Saturday, 12 November 2016

More Happy and Bashful, than Dopey and Sleepy: A Review of 'Snow White with the Red Hair' Season 1 (2015 anime)

[Contains Spoilers for the First Season]

When Yona of the Dawn soured, Snow White with the Red Hair fell to the bottom of my queue. Shallow as I feel admitting it, Snow White suffered guilt by association, being another medieval fantasy about a red-haired heroine. Shock-horror, however, for Snow White is a competent – nay, a good show. Forgoing the epic ambitions of fantasies such as Yona, Snow White breezes along with small, but well-written, conflicts.

When the vain and lascivious Prince Raji chooses an aspiring herbalist, Shirayuki, as his concubine, she gets the hell out of that country. On her flight she runs into Zen, the second prince of the neighbouring kingdom, who cows Raji into retreat, and whisks Shirayuki to his homeland. In her new home, Shirayuki follows her dream to be herbalist, and develops her friendship with the prince. 

Snow White is a laidback show. It feels like the first act of a Disney film, before the villain’s arrived, and the peasants still conduct their daily business. There are some political machinations, but they are very much part of the status quo (e.g. a noble abuses his power, rather than a foreign army threatening invasion). An entire episode focusses on Shirayuki passing the court herbalist exam. Another focusses on a noble hunting a culturally important bird. And while the show has some adventure, it’s of the swashbuckling kind, more fun than pulse-pounding.

Unlike Disney, the show’s romantic element avoids cloyingness. The lovers, Shirayuki and Zen, remain characters outside their relationship. The writers do not reduce them to merely halves of a relationship. Partly, this owes to them not falling in love at first sight. In a lesser work, the lovers would meet, fall in love, then require the rest of the narrative to admit it to themselves and each other. In Snow White, they begin as friends, and only then grow closer; their first kiss is not the resolving of UST, but an outpouring of new love for each other.

Even as their love grows, they have lives of their own. Had neither of them met, Shirayuki would still train to become a professional herbalist, and Zen would still practise statecraft. Each may aid the other in their goals, but they very much have distinct goals, separate from their relationship. This breadth of character motivations persists even when the final ‘antagonist’ appears. The antagonist’s threat spans multiple episodes, but Shirayuki still practises herbalism.

The best written plots in the series concern non-personalised objectives and obstacles. Shirayuki trying to pass the herbalist exam, or investigating a sickness befalling a military outpost, engages the audience more than a classist noble, for example. Spare the final villain, the other antagonists are cliché affairs, mainly greedy, class-minded nobles. I will excuse the first villain, Raj, somewhat, because the show plays his vainglorious lusting after Shirayuki for laughs; the other villains are played straight.

That one good villain (or should I say antagonist) is Zen’s brother Izana, the first prince of the Kingdom. While other villains may hamper Zen’s power, only Izana nullifies Zen’s power. And Izana does not approve of Zen’s friendship with a commoner. Initially, one fears the writers will re-tread the classist aristocrat routine. But as the story continues, we see he has reason to distrust commoners, though not universally applicable reasons. Anyone who befriends a prince likely has ulterior motives, self-serving, if not actively hostile ones. It is a pity, then, his threat dissipates by the end of the series, rather than resolving.
The people have spoken, which is why we must shut them up
In general, the final episodes stumble. They are competently written and produced. In any other series they’d be decent – Hell, in this series they’d be decent if they weren’t the final episodes of the season. The pre-penultimate episode is filler dropped in the middle of Izana’s arc. It is a side-story, introducing minor characters and conflicts never before mentioned in the series. Was this the fourth episode, I’d praise it. As tenth of twelve episodes it breaks narrative momentum. I would say skip it, but the final sequence, alone, furthers the main plot.

I’ll finish with a nit-pick: ‘Snow White’? Granted, I’ve not seen the second season, but when you call your show ‘Snow White’ parallels should emerge pretty quickly. The main character is called Shirayuki (‘White Snow’), but she may as well be named Rapunzel, or Sleeping Beauty. Zen jokes he’s no dwarf, but this doesn’t make sense even in context. You might guess the name refers to seven side characters. Depending on how you count, however, there are either too many or too few. Regardless, it has no thematic relevance.
Is this a dwarf stereotype I'm unaware of?

But despite the faux-allusiory title, and a few late season fumbles, Snow White with the Red Hair is light-hearted escapism. With a subdued tone and love story at its centre, the show delights. I recommend it.    

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