Snow White with the Red Hair (Seasons 1 and 2)
In the kingdom of Tanbarun, Shirayuki is a young and talented herbalist who runs her late grandparents' shop. Aside from this skill, there's one thing that sets her apart and has a tendency to bring her unwanted attention: her long, bright red hair, which is exceptionally rare in the area and tends to bring undesired advances and marriage proposals. One day, Prince Raj, the playboy heir apparent of Tanbarun, happens to see her hair and, completely enamored with her, orders her to become his concubine; she's understandably disgusted with this idea and decides to flee when he threatens her with imprisonment, seeking asylum in the neighboring kingdom of Clarines. While leaving the country, she encounters the kind-hearted second prince of Clarines, Zen, whom she quickly develops a friendship with; they devise a plan for her to become a court herbalist in order to stay away from Raj.
I can't be the only person out there who struggles with the fact that she likes fairy tales but doesn't much like their gender politics. I basically grew up on two types of movies, Studio Ghibli films and Disney's animated output, and a huge percentage of Disney's "Animated Classics" series is based on fairy tales. I enjoyed the girly princess movies way more than I was willing to admit at the time, and when I got a bit older I also enjoyed reading the equally entertaining but usually much darker and gorier stories they were based on. Both versions make for good, entertaining fantasy, but the two have something less pleasant in common, and that's the fact that in these stories, the female characters are overwhelmingly passive, poorly-developed, and stuck in damsel-in-distress roles. The exceptions to this rule, of course, are characters who are either evil, elderly, or otherwise distinctly desexed (an infuriatingly common literary trope), and in many of the cases where the young, attractive female protagonists do become more active, they end up getting screwed over as a result; the title character of Disney's The Little Mermaid only loses her voice when she "transgresses" by pursuing a human, but I really, really don't want to describe what happens to her in Hans Christian Anderson's version.
This brings me to Snow White with the Red Hair, and to the fact that I was conflicted about watching it when I saw it on the season lineup. On the one hand, it's a fantasy-oriented shoujo series, and Yona of the Dawn and the Magic Knight Rayearth manga had left me wanting more of that, but on the other hand, the title character of Snow White is about as passive and powerless as you can get, especially in the Disney version, even as passive and powerless fairy tale leads go. That particular worry was a bit of a moot point, for while Snow White with the Red Hair very much feels like a fairy tale fantasy, it turned out that it's more closely based on a similarly-named but very different fairy tale from the one I was familiar with; even with that being the case, it's only very loosely based on that story. Either way, my worries about the show having a weak, passive female lead were unfounded: Shirayuki's a great protagonist, and while there are some major issues with pacing in the second half, it's overall a cute and highly enjoyable series that I had a lot of fun with.
Shirayuki manages to avoid two archetypes that represent two sides of the same coin: she's neither a passively pretty damsel-in-distress, nor a character defined solely by being physically strong. Those two character types, which when put together make up a depressingly high percentage of female characters in manga, are alike in that the character's personality is woefully undeveloped and defined by a single factor. Shirayuki, in contrast, gets to be a highly intelligent and resourceful character, and to have those aspects of her personality be a big part of why the others admire her, Zen especially. She's more-or-less a "plant otaku" who, in our universe, would probably be at the top of the field of botany, and even if medicinal herbs don't really interest you, you do have to admit that watching her obsess over plants to the degree she does is pretty adorable. It's clear that she's worked hard at this, and it's refreshing to see that in a fantasy setting where there's quite a bit of fighting, she still accomplishes so much without necessarily having to be adept at fighting herself. Indeed, she makes a place for herself in Clarines on her own initiative, basically proving to them that they'd be crazy not to apprentice somebody as obsessed with botany as her, and there's one arc where she's the only one who manages to figure out that the reason an entire fort of soldiers is sick is that a group of enemy soldiers disguised as "traveling merchants" snuck poisonous plants into their food. Even if she does end up being captured in several arcs, I don't feel that her character is disrespected for it; she doesn't have to be fearless or magically good at combat to be valued as a character, and in fact, she even manages to use her encyclopedic knowledge of plants to escape, in one case (I won't spoil the scene for you). Overall, she's just a really fun lead character to watch, and I appreciated having as smart a shoujo lead as her.
But anyhow, the cast is a big part of the appeal of Snow White With the Red Hair: Zen and Shirayuki are pretty adorable together, and the series thankfully doesn't tiptoe around the fact that they like each other. It's also a nice-looking series overall, not spectacularly-animated but done competently, with appealing shoujo manga character designs and some beautiful landscapes, ranging from the Italian-esque Mediterranean climate of Clarines to some more Nordic-looking regions (a bit like the setting of the second season of Spice and Wolf) during some of their travels. I liked the poppy OPs but absolutely loved the softer, calmer ending themes, although I hate to say that this is yet another series where I can't recall that much about the in-show music. As for the actual composition of the series, here's where we do, unfortunately, run into some problems with the pacing and consistency. The quality of the stories in Snow White with the Red Hair is a mixed bag, and the second season in particular suffers from having one arc at the start of it drag on for far too long. One of my favorite bits was an arc where a girl from an outlying province comes to beg Zen to stop their governor (a somewhat cartoonishly corrupt bureaucrat) from poaching a species of bird that's sacred to her people. In that bit, Shirayuki, being who she is, manages to put her botany-otaku skills to use as a birder (something that one of our former editors in chief might appreciate) and figures out that they're easily trained as messenger birds. It's a smart move given that proving that these birds actually serve a function besides being hunting fodder for the governor basically makes him look like a wasteful fop; again, Zen's pragmatism seems to be a depressingly rare quality among politicians and royalty in this universe.
As for some of the stories that I didn't enjoy as much, the drawn-out arc I talked about before does have a good ending, but its slow and confusing beginning sequence manages to consume most of the first half of the second season, which made coming back into the show after the break somewhat frustrating, especially since we'd only just started to make progress with Shirayuki and Zen's relationship before the hiatus. The show first spends far too much time dilly-dallying around the fact that there's talk of a plot to kidnap Shirayuki (since the poor girl, with her hair, really can't catch a break). Then, when we do get past this slow set of episodes, we're introduced to the characters who are trying to kidnap Shirayuki, with one of them being an effeminate boy and former trafficking victim who's hoping to save Shirayuki from Zen; while I don't entirely blame him, given how awful some of the nobles in this series are, him and his friends kidnapping her and terrifying her seems like an astoundingly stupid (and condescending) way for him to show his concern, especially since he really has no idea what Zen is even like. Luckily, the second season starts to get more on track as this arc gets better and as the ending episodes give a couple of strong one-shot stories, but the series can be inconsistent
But I really had a lot of fun with Snow White with the Red Hair. Even if it isn't the best-written series I've come across, I really liked the cast and appreciated it as a somewhat feminist fantasy-shoujo adaptation. I have to admit that I might be biased towards this kind of series (I definitely feel similarly to Stig when it comes to Yona), but still, this was one of the better shows I watched in 2015; not a classic, but a solidly entertaining entry in its genre and definitely notable for its main character.
It's a bit of a weak four stars, since it lost me a tiny bit near the very start of the second season, but that didn't last long, and the cast more than carries the show. Maybe dock a star if you're just really sick of fairy tale settings. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: I'd say this is good for preteens kids and up; there are some explicit references to sexual slavery and a few characters do die onscreen, but there really isn't anything in the way of sex, graphic violence, or profanity.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of FUNimation (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Snow White with the Red Hair (Seasons 1 and 2) © 2015 Sorata Akiduki, HAKUSENSHA/Akagami Project
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