescue Shirayuki, Raj tags along to try and allay his own guilt and embarrassment, his father keeps a wary eye to make sure his kingdom’s name isn’t sullied. Mihaya joins in looking for a way to parlay all this to his advantage, and the Lions are more or less forced into an alliance with their sworn enemies to prove that they’re better than common crooks. It’s a messy situation (and that’s seeing aside the fact that both Raj and Obi are barely hiding their intent to make a play for Shirayuki themselves).
I can still sense the beating heart of Akagami no Shirayukihime under all this darkness – and I think in the end this arc is going to be a tale of the will of good people triumphing over evil. I think the Akagami universe is still fundamentally a place where decent folk come out ahead and love triumphs over all – it’s just that now we’re seeing the ugliness they have to deal with first. That means Zen is going to rescue Shirayuki and they’re going to be together against (or perhaps not) his brother’s wishes, so the truth is there’s not that much uncertainty to the outcome – but damn if things aren’t still pretty tense.
The counterattack begins with Kiki, who volunteers herself to be taken prisoner by the Sea Snake and act as a shield and ally for Shirayuki from the inside. And because all these disparate interests have something to gain by seeing Shirayuki freed, they set aside their disagreements and set about making that happen – aided by the convenient coincidence that Mihaya’s father has had dealings with the Claw of the Sea and knows their secret base. I’m looking forward to the confrontation, but also what comes after – when people like Kazuki will have to answer for what they did, and Raj and the Lions will no longer have any reason to suppress their mutual disgust…