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Why I don’t care about the romance in Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (but I do care about the shipping)

FLt1hvMZen and Shirayuki’s relationship is supposed to be the heart and soul of Akagami no Shirayuki-hime, but for some reason their interactions have always left me slightly cold. It’s a strange conundrum, because Akagami no Shirayuki-hime is everything I told myself I wanted out of a shojo romance: a story where the main characters actually communicate and are not douchebags/morons.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the manga is how Sorata Akizuki goes out of her way to infuse those old fairytale tropes with a modern, egalitarian spirit. Zen might be a dashing prince who falls for a commoner, but instead of eloping with Shirayuki or turning her into a princess, the story is all about Shirayuki rising to Zen’s level of esteem through her hard work and merit.

On closer inspection, the egalitarian message clashes with the story’s setting. Monarchism and egalitarianism don’t mix well, after all. But of course, Akagami no Shirayuki-hime is not really making a point about social equality. It is simply trying to sell a fantasy about a kind prince from a utopian kingdom to a modern audience, for whom gender equality has become a romantic ideal.

This is the main reason why I don’t find the romance in Akagami no Shirayuki-hime interesting. It is the kind of story that sets out to reaffirm what the audience believes about romance instead of challenging our preconceptions. This is not to say that I think Akagami no Shirayuki-hime is a bad series, because it is exceptionally well-crafted comfort food. But it does mean that I enjoy it primarily for the relaxing atmosphere instead of its romantic moments. Every time Zen and Shirayuki display their enormous trust in each other, I think, “This would be great for a couple in real life, but as fiction it’s boring.”

snow-white-with-the-red-hair-episode-5Well, to be honest, I’ve always preferred the more dysfunctional relationships in fiction.

I’m reminded of the famous opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It’s not that I have such a cynical view of relationships that I believe it’s unrealistic to portray a happy couple in love, but I do think that one of the key strengths of fiction is that it can invite you to empathise with circumstances that don’t match your own experiences or ideals. Perhaps this is why I am so drawn to taboos such as incest, polyamory and adultery. In some cases, I actually prefer the exploitative stuff because it makes me ponder and reflect on real-life inequalities.

(Yes, there’s a reason why I find harem anime so fascinating…)

This may explain the appeal of ship teasing. It’s a way of exploring unconventional or outright taboo relationships without having to deal with their implications. One could argue rightly that a writer should just explore unconventional relationships head on instead of resorting to baiting, but from a reader’s perspective, it can be effective. If a writer insists that the ideal romance must be monogamous, egalitarian and heterosexual, at least they offer an opportunity for the reader to imagine something alternative.

Fortunately for me at least, Sorata Akizuki appears to have mastered the art of ship baiting, and so all the ship baiting scenes in Akagami no Shirayuki-hime are considerably more entertaining than the romance itself.

Warning: Some slight manga spoilers below.

I’ve joked that I would like to see Obi “NTR” Zen, but in truth it would make zero sense in the context of the story and would in fact make it noticeably worse. Part of the reason Obi is such a likable character is because the audience is assured that he would never do such a crappy thing. His devotion to Zen prevents him from acting on all of his desires. This doesn’t kill the Obi x Shirayuki ship; it just means that Obi x Zen is also fair game. Or how about a threesome? Zen approves and even orders Obi to stay by Shirayuki’s side!

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If that wasn’t enough, the manga also has a fun moment where Shirayuki openly admits to perving on Mitsuhide’s abs.

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…Or how about the time she blushed when she saw Kiki naked?

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And don’t even mention all the Raj x Shirayuki shipping in season 2 of the anime.

Akagami-20-39

None of these moments are dwelt upon in the narrative, therefore the monogamous romance between Zen and Shirayuki is never seriously challenged. But these moments remind me that Zen and Shirayuki’s lives don’t revolve around each other. They have unique relationships with other people that are no less important to them as individuals.

These moments also serve another very important function as far as the narrative’s themes are concerned. They show that Akagami no Shirayuki-hime is not just a story about romantic love, but of love in many of its forms. And you can’t always slap an easy label that describes the way you love somebody. Is it romantic? Is it platonic? Well, sometimes you can’t draw the line and that’s fine.

In most other romances, a boring lead couple would have killed the entire story, but Akagami no Shirayuki-hime remains interesting throughout. Had it placed Zen and Shirayuki’s relationship on a pedestal while downplaying the importance of the people around them, I would have gotten fed up with it. As it is, it’s a great manga for shipping.

Having said that, I do agree with some of the major criticisms against this series, particularly this:

I’m always down to have a female character defying shoujo stereotypes and have her doing something that actually requires her to have a brain. You see flashes of Shirayuki’s intellect at various points throughout the show, but any time she does something even remotely clever it’s so heavily valorized that she loses all her credit.

