Zen 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.”
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!
If that wasn’t enough, the manga also has a fun moment where Shirayuki openly admits to perving on Mitsuhide’s abs.
…Or how about the time she blushed when she saw Kiki naked?
And don’t even mention all the Raj x Shirayuki shipping in season 2 of the anime.
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.