This essay attempts to present a more holistic picture on the anime Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (Season 1), with its positive aspects mentioned together with its less mentioned criticisms. Mild spoilers ahead for the anime.
Saviour of the Shoujo Genre
Shoujo has long been a stagnant genre. Being a niche area of anime that have been plagued with clichés, it’s refusal to evolve in tandem with a new era of changing mindsets has long confined its viewer base to a select few. These are predominantly its target audience of teenage girls and young women, who acknowledge the presence of, but nonetheless enjoy and embrace the clichés that have become almost symbolic and predictable. However, in recent years, carbon copy reproductions of all these elements is starting to gain ire even amongst its most favoured target audience. After all, narratives that are still ultimately mired in traditional gender stereotypes, no matter whether it is highlighted for comedic effect or not, and hints of sexist undertones are increasingly jarring and out of place in today’s world where issues of gender equality are at the forefront of global concern.
Perhaps the shift in sentiment in its target viewership has stirred the anime production scene into action. With recent adaptations that lean more towards the ‘independent’ female archetype in recent years with series like the comeback of Kamisama Hajimeshita Season Two and the two-cour Akatsuki no Yona, female characters are no longer girls whose entire existence revolve around romance and affairs of the heart (or their preferred male leads). Gone are the days of overtly kind or optimistic, and housewife-y or motherly characters like Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket, or girls who have no use to them other than showing how deeply in love the stunning and all-powerful male leads are with her like Yuki Cross from Vampire Knight. This modern female archetype has finally broken through the shackles of gender stereotype and pigeon-holing, and are starting to look more real.
Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (ANS) is one such show, both exemplary of breakthroughs on both shoujo and romance narratives. While not undisputedly the first anime series in history to do so, it combines novel elements in a conventional setting to tell a feel-good romance that is no doubt pleasant to watch. Viewers long tired of traditional set-ups and plot development are pulled in by its relaxed pace reminiscent of the slice-of-life genre, and focus on constructive communication between its main couple that ultimately blossoms into a natural relationship.
Most Positive Characteristics
To start with its defining characteristics, one must first look at Shirayuki, its female protagonist. Shirayuki is presented as a smart, resourceful girl who has a clear and independent mind. She does not fall at first sight for Zen, the male protagonist, even though the camera pauses and classic eye-widenings at that point hint a fallback on shoujo’s most favoured tactics. Even so, she quickly shows that she is different from other female leads by being able to say ‘no’ to others, hold her ground, and fight her way out of a tough situation in countless instances. Examples include her attitude towards Prince Raj, the worthless prince who wanted to abduct her as his concubine, the way she escapes from the clutches of her abductors, and her ways of dealing with the numerous persons who disapprove of the social class differences between her and Zen. Even so, she deals with everything in her way with optimism, good spirit and zest. While being both knowledgeable in the areas of medicinal herbs which lands her a promising career with Clarines’ court as court herbalist, she also knows how to cook, thereby dominating both traditional feminine stereotypical characteristics and more. With such an array of capabilities and personality, it is no wonder that Shirayuki can be seen as a representative evolution of a female lead that is finally on par with the ‘perfect’ shoujo male lead.
Zen is no doubt a great complement for Shirayuki with his wit, charm and compassion. Her optimism and motivation is what first attracts him to her in the first place, but the narrative also slowly reveals how Zen has a similarly noble ambition of ruling his kingdom to serve the people’s needs. As the story proceeds past its introductory phase, the various incidents that inevitably tie Zen and Shirayuki together showcase how much the two are meant to be together, as they go from being good friends who inspire and motivate each other, to romantic partners. Herein lies ANS’s other defining characteristic – the progression of their relationship. While typical romance anime rely on dramatic elements such as the introduction of love triangles, rivals, misunderstandings, and episodes of self-doubt, there is none of that sort with ANS. Shirayuki and Zen instead spend their energies in productive activities like rescuing a castle of soldiers from sickness, or in administering tests on the usefulness as a certain species of bird as tools of communication. Any sort of relationship obstacle stems from the visit of Prince Raj, who rapidly turns into a butt of all jokes by claiming that Shirayuki is Zen’s fiancé, or the concerns of their social class differences giving rise to political implications, as exemplified by the behaviours of Marquis Haruka, and Prince Izana. The icing on the cake is still strictly reserved for traditional shoujo lovers as they are not deprived of their most favourite elements. These range from the butterflies-inducing knight-in-shining-armour rescues executed by Zen to save Shirayuki, Zen’s combination of shyness and courage when it comes to his feelings with Shirayuki, to all the blushing and sweetness that goes on both ways as Shirayuki realizes her feelings as well.
With all compliments said and done, however, ANS is still far from being able to elicit gushes, ‘awws’ and ‘ahhhs’ from the non-romantics-at-heart, despite its wonderful execution and excellent main character prototypes. I will now attempt to highlight some of the flaws that are inherent in a narrative like ANS, and why they cumulatively play a huge role in taking away a lot of enjoyment in its experience.
From the Micro to the Macro
Since much was said on the positives of the characters, it is perhaps only appropriate to start from revealing the other side of the coin, which lies in the main characters being too perfect. While Shirayuki is undoubtedly the most refreshing female lead to grace the shoujo screen in years, she ultimately comes across as being too perfect a character throughout most of the series. With a lack of backstory to complement her, how she is able to maintain her boundless optimism throughout all obstacles she faces becomes a puzzle. There is also no mention of her goals and ambitions – the audience knows that she wants to be a court herbalist in Clarines, but that is about the depth that the narrative has gone in exploring her motivations. As such, while having admirable and impressionable qualities and no questionable flaws, it remains difficult to empathise with Shirayuki as a character.
