A Critical Perspective on Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (Season 1)

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 🙂

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27 thoughts on “A Critical Perspective on Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (Season 1)

  1. I love this anime.It doesn’t have the cliché rival, though we don’t know if that one will appear later in the story, seeing that the older prince doesn’t approve of a commoner for the young prince, and maybe there’s a princess somewhere who will be brought to the prince’s kingdom , and be declared as his fiancée. Yep, I can see that happening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm yes, I think it’s a little unclear whether a rival will appear at this point. Though it is likely that one would in the form of a princess as you mentioned. However, from how the story goes so far, my guess is that it’ll most likely be resolved fairly easy given the foundation of the relationship between Shirayuki and Zen, which is what seems to be the emphasis so far.

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      • I have a feeling that even if a rival appears , Shirayuki is strong and independent- minded enough to withstand anything that comes her way. She has a career to go back to. In fact, I think she loves her career more than she loves Zen, lol. To help people is her main driving force.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, I really hope that’s true. Its a little ironic given that this is a romance series, but I really wouldn’t mind a female lead who chooses career over romance for once. But since this is shoujo romance I don’t actually think its likely that it’ll turn out that way ><

        Liked by 1 person

      • I always wish for a shoujo heroine who is strong enough to turn her back on the male protagonist’s crap and walk away. Good thing Zen is not this kind of male lead. I’m just a bit wary that he does follow and accept whatever his older brother throws his way, like , commanding Shiyaruki to go back to her hometown and attend the ball of the person who is the reason why she ran away, and caused all that trouble.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps there’s some potential story going on with Zen versus his brother. If so, it’ll be good to see how they resolve it, and maybe Zen will learn from it. Its a little hard finding shoujo heroines like that especially in shoujo, but hopefully give a few more anime seasons and some series really of that sort may pop up.

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  2. I definitely agree with you on this, there is more emphasis on her hair than some parts of her characteristics. Only part this show is appealing for me is that Zen and Shirayuki had a healthy relationship; considering examples such as Ookami Shojo to Kuro Ouji or Diabolik Lovers where emotionally torturing the other party is ‘out of love’, their relationship is most definitely refreshing. However, I find Shirayuki’s character dull and 2-dimensional (pun intended), reasons being -as you mentioned- too perfect and not thoroughly developed.

    One thing I may disagree, though, I think Shirayuki iyet another generic character, not really independent. “Normal women would flinch the moment she sees a sword, that means this one is special.”has become a trope. As in sports anime plot development; back then the team that had the first year protagonist would win the tournament with their willpower. Now, they loose their first tournament, grow strong and win the next. Second setting is more realistic than the first (because a recently shaped team cannot hog the glory against teams that stand on the court much longer), however, it doesn’t change the fact that this kind of development has become stereotypical. Thus Shinayuki leaves a ‘different yet the same’ impression on me.

    In my opinion, Yana comes out as a better female character, what da you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    • The open references to her hair imo can’t even be considered as one of her characteristics because it seems just a very artificial way of explaining why she’s ‘special’ in the context of the story. I consider Ookami and Diabolik Lovers definitely examples on the worst extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to how healthy the relationships are depicted, so ANS definitely wins on this one.

      Hmm, what I meant by independent is that her life does not revolve around one guy and she has other goals in life that she places priority on to achieve. Whereas how generic a character is depends on how different she is amongst the various other character archetypes that are often utilised. Since I don’t think ‘independence’ and ‘uniqueness’ in a character are synonymous (and I don’t think I have addressed the point of whether she’s generic or not), I’ll have to agree with you that she’s definitely not unique as a character. To me, how the story is trying hard to paint her as ‘unflinching’ and ‘courageous’ only serve to undermine how real her character is, and that’s where I really find fault with. I do admit that I also like less conventional characters too though.