While I avoided discussing Shirayuki’s characterisation in this post, it probably does partially explain why I found the main romance boring. It should be noted, however, that this issue is not unique to Shirayuki. As I’ve noted before, all the characters are too rosy and perfect to be truly interesting. Yes, even Obi.

So in the end, Akagami no Shirayuki-hime sells an idealised romance that I don’t find inherently appealing. Despite this, I find it to be a very charming and pleasant experience. Give it a try if you haven’t already. I hope that it will prove to be your cup of tea.

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Posted on March 25, 2016, in Anime Analysis, Pairings and Shipping and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Reminds me of one of the last lines in Tatami Galaxy, “There’s nothing as boring to tell as a tale of successful love” (or something like that)

  2. I’m going to say a bunch of things, some of which contradict one another. So just take each point on its own.

    First, and obviously contradicting everything else I say later, but Akagami isn’t a shoujo. It’s a shounen. Ok, that’s not really true, but it’s a shoujo reimagining of a shounen. Episode 23 of the anime, where Shirayuki looks back on all the friends she made along the way really sells it. Or during the tepid kidnapping arc, when Shirayuki’s adventure and helping the bird tamers is what ended up saving her, with the bird who could tell where she is.

    Yes, it’s very fairy-tale, of the third son who saved an ant, so later the ant told him how to bypass the angry dragon. But you get my meaning, it’s a story about friendship. This is indeed why the show isn’t really about Shirayuki and Zen’s relationship, as much as it is about all the friendships and encounters Shirayuki has. And to some degree, it also treats Zen and everyone else as a minor protagonist in this regard, that we get asides for their stories and experiences and encounters. But that sort of meandering storytelling is a thing in manga.

    Second, as an explanation of why you don’t care for the show as much as you thought it would, or potentially could’ve, because it’s a comfort food rather than a brave and experimental show, that’s all true. But I’m surprised you think that way, mostly because it was pretty clear from very early on that this is a comfort-food style of show. Power fantasies, or any fantasies about capabilities, usually are. And yes, this includes shounen power fantasies, and also shounen romance fantasies.

    Which brings me to my next and most notable point. The shoujo romances with imbalanced relationships and creepy love interests, the shounen harems, the potential incests… these are now the norm for anime. If anything, it is Akagami, by giving us the “socially accepted and classic” relationship that is doing the brave thing, in its genre.

    More than that though, while the first show with incest overtones you watch might be, “Ooooh, transgressive!” that show, like all harem RomComs, are comfort food. You speak of “excitement” and room for conflict, but all these shows go by well-trodden paths. They’re just as much comfort food as this show. Shoujo romances with the creepy and pained male love interest, and the unpopular female protagonist? We’ve had so many of this show in the past decade, that there’s nothing more surprising or “conflictual” within them than in Akagami, from a more media-informed level.

    Romance stories in anime are almost all comfort food. Akagami is too. It’s just open about it. Refreshingly open. It’s time for anime to grow up past being a teenager, to stop moping about, and engage in an actual relationship. And this is the path Akagami charts. With too feel-good moments for the romance to be the true main dish, and with just as many naive dreams, that make it seem even more adolescent than the teenager with baggy eyes it’s replacing, but hey, once we wipe the make-up away, sometimes we do revert back to an earlier stage.

    • Your first paragraph about shonen/shojo stuff confused me, but everything else you said made a lot of sense to me.

      This is indeed why the show isn’t really about Shirayuki and Zen’s relationship, as much as it is about all the friendships and encounters Shirayuki has.

      I think that the series takes a whole lot of time working out what it’s trying to be, but by the second half of season 2 a clear goal emerges. Zen wants to be a responsible prince and marry Shirayuki, and in order to have the best of both worlds, Shirayuki must rise to his level. So while an integral part of the show is indeed about all the friendships and encounters Shirayuki has, these are all experiences that will eventually make her a worthy partner for Zen. Very fairytale stuff indeed.

      If anything, it is Akagami, by giving us the “socially accepted and classic” relationship that is doing the brave thing, in its genre.

      You’re not the only one to say. And I think that was why I was initially very excited about the show, because it is doing something different from the vast majority of anime. It took me a good show like this to make me realise that on a fundamental level it’s just not what I’m looking for in an anime.

      Your point that all these shows with “transgressive” elements are really just comfort food ties into what I said about how ship baiting. Very few anime offer serious explorations of such relationships – it’s mostly just relegated to subtext or teasing. As you’ve said yourself elsewhere, harem anime is never about true polyamory – they generally support a monogamous relationship and then bait the viewer with a bunch of other ships that will never happen.

