The Spring 2019 Manga Guide
Snow White with the Red Hair
What's It About?Shirayuki has hair of an unusually bright apple-red, and that sometimes gets in the way of her dream of becoming an accomplished herbalist when it attracts unwanted attention. When it gets her noticed by Raj, prince of her home country of Tanbarun, it's enough to make her decide to leave all together – Raj wants Shirayuki for his concubine, and she's definitely not interested.
Leaving him a lock of her hair and a note, Shirayuki heads for Clarines, the neighboring kingdom, where she has an encounter with a young man named Zen. Zen, it turns out, is also a prince, but of an entirely different stripe. The two form a fast friendship that may be blossoming into something more, but neither of them is entirely sure. One thing Shirayuki knows for certain: she's still going to fulfill her goal of becoming an herbalist, and she'll become worthy of Zen's friendship (and maybe more) under her own power.
Snow White with the Red Hair is written and illustrated by Sorata Akiduki. It was adapted into an anime in 2015 and the first volume of the manga was released in May by Viz. It sells for $9.99.
Is It Worth Reading?
As the streaming reviewer for the anime adaptation of this series, I was very excited to pick up the source material. I'm still excited and happy, but that's tempered with the fact that this is very clearly the creator's first longer piece, and in this first book she's still getting her feet under her in terms of writing a serialized story. The result is that while charming, there are definitely a few gaps in the character development as she tries to sort out Zen and Shirayuki's relationship. Mostly this comes across as Akiduki struggles to keep them from falling into insta-love while still making it clear that they do have budding romantic feelings for each other. That's a tall order if you're just getting started writing longer romance narratives, and in this particular case it really does help that the volume includes an earlier short story by the creator, because we can see that she does have the skills to write such a thing, she just isn't used to the framework of a longer series yet.
All of that is basically to say that Zen and Shirayuki's relationship, which forms a strong part of the anime's appeal, isn't quite there yet. While that's a little frustrating, it does let Shirayuki stand on her own two feet, which is great. She is fully aware that Zen could snap his fingers and let her enter the palace as a court herbalist (even if he doesn't seem to know that, at least at first), and that makes her drive to earn the right to be one on her own merits particularly admirable. She's a quietly strong heroine, working hard and accepting help when she needs it, but not relying on the idea that it will come. Zen does seem to recognize that about her, as we really see in the fourth chapter. He also appears a little less invested in their relationship, but that could easily be him trying to hold back so that Shirayuki can fulfill her goals. It's an interesting dynamic that Akiduki grows more comfortable with as the book goes on, and it's very easy to see the potential that the story has.
The art isn't great shakes, but it does have a nice level of pseudo-Medieval world detail, and even if Akiduki hadn't mentioned that she did herbal research in her comments, it would be evident from the way she uses fantasy plant lore within the story. All the characters are easily distinguished, however, which isn't always the case as artists get their feet under them, and you can see Akiduki's art improving even within the volume. Snow White with the Red Hair's opening salvo is a little shaky, but it's also clear that it has the potential to be much more.
If I had to describe Snow White with the Red Hair in just a word, it would be pleasant. Its ambitions are modest; it's mostly just a pastiche of fairy tale aesthetics and tropes, slightly reoriented to be more conscious of female agency. In a lot of ways, it's extremely refreshing.
One of the most the refreshing things about it is the romance which (while it begins as traditional fairy tale dislike-and-misunderstanding-which-leads-to-romance-because-they're-secretly-so-alike) is actually based in mutual affection and enjoying each other's company, which is rare in this kind of story. Zen and Shirayuki like spending time together, and in a surprisingly natural, realistic way for a slow-burn romance. And there's a respect for one another's agency that is also uncommon; Zen understands that, if he were to use his power as prince of the kingdom to appoint Shirayuki as court herbalist, it would be directly going against her wishes, as she wants to struggle and prove herself worthy of the position based on her own abilities. In another manga, there would be a whole arc where Zen goes against Shirayuki's wishes, with an entire chapter of arguing followed by reconciliation and moralizing. Here, it's just an aside that signifies a basic respect in Zen's worldview.
The only downside is that the art and storytelling are a little wonky (with this being somewhat admitted by the author in the notes). The paneling is often hard to follow (especially in the first chapter) and oftentimes speech bubbles will take up too much space, making visual information difficult to process. And I guess you could say that the character designs are a little indistinct, but at that point we're just nitpicking. Really, it's hard to care too much about details like this when the core of Snow White is just so charming and comforting.
There's a short story (one of the author's other one-shots) at the end of the volume which, while being of an entirely separate genre and time period, embodies all the things I like about Snow White with the Red Hair. Sure, it's a little clumsy, to some maybe a little too sappy. But it's just so earnest and sweet. And despite shoujo contrivances, it embodies something shockingly real, palpable and touching. Yeah, it's low-stakes and about a pre-teen summer vacation romance, but those're a part of life, same as great highs and terrible lows. In the end, Snow White with the Red Hair reminds us that sometimes a little tenderness is all that's needed for a series to succeed.
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