      However, you are also right with the sports anime analogy in that even the so-called ‘new twists’ can also (and has become) sort of stereotypical in itself. Notwithstanding that it is still an improvement from before, once overused it loses its novelty yet again, and faster this time. Once something becomes predictable, it becomes less interesting. I am glad to we think similarly on this part, because not many get sick of that sort of trope as fast as I do xD Having said that, I try to not let this subjective preference of mine get in the way of my viewing experiences as much as possible, but it still does make some difference in how good I view a show is. Do you have the same problem?

      Of course, my subjective preferences lie with Yona as a character. It’s her transition from spoiled brat to strong-willed girl that I particularly identify with, and the fact that her mission in life is to get back her kingdom … and nothing romance-related xD Another non-generic female main would be Ange from Cross Ange, that girl is really a star from being a very lovable mean person – something that is extremely rare in a male female lead.

      Looks like I got carried away haha xD Thank you for your insightful comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • What I meant by the hair is that we hear more about her hair rather than the characteristics and it’s a bit ridiculous, so we actually agree on that point 🙂
        Thanks for elaborating the difference between “uniqueness” and “independence, now I understand you more clearly. I don’t understand how not batting an eye against a sword could be considered real, it’s you life what’s on the line xD
        I have the same problem, honestly. If I were to choose to only consume the content that passes my criteria, I’d be doomed TvT Doing a selective consuming and screaming “LALALALAA!” while covering your ears at the parts you don’t like is the best option haha. Otherwise I, too, feel like I’ve been missing some good things by completely refusing. It doesn’t hold us back criticizing the shit out of them, though hahaha!
        Hmm I didn’t watch Cross Ange, I’ll definitely check it out now that it has your approval. Please get carried awat, by the way. I enjoy reading your commentary!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I also don’t believe that she is able to stay so calm when a sword is drawn against her, unless there are special reasons (like she’s secretly a ninja?!) which we all know are not plausible in this story xD

        EXACTLY. I often have to consciously widen my subjective criteria, or I would have nothing left to read or watch xD HAHA, that’s an idea to consider, but unfortunately for me the bad things have a tendency to settle in no matter what I feel. I actually love criticising most anime, but I take care not to seem too overly emotional when writing because it will sound like a rant – which really doesn’t achieve anything. I hope to persuade if possible, not to just unleash my thoughts. 😉
        Ah, before you jump into Cross Ange in any way, let me first warn you that it’s quite a controversial series which gives off an impression that may not be palatable for some (lots of yuri, fanservice, mechas). My personal opinion though, is that the female lead (and what transpires after lots of flair and ridiculous fanservice) is somewhat worth my time investment.

        Thanks for that assurance, now I can write long comments/replies with ease 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hahaha I’m sure she’s not a ninja, either xD I think gradually have to learn and find our way of enjoying things, of course the taste is not the same with a show you thoroughly approve and enjoy. Eventually it’s not always just black and white; while there is an overall comment ( “I loved / hated it”) there may be elements in it we feel differently about. That’s what I try to do, personally, too. I agree that what moves and motivates us to write about anime are surely our feelings, however, in the end feelings are not solid arguments and there are several underlying reasons why we feel those emotions in the first place.
        I love mecha and definitely okay with yuri. Not a fan of fan service but I’ll put my “LALALA” there and give it a chance, I’m curious. 🙂
        By all means, please do. That way I can be at ease, too. In the end, I belive we will form a ” Long Comments Alliance” and try to trick other bloggers into joining us, haha!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha exactly, and that’s the whole point of a blog/writing. Because there’s so many things that can be said about an anime that it can’t be conclusively summed up, and its also why posts end up being so long because I CAN’T just make statements without trying to substantiate them as much as I can. Though, its the anime that as you put it, I thoroughly enjoy that reminds me why I am still predominantly watching anime despite the many not-up-to-par series around. Its those gems that make the effort to search for them worth it 😀 Often, I like to try to analyse why I feel what I feel about different anime, and that sometimes comes out in my writing as well.