      I’m also reminded of something Thomas Lamarre once said about otaku culture. About how the discourse around the subject portrays it as “perverse” when it’s really not perverse at all; it just portrays very old ideas about sex and gender in a “perverse” way. You’re not rebelling against the patriarchy by having a 2D waifu, in other words.

      In light of this, your point about anime only being transgressive to people who don’t watch much anime can be flipped on its head. You could also say that the reason why some people get so deep into the medium in the first place is because on some level they are drawn to what they see as transgressive or perverse. Even if after many repetitions it simply becomes comfort food, it remains a relatively “safe” way to explore taboos. There are few genuine transgressions to be found here, but the appeal is understandable.

      • My point about how the show is actually a shounen was a joke, about how the core of the show is about someone who just bumbles around, and makes everyone their friends, and transforms all their lives! Aside from Shirayuki not being a dolt, and the friends being made not necessarily by fighting, the plot could’ve been any long-running shounen.

        The point about harems (referring to my own post!) is actually my response to you about the show taking most of 2 seasons to figure out what it wants to be. That’s just not true.

        The show *very early* figured out this message. I think it’s said plainly as early as episode 3 or 4 of the first cour. Shirayuki knew she wanted to be with Zen, and knew she had to “earn” the right to stand by his side. Likewise with Zen mostly figuring (but true to anime fashion, not verbalizing it) that he wants to be with Shirayuki (they kiss in episode 10).

        What follows is perfectly epitomized by the kidnapping arc, it’s exactly the same thing as the harem, or what all the endless side-stories in Fruits Basket (as much as I love them all) amount to. And the latest episode (23) was also another example of this. It’s the show sending the characters on adventures so it wouldn’t actually have to go through with what it promised, with what its characters have said they want. Because then the story would end.

        It does get a bit of a leniency from me over such nonsense harem stories, because well, Shirayuki said she will earn her place, and earning her place, proving herself, both to those around Zen, and as a herbalist who has her own spot in the castle regardless of Zen, takes time. But all of it was the show knowing from the get-go what its focus was, and exactly because it had known, and knew it’d end the show, it went on endless sidetracks.

  3. Good post! I wouldn’t say I find the romance boring – one of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I like watching it for the HNNNGH moments between Zen and Shirayuki – but you’re right in that it’s an idealized relationship and thus not that interesting. But even though it’s idealized, I like how it found a balance between having a main couple but also not forgetting about the people who support them. The cast relationships are very well-established and are something I don’t get bored watching every week. It may be comfort food, but it’s good at being comfort food.

  4. Like you, I find this anime should be something I like: great animation, characters who are not assholes, fantasy setting, strong female lead. Yet it is SO BORING. Compare to other relaxing show I like: It doesn’t have the magical qualities of Aria, the excitement of Ponyo, the character growth of Bakaramon, the beauty of Hyouka, the cuteness of Non non biyori… It is so mediocre. There isn’t any big problem with this show, but I’d rather watch something I outright hated like Seed Destiny. At least that anime gave me some emotional reaction.

    • It’s a shame you found the show so boring. While I found Akagami no Shirayuki-hime entertaining overall, I can see why some would find it completely boring, especially if they didn’t buy into its romance.

  5. You read Tolstoy? =o
    Not a lot of modern, young folks do… too few, if I had to say.

    I once read an article about why Game of Thrones is popular, and one of points made really spoke to me. The critic said that as readers, we want to see the character suffer. We’ll root for them as they overcome trials, sure, but they need to reach epic lows before then to truly grasp our interest. It is those moments of despair that draws us in and glues our attention to the plotline.

    You notice this in most romance stories, where the couple have to overcome endless trials which they get all emo and irrational about it. Your ‘taboo relationships’ is certainly a HUGE hurdle for any relationship to overcome =P. As Mary Crawley says in Downton Abbey: “marriage is difficult even when everyone wants you to be happy.”

    Aizuki Sorata… just doesn’t do that. Though to be fair, Shirayuki was never meant to be a drama. It’s SOL after all.

    But then, who knows. Maybe the true challenge is still ahead of us.

    • Not a lot of modern, young folks do… too few, if I had to say.

      Now you’re talking like an old man. Next thing you know, you’ll be calling me a whippersnapper. Heh heh.

      Tolstoy is one of the more readable authors in the western canon, the length of his main works aside. Even a young’un like me can appreciate him.

      Though to be fair, Shirayuki was never meant to be a drama. It’s SOL after all.