While that may be overlooked if that is ANS’s only flaw, its presence is only enlarged by the narrative’s clear intention on focusing on developing the relationship between Zen and Shirayuki. The swing of focus to a more slice-of-life pace means that there is no drama, as mentioned before. Hence it is clear that the events that transpire in the series only serve as devices to develop their relationship. However, the irony here lies in the fact that despite the emphasis on the main characters’ relationship, it only serves to emphasise the lack of realism that surrounds it. This is foremost shown by how Shirayuki and Zen have always been able to flawlessly communicate with each other, without much misunderstanding arising between the two. While overused in most other shoujo and/or romance series, drama is in contrast under-utilised here to the point of painting a perfect picture of harmony between the two. While having a relationship without ups-and-downs is not necessarily unrealistic, here, it comes across as not as believable since the two characters are portrayed from having enormously high amounts of chemistry and maturity in communication from the time they meet.
On the other hand, detractors may argue that perhaps ANS is merely a series where its enjoyment largely depends on subjective preferences of the type of romance portrayals. ANS clearly does not aim to and will not satisfy all romance genre fans. Hence the flaws spoken are inherent in the angle of its narrative, and are not actually ‘real flaws’ that are related to the quality of the story told.
However, the counterargument to that is that the lack of realism is even more so undermined by the setting that the story takes place in. It is evident that class social differences exist in Clarines’ society, and is one of the main obstacles between Shirayuki and Zen’s relationship. This is even acknowledged and emphasised by the events of Marquis Haruka and Prince Izana both expressing their displeasure at Prince Zen’s association with Shirayuki, a ‘mere commoner’. In fact, their disapproval arises from the potential political implications of the two’s union, something that is clearly important in what is undoubtedly a historical monarchical world that is split up into many countries, with traditional ways of life still deeply rooted in its social fabric and the existence of clear class discrimination and hierarchical social structure dominated by royalty. In such a context, these disapprovals are not merely manifestations of ‘backward’ prejudice against those of a lower social class that should – in this modern story – be shown to be ultimately defeated in line with today’s moral conventions and a ‘happily ever after’ ending. The real significance of these disapprovals lie in the political implications in royalty’s association with commoners could disrupt a delicate power balance that keeps the royal family in power, since part of it stems from the enforcement of this hierarchical social structure and the importance of birth-name that keeps people from rising against its rulers.
Yet, even though these are hinted at (which means they have been acknowledged to exist), they are resolved seemingly too easily, merely by both Zen and Shirayuki’s willingness to disagree with these people. In Shirayuki’s showdown with Marquis Haruka, she merely stands unafraid of his drawn sword and reiterates her position on the issue. The disapproval of Marquis Haruka is then immediately dispelled. Later, when Prince Izana comes into the picture, he similarly disapproves of Shirayuki, but this issue is also merely brushed aside when he has one or two extra talks with Shirayuki. Notwithstanding a revisit of such issues in Season 2 and beyond for both the Marquis and Prince Izana, it comes across as surprising that by merely demonstrating a power of will, these political complications – which are justifiable – are sidestepped.
As can be seen, though these real and impending conflicts are introduced, they are almost too readily chucked aside and dismissed. For such a main conflict that which is revisited two times through two characters, its underlying controversies are far from satisfactorily addressed. If intended to be so, the implication is that the message that the narrative is sending is that the one true path to love in such a rigid monarchical society is merely to say ‘no’, which raises eyebrows in this context.
The Only Way To See It: From a Fairytale Perspective
Perhaps the only way to reconcile all these loopholes of unrealism is to accept that ANS is meant only to be a modern retelling of a romance in an ultimately ‘fairytale’ setup. Even while introducing a more feminist twist on its characters and the prototype of a healthier relationship between its main characters, the status of ANS can at most aptly be described as having one foot out of the door of the boundaries of traditional romance narratives. With one foot still comfortably within the territory of a prince-and-commoner romance, ANS can be essentially summarised as a story of a very lucky girl with a very lucky love encounter, though one must note that this is likely all that ANS seeks to achieve.
While still an enjoyable story with its flaws intentionally ignored, ANS remains a welcome addition to the shoujo scene. Also, with the advent of its second season, it still remains to be seen whether the abovementioned flaws will be duly addressed in turn. However, it is perhaps not too surprising that it may very well be less enjoyed by non-romantics, non-fairytale believers, and those who want realistic tie-ins of all elements of a narrative with one another.
Personal thoughts: I didn’t enjoy ANS as much as I wished to or expected to, no doubt due to being too distracted by these flaws. The irony is that individually, they don’t amount to much, but in total, they still gained tremendous momentum that was sufficient to distract my attention. Nevertheless, ANS is still a largely enjoyable and therapeutic experience for me, and I would still be watching its second season. What do you guys think?
Additionally, I also apologise for any awkward phrasing or sentence structures. My ability to express myself in English noticeably decreases when I have been reading too much Chinese, which is mostly what I have been doing for the entire past week. (No idea why, but apparently it happens to me.)
Thank you for reading, and feel free to like or comment on anything 🙂