        What?! You love mecha too?! That’s great!! There aren’t many girls who love mecha ^^ Your LALALA tactic is starting to grow on me, I am indeed curious as to whether it can pull you through the series xD

        HAHA a ‘Long Comments Alliance’ sounds like the perfect thing. We need to start influencing other people! There are way too few people around who like writing long comments or bother to reply with lengths equally as long xD

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you on it, sometimes I feel like it will not end so I kind of stop myself, try to rewrite and summarise the parts I went wild xD I think analyzing why you like/hate something helps me explore myself, too.

        Yeahh!! I have a couple of Evangelion injection kits at home! Fun to assemble and fight them later on : P

        I’m sure you’ll find may method useful, try it especially when you see bouncing oversized breasts!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha I can never stop myself like you do. I hate the editing process lol, though I know it does me much good to summarise more of what I say.
        Niceee. I don’t have model kits though xD Its the angst in mecha anime and the whole faux political commentary that I sort of fancy I think. I don’t pay a lot of attentions to the machines themselves, but I’ll at least note their names and their differences and roles in the story.
        xD okay then, i’ll try it the next time i see them!! 😀

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  3. Hm, I’ve never heard of this anime before. The image itself looked rather appetizing to me, so I’m going to place that on my ‘anime list’ to watch tonight. Nothing’s better than eating ice cream and watching a good anime…

    On a side note, I’m rather skeptical with shoujos because of the predictable tropes, but with your post it made me want to give it a try. I dislike female main characters with no characteristic besides falling for the main guy, ugh, so annoying! I’d like to some other personality traits besides falling in love easily, you know?

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is relatively new (aired in Summer 2015) so it probably hasn’t gained much traction around the online anime crowd.

      Hmm, from what you said, this may very well be for you then xD Shirayuki definitely doesn’t fall within predictable shoujo female lead tropes. Another one you can consider is Akatsuki no Yona (which I personally prefer more as a story) as Yona is a rather unique shoujo female lead. 🙂

      Tell me what you think about them if you get around to trying, and thanks for the reblog and comment 🙂 Ice cream and anime sound like a blast, I should try that sometime too xD

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh! Quite a bold statement with “saviour of the shoujo genre”. Although I agree. I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoy yummy shoujo series with weak and annoying heroines—ahem, Brothers Conflict, ahem, Diabolik Lovers—however, I must say that I crave series that have substance. I haven’t watched this anime yet, but I have read the manga. And of course, I also really like “Akatsuki no Yona”. I agree that strong heroines like these are great and empowering. Girl power, yeah! They don’t have to be physically strong, although it would be awesome if they are, but if they’re mentally and emotional strong and independent, then I’m sold. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps I should have put a question mark at the end to show that its not an absolute statement. :p
      I absolutely agree. The ‘shallower’ series provide a different sort of entertainment than the ones with substance. So it ultimately depends on one’s mood too when we are picking the anime we feel like watching.
      I really like Yona as a character because as you said, she embodies all those characteristics of a strong heroine. Thanks for your comment! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess it’s true, Shirayuki doesn’t have any real flaws. I like her independence and drive so much I didn’t even notice. After a hard day at work, I find this anime so refreshing with the beautiful scenes and all the movement. I’m waiting to see how the anime incorporates the stories of the secondary characters as portrayed in the manga. Kiki, Obi, and Mitsuhide’s stories in the manga are sometimes more interesting that Zen and Shirayuki’s interactions. I also like the anime music. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think the issue of the gap in social status between Zen and Shirayuki is completely resolved. I have a feeling Izana is behind the scenes scheming of some indirect way to break them up so it doesn’t affect his own relationship with Zen. And clearly Haruka tolerates her, barely. We’ll see how Season 2 plays out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see how easy it is to only see Shirayuki’s positive characteristics. It’s rare to see such a female lead in shoujo after all. I do agree with you that it is a rather therapeutic viewing experience though 🙂
      I really hope season 2 explores that issue of social classes at more depth! That would make the series a lot better. But as it is, at the end of season 1, it isn’t holding up very well as a whole. But yes, we’ll see 🙂
      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      Like

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