      I think of Shirayuki-hime as an iyashikei series, mostly. But there are also some dramatic parts in Shirayuki-hime, the Tanbarun arc covered in the second season of the anime being a chief example. That said, the characters go about resolving it in a very down-to-earth way, so there are never any of those emo moments you normally get in romances.

      It might not reach the dramatic heights of Game of Thrones, but it’s not a lesser story for it. They’re just trying to achieve different things.

      I don’t know how far you’ve read in the manga, but this trend continues as far as I’ve read.

  6. You know, now that you make me think about it, Shirayuki reminds me of Araragi. Even though they got engaged, they can still be seen interacting together with other characters of the opposite gender and building new relationships with them. If I think about it, that’s pretty rare in an anime or manga with romance in it. For example most harem shows never want the main duo to get together because this way they can still make the protagonist interact with the other girls as if he were testing the waters. Well, most of them are VNs or manga adaptations, so it’s understandable. Only lately we’re getting anime where people actually get engaged,so this may be the beginning of stories where we can explore the workings of a couple, but for now it seems we’re stuck in a kind of limbo where the couple gets together but nothing really seems to have changed. And if things are like this, then where’s the point to do it? Just to subvert a trope? I have yet to see the second season of Akagami, so I hope it will explore their relationship a little.

    • Shirayuki = Araragi? That’s a bizarre comparison at first glance, but it sort of works. It would work even better if Senjougahara was allowed to have meaningful relationships with other male characters (besides Kaiki lol) but then again, it’s not as if Zen gets that many female characters to interact with either.

      The second season of Akagami takes the focus off the relationship and temporarily veers into “FANTASY ADVENTURE MODE”, so unfortunately I have to sat that it doesn’t really explore their relationship at all.

  7. This post illustrates my problems with the show perfectly. Posts like this always make me less mad at my own bad writing because I can always say “I can’t write it, but someone else probably will so I’m not too mad.”

    • I get that feeling from reading other people’s stuff as well. But at the same time, it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of worthwhile topics that other people won’t think of writing about, so you may as well fill in the gap yourself.

  8. I’m more or less completely the opposite – I dig the romance in Shirayuki-hime but don’t care about the shipping at all. It’s not because Zen and Shirayuki are my FAVOURITE COUPLE OF ALL TIIIIME or anything like that, but rather because it’s just so rare to see a couple in any anime, regardless of genre or demographic, that’s so psychologically healthy and even-keeled. So every time I see the two of them being their unmelodramatic, trusting selves, I think, “This would be great for a couple in real life… and in fiction I hardly ever see anything like it.”

    • “This would be great for a couple in real life… and in fiction I hardly ever see anything like it.”

      Fair enough! I got the same kind of thrill from the beginning, because it is so darned uncommon. The novelty eventually faded after a while, but I get what you mean.

  9. Based on your opinions above and the manga’s plot progression, do you think the anime warrants a Season 3? I’ve heard the anime sales have been pretty tepid, so there may not be a financial incentive to pursue it.

    Now that you mention Anna Karenina, have you ever seen the movies? If you have, did you like the 2012 arty version with Keira Knightley, or the 1997 lavish historical version with Sophie Marceau?

    • idk if Shirayuki-hime warrants a season 3. If they make it, they make it. At the very least there’s enough material support at least two more seasons. I don’t think they’re going to do it, though, because the last few episodes of season 2 abridged/omitted a bunch of scenes in order to build up to a conclusion that fits the anime.

      I haven’t seen any of the Anna Karenina movies, so I can’t comment on either adaptation.

  10. “all the characters are too rosy and perfect to be truly interesting”

    AKA the reason why I dropped the anime midway through the first season. The whole thing amounted to the daily sallies with occasional mild bumps of Miss Redhair McPerfect, Prince Democratic Andfair and his Company of Attendants, Funny Ninjaguy and so on. There was no discernible conflict; even the love story was as smooth and obviously meant to be as possible. What’s worse, it even lacked the spice of proper physical passion (we get it, you guys are hot for each other – stop with the hugs and caresses, just fuck already!). I’m saying something when I say I enjoyed freakin’ Ore Monogatari, and this was boring to me. Because at least OreMono 1) was funny, and 2) had Suna.

  11. It sounds kind of similar to Emma, considering in that anime Emma does actually rise herself up to the standard of autocracy through experience and hard work. It kinda felt realistic, but in a very lucky scenario sense. There was a lot of back of forth in that Emma didn’t know what to do.

    I guess this is what you watch when you eat food?

  1. Pingback: Snow White with the Red Hair – A Normatively Non-Normative Shounen Romance? « Geekorner-Geekulture.

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