The World is Still Beautiful
When Princess Nike of the Rain Kingdom learns that she is to marry the Sun King, sovereign of the world's largest empire, as part of a deal to maintain her kingdom's independence, she is completely unsure of what to expect. Even so, she's still shocked when she finally meets her fiancee, a precocious and short-statured 12-year old boy. The king, Livius, initially seems cold towards her and twisted and unpleasant in general; he furthermore demands that she perform a rain summoning, a special power held by those in the Rain Kingdom, for his entertainment, in spite of the fact that this event is sacred there. The two have a very long way to go if this marriage is ever to be a remotely happy one....
First impressions can be hard to get over. I watched the first episode of this show and I was about ready to throw it out: the "character getting roped into an unwanted engagement" backstory had me feeling pretty nervous, since I've seen some other shows where it was uncomfortably obvious that the protagonist was just losing all her agency (I'm looking right at you, Engaged to the Unidentified). Way worse than that, the plot of the first episode involves Nike's run-in with two idiot ruffians; at best they're flat-out annoying and obnoxious, like a less endearing version of Nuk and Mok from Beast Player Erin, and at the worst, they make an awful joke about raping a captured girl in order to "please the mail viewers" (I seriously, seriously hope that backfired!). So, The World is Still Beautiful really, really did not give me a good first impression, but looking back, I'm glad that I gave it one more episode, since a lot of those problems drop off after that disaster of an opening, and some internet sleuthing tells me that this episode's basically a bad filler episode. The rest of the show is a sweet romance show with a fantastic lead, and her personality saves the show from mediocrity; it still does have some frustrating aspects as far as the main romance goes, however.
"Cinderella" stories of a peasant girl falling in love with (or being seduced by) a rich guy don't normally give the newly-made princess much of a voice, but Nike is by far the show's most dynamic character and way too much of a free spirit to end up being a doormat. She basically never stops being the same energetic and dynamic character she starts out as; on the other hand, of course, the plot can come across as a bit of "manic pixie dream girl syndrome", and it's not the only fairy tale or fairy tale-esque anime where the princess character spurs an initially cold, uncaring, and abusive noble to change, which is a pretty common feminist critique lodged against Beauty and the Beast. I do have some mixed feelings on the use of the trope here. On the one hand, Nike arguably gets far more concessions than does Livius as far as how she lives her life, since, aside from a trio of overenthusiastic maids constantly trying to dress her up more femininely or formally, she basically gets free rein to keep being a tomboy outside of formal occasions, and she does get him to admit that a lot of his behavior has been pretty screwed up. If anything, she comes across as being able to make the best of a bizarre situation, cringing at the ridiculously tight corsets the maids try to force her into, rolling her eyes at the pompous formality of Livius' court, and trying to cope by digging into the reasons behind Liviu's twisted personality....without ever giving into his demands.
On the other hand, when I say that Livius' behavior is "screwed up," I'm really not joking: throwing her in a prison cell for even talking to his brother is abusive as hell, and even while he does apologize and change his behavior, the fact that she's a significantly poorer woman in an arranged marriage with him means that the power dynamic is badly imbalanced. Plus, the age gap between the two is hard to ignore, and while a running plot point is that Livius is far too mature for his age, it's hard to ignore the fact that he's basically a kid; a mistranslated manga page has led to a widespread misconception that he's 15, and I'd have far fewer problems with that, especially since the two do begin to talk about becoming romantically intimate later on.
When I originally wrote this review sometime back, I acknowledged these issues but didn't make them into a huge striking point against the show; at this point, I think I've realized how problematic some of these aspects are, and I'll apologize for glossing over them in past issues. The fact is that I did root for the pair pretty strongly in spite of these problems, because I do absolutely adore Nike: she's capable of taking care of herself, since she gets herself out of multiple jealous aristocrats' plots to ged rid of her. I'll also admit to enjoying an episode when she dresses Livius up as a girl to disguise him and tells him how cute a little sister he would make (honestly, he's far more effeminate than he really wants to admit). It's refreshing to see that the two of them do develop an interest in one another based on their intellectual compatibility and personalities, and there's a short but effective arc at the end involving a plot to keep them apart that does a really, really good job of showing just how fond they've become of each other over the show. But it's far more problematic when you consider the power dynamics at play.
Disregarding problematic aspects, The World is Still Beautiful is pretty much a solid feel-good romance series, and I'd say that it's best appreciated as that. I did like the side characters and the comic relief they provided: Nike's overenthusiastic sisters made me laugh a lot, and their jokes about Livius looking good in anything, especially women's clothing, made me giggle. I do like the character design (and I'd totally wear Nike's outfit, by the way), but the animation isn't anything special, and the music is pretty unimpressive; the show over-uses "Tender Rain" as an insert song, over and over again, and it wouldn't bother me if the singing wasn't off-key. The setting is pretty basic, too; it builds a strange sort of imperialism, with the Sun Kingdom's people wearing aristocratic European clothes and the Rain Kingdom's folks wearing what I'd guess are either Edo-era or Ainu designs (outside of Nike, whose dress and boots are more modern-looking). Not a lot of thought really seems to have gone into the setting, and I'd also say that's true as far as the motivations of some of the characters who try to keep Nike and Livius apart; sure, their reunion is lovely, but it's not as effectively dramatic as it could have been because it didn't make that much sense for them to be separated, ultimately. I'd say that The World is Still Beautiful definitely stretches belief to build drama; it's lucky that I like the characters, since that turns it into cute fluff rather than something outright annoying.
I did have a lot of fun with this show, but I'd only give it a cautious recommendation. I liked the characters a lot, and had a lot of fun once I got past the atrocious opening episode, but Nike and Livius' relationship still does have enough problems to give me pause. I really do like Nike as a shoujo lead, but she deserved a slightly better show, I'd say.
I gave this four stars originally, but I'm not as fond of this show as I used to be.....I do still like Nike and her character arc a lot, but I've had to admit to myself that some of Livius' behavior really, really isn't okay. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: The joke about the ruffians raping a captive girl is pretty awful, and the fact that Nike and Livy start to fall for each other physically is a bit off-putting given the age gap and the fact that Livy's still pre-puberty. Plus, Livy throwing Nike in a dungeon for talking to another guy is outright abusive. I think it'd be okay for older kids to see this, but I think those problematic aspects need to be talked about.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
The World is Still Beautiful © 2014 Dai Shiina, Hakusensha/VAP, NTV
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