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.”
The narrative progression of Akagami no Shirayuki-hime is a bit all over the place. There’s a charming story about how Shirayuki chooses to become a court herbalist, but once she succeeds in that goal, the plot ambles for a while. At some point, the story ends up being more about Zen and his past than it is about the titular heroine.
Towards the end of the first season, however, Zen and Shirayuki’s struggles start to come together. Their romance (and the underlying conflict around their class differences) serves as a way for them to share each other’s burdens. Shirayuki’s journey as a court herbalist is no longer just about proving what she can do for her own sake. She now has to prove herself in front of the entire kingdom.
Season 1 feels like the calm before the storm. Season 2 is when I expect things to get real.