Raven of the Inner Palace
In a court strongly resembling ancient China's, Xia Gaojun deposes the Dowager Empress to become Emperor. The Empress had been into sorcery, and schemes, and poison, and left a lot of bad karma (and unsettled spirits) in the palace, but fortunately Gaojun finds an ally in cleansing the place: the Raven Consort (the current holder of that title is named Liu Shouxue), a young girl who is a powerful exorcist (and not a bad detective, either), but who has been kept almost a hermit. Gaojun tries to reach out to her, but there are reasons why the Raven Consorts are condemned to isolation...
In the description of the Raven Consort that prefaces each episode, it says she does not perform "nighttime duties" for the Emperor, which is a nicely euphemistic way to put it. One of my problems with Colourcloud Palace was that I couldn't see how someone who was merely the librarian's daughter could get out of performing "nighttime duties", but I can understand how someone reputed to have the power to kill with a curse can manage it. Shouxue is actually a very compassionate (though also very naive) girl, but she knows that she needs to at least fake some bluster to go along with the frightening rumors about the Raven Consorts; it's kept her safe, but it's also kept her very, very lonely.
Gaojun wants to change that. When she spurns his initial advances, he becomes more subtle, doing small favors for her, bringing her sweets (she's VERY vulnerable to those), and offering to become her friend and confidant if she wishes him to. She's even allowed to keep a lady-in-waiting (a cheerful and delightful girl named Jiu-Jiu), as well as her own eunuch. (As in the old Chinese kingdom, the only XY people allowed in the inner palace, aside from the Emperor of course, were eunuchs. We see this practice of forced emasculation as barbaric; Raven also shows how unjust and arbitrary it was as well.)
Now, Gaojun is handsome, gentle with Shouxue, has an unusually strong ethical sense as ancient emperors go (he won't execute even an enemy without acceptable "proof" of their crime), AND of course he's Head of State, but it turns out that Shouxue has several reasons to be tsundere toward him. One is she's simply naive about love. (Remember, raised in isolation?) But there are two other reasons. One's rooted in the history of the kingdom that she DOES know; the other's rooted in the specific history of the office of Raven Consort, which she does NOT know the entirety of. For there may be a monster lurking inside Shouxue, and strong emotions may set it loose. (I kept wondering if the manga's author had any acquaintance with the U.S. comic book Teen Titans, which had a character NAMED Raven with EXACTLY that same dilemma.) Still, Shouxue seems to spend most of her time freeing spirits to go to Paradise, spirits that had been bound to Earth as ghosts either by their own issues (guilt, obsessions, regrets, etc.), or through the malice of others. (When Shouxue says "I'll send you to Heaven!", she MEANS it.) In one case, when someone asks her to get rid of a ghost, the requester might have had good reasons to think twice about asking for that. (These little exorcism stories are also often pretty illuminating about the lifeways of the show's time, and, as I said before, much was cruel and arbitrary. Combine that with human pettiness, and it's no wonder that Shouxue finds so many hauntings to deal with.)
Shouxue, by the way, is one of the most beautifully drawn characters I've ever seen in anime. On another character, the extremely long, elaborate hairpins might have looked ridiculous, but on her they look just fine. She also sports two large flowers behind her ears, which are tools as much as decoration; she uses them in her exorcisms. (The flute riff that plays during her exorcisms perfectly distills the mystical (and yet melancholy) atmosphere that is always an undercurrent here. Another place that undercurrent bubbled to the surface is when a young eunuch describes the sea near his hometown.) So what if the male character designs are not so distinctive? Shouxue's gorgeous, and the backgrounds and music certainly "suck you in", as great art was said to do in Blue Period. (My wife watched part of this, and was incredulous that Shouxue was supposed to "only" be 16. But she didn't see one of the rare scenes where Shouxue isn't wearing her makeup; she looks much younger there.)
The show's opening song, "Mysterious", has more of the warm feel of a romantic ballad (although that's NOT quite what the lyrics are), but honestly I preferred the haunting, melancholy closer. (Sometimes the show playfully reverses the order of the songs.)
The show has some interesting supporting characters. I loved Jiu-Jiu of course; she's a ray of sunshine in Shouxue's life. And you'll see later just how protective Shouxue has become of Jiu-Jiu in return. (Oh yes, you WILL.) In fact, Shouxue is really a very loving girl, who's finally being offered friendship and support since Gaojun became ruler, even if she herself is confused and uncertain (and more than a little afraid) about her own feelings.
Another interesting character- more for what he portends than for what he says, which is very little- is Wei Qing, the Emperor's right-hand eunuch. He's only really expressed (well, vented) his feelings in one episode, but I get the impression he's either resentful of the Emperor's attentions to Shouxue, or fearful that those attentions will cause a problem, or, most likely, BOTH. But as I said, he usually doesn't say much. I suppose there will be some sort of problem with all this later. The final episode of the show does leave us with some loose ends. (Or, rather, story opportunities.)
I was a little curious about the geography here. While it may look exactly like ancient China, the land is described as an "island" (and so it seems to be, when we see a map.) But islands typically aren't big enough to support empires.
This was my favorite series this season. Truth to tell, I prefer my fantasy anime slow-burn drama (like this one, and Shadows House) rather than in-your-face, hyperkinetic carnage, though SPEAKING of Chainsaw Man I did promise a couple of our reviewers that I would be "fair and balanced" when I do that show. For now, I'll just say that Raven absolutely entranced me. Few shows have EVER evoked this mood. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Rightstuf rates the manga 13+. I might have gone a little older than that. Suicide occurs, there's one blood-spattered episode near the end, and the whole eunuch thing might give some the vapors.
Version(s) Viewed: Crunchyroll video stream
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Raven of the Inner Palace © 2022 Kouko Shirakawa/Shueisha, Raven of the Inner Palace Committee
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