Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Anime Review: Snow White with the Red Hair (part one)

Stress, work, job-hunting, car shopping, and sewing are all big timesinks folks. So is reading too much manga so you can review it in the next few weeks but I feel like that one is an understandable excuse for me at least.

Snow White with the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayukihime)

Shirayuki has lived a quite life in Tanbarun all her life and currently spends her days working as a herbalist. When the prince comes calling to ask her to be his concubine however she wisely realizes that he will never let up, slices off her apple red hair, and heads for the border of neighboring Clarines. But along the way she meets someone coming from the other side, Zen and his two friends, and sparks begin to fly even as the two realize how different they are.

Technically I would rank Rokka above this show when it comes to my favorites of the summer season but it's not as if Rokka is miles above Akagami in strengths. Rokka had loftier ambitions, greater promise, and cool setting designs, which all started falling flat by the end sadly; on the other hand Akagami aimed for a much simpler story (one which yes, I do find boring since I have seen "romantic shoujo in a low fantasy setting" so many times), one where it didn't really distinguish itself from other examples I've seen, yet the story was consistent throughout. Heck, Akagami is the split-cour series so it would have been understandable if it had ended on a cliffhanger or such but nope, it was "this story started falling apart enough I doubt there's a demand for another season" Rokka which did it instead, Akagami had a really good ending or mid-point finale! Regardless of everything else, Akagami was relatively smooth and consistent which goes a long way towards making me like this series better.

But there is one thing that is holding Akagami back from being a real favorite of mine and that's how the story manages its characters. I've mentioned it before but over this past year I've started looking at lead characters as "active" or "passive" characters, depending on how the story itself lets them make choices. To compare how Akagami treats Shirayuki with how Akatasuki treats Yona (same general demographic, both current series etc) and it's really different. In Akatsuki whenever Yona has a big choice to make there is always a choice, things will go worse if she doesn't get involved but there is the knowledge (perhaps in the reader's mind but not always Yona's) that other characters will keep the country from descending into war, the strong from preying on the weak etc. So when Yona says yes, I am going to fight pirates for example, it feels like an honest choice where she has accepted the consequences that come from walking into danger.

 By comparison, Akagami allows Shirayuki far fewer freedoms. Shirayuki has made many choices on her own (such as continuing to emigrate to Clarines and applying for the job at the palace) but as the series goes on it feels like she has fewer options. When she sees the bird trial is being manipulated with of course she has to intervene, her morale code won't allow otherwise and she also knows that if she doesn't things will end badly for the downtrodden, there really is no choice here if she's going to stay in-character. Yona also has a strong moral code but, despite the fact that the challenges she faces are even greater, there's more of a "support system" in her story in a way. This passive character manipulation, where the it's less that the character chooses and more that the story moves them, applies to Zen as well actually, mostly when his brother intervenes but those are some of his biggest moments (I really dislike those scenes because the story sets it up that Zen can never better or equal his brother when he should be able to and yet the story treats his acceptance of this as a victory). It's funny that this is a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven one since, yes it's true there is no underlying plot of quest to tie these moments together, it feels as if it's the story pulling along the characters, not the characters progressing through the story.

Moving on, I was bit surprised that this half ended where it did. I didn't recognize the material for the last episode but I am told it comes from later in the series, fair enough. It is a strong ending for this half, however the arc I thought it would end on (and appears to open the second half looking at the new side characters) will do basically the same thing. I can only imagine the shuffling happened because of pacing/timing/however you want to say "not enough episodes" but it does leave me a little concerned. This arc, call it the pirate arc, is where I stopped reading since in other series that would have been the ending, Akagami instead just jumped magazines and has been running for a very long time since. It was also clear that things will never quite progress the way I want a relationship to change beyond that point, with that nagging feeling in my head it makes me rather cautious both going into the second half and at even recommending the first half, I don't want to recommend something I think might end really unsatisfyingly!

I don't think the entire series will end badly however, this has been a very strong adaptation so far, but of course there is a limit to how far you can adapt rather than change the source material. So let me talk briefly about one thing you can change a lot, the art. I still prefer the manga's character designs a teensy bit more (there are times when the anime characters just look a little vacant) and like in Akatsuki the story has forgone showing Shirayuki's hair slowly growing back and instead sticks with a length from after a little bit of time has past. The backgrounds however are incredibly lovely, like Rokka I realized that I needed to watch this show on my computer screen, not my phone, and to remember to enjoy the scenery with the soft details and pastel, but not limited, color schemes. Quite honestly this artistry is partially why I stuck with the show, it elevated the show from "a bit too dull for me" up to a simple, more enjoyable story where I knew everything that would happen and could still enjoy the view.

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