The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood ?
What is this?
In an alternate version of Japan in 1931, the Tokugawa shogunate was never abolished and the Meiji emperor never restored to power. "Nue" is an organization of shogunate executioners who enforce government rule.
How was the first episode?
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood has undeniable style, but I'm not really sure it has the substance to back it up. The episode starts slow, with a beautiful young woman eating a meal with her young charge, and then going to work in a used bookstore, where a man attempts to flirt with her, apparently not for the first time. She seems harsh and unyielding, but that doesn't compare to how she is in her second job as a government assassin.
To be honest, I'm not expecting much out of this one. Director Susumu Kudo has a few minor hits under his belt, including K and Coppelion, but he was also behind the anime adaptation of the schlocky alternate WWII Dies irae and the limp girls' baseball anime Cinderella Nine. The screenwriter, Rika Nezu, works primarily in live-action, with only one previous anime credit under her belt. It doesn't inspire a lot of faith in strong storytelling.
There's just enough there to give a grounding for the action, with an alternate history where the Meiji emperor never wrested control of Japan back from the Tokugawa shogunate, a shady government organization called Nue, some kind of natural resource like Vibranium or Unobtanium or whatever, and people who turn into animals. Okay, that last bit is less background and more wild action, but we'll get to that. Also, Sawa, the heroine, saw her family killed in front of her and is sad. Either way, there's a whole lot of information thrown at us all at once, especially since most of the episode felt like it was devoted to super cool fights.
Even if the plot is kind of silly, the action is really fun to watch. As an organization devoted to assassination, Nue is armed with all sorts of cool murder gadgets, like Hanakaze's sweet-ass umbrella crossbow. There are people transformed into animals and fog effects that make Sawa's face look like a skeleton and a mid-fight haiku with calligraphy on the screen. It's beautifully animated, with striking use of color and clever choreography.
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood makes me think of a simpler time in anime, when western fans looked to the medium mostly for edgy action that homegrown animation just couldn't match. Maybe this one will offer something a bit more substantial, maybe not.
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood is an anime that had me hooked based almost entirely on its aesthetic and tone. The bold outlines and painterly touches of the opening fight oozed the exact kind of style I love to see in my weird-n'-wild revenge sagas, and I'm a sucker for a lady like our heroine Sawa, whose supernatural fury involves being possessed by a snow-white crow and turning into a ghostly murder-skeleton, all so she can fight the dangerous beasts known as Changelings. All this premiere needed to do was properly execute (haha) its story beats to have me hook, line, and sinker.
This is where some of my reservations start to creep in ever so slightly. It isn't that Joran's story so far is at all bad, because it isn't! It's just a lot. In just this first episode, Joran has to establish the alternate history of this 1930s Meiji Era, the team of government agents that Sawa works for, the existence of Changelings, the plot on the Shogun's life, Sawa's personal connection to sinister Janome (that is presumably tied into her tragic backstory, and thus her quest for vengeance), and Sawa's uncertain relationship with Asahi, the young girl in her care that has some spooky goings-on of her own by the end of the episode. Also, there's an evil snake-demon-man-thing playing a baroque organ in his villainous lair.
There are a lot of interesting elements at play here, and I could see the story evolving into something really compelling. I like the sharp back-and-forth between Sawa, Hanakaze, and Makoto, for one, and there are all sorts of potential to be mined from the Changelings, who are both monsters and victims in this whole bloody affair. I just wasn't quite as sold on it as I wanted to be, when all was said and done. Time will tell if all the other layers of plot and lore will work in the show's favor or not, but I'm definitely down to keep watching and find out. I tend to prefer my gory revenge thrillers when they're simple, concerned less in political intrigue and more in primal emotions. That said, sometimes a guy just wants to see a skeleton-ghost-lady stab some monsters real good, and Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood certainly seems set to deliver on that front.
I'm not entirely sure what's going on in the first episode of Joran: Princess of Snow and Blood, but kudos to them for digging up a very obscure 1899 adventure novel and giving us a clear shot of it! Helen Briston's 1899 Fighting Against Fate; or Brent Brompton's Delusion was probably chosen for its title rather than its contents (although there is a fair amount of fighting off dangerous animals, which may be a factor in its usage here), because for our presumptive protagonist, “Yukimura” (real name Sawa), it looks like “fighting against fate” may be her raison d'être. Or she's just really into revenge; it's too soon to tell.
What we do know is that the story takes place in an alternate timeline where 1931 is still part of the Meiji Era rather than the Showa (with Taisho jumped clean over) and a Tokugawa shogun continues to rule. There's also an as-yet-unexplained “natural resource” known as ryumyaku and people known as changelings, and I would bet that the two are somehow related. Since Yukimura has an alternate, supernatural form wherein she merges with an albino crow and gains powers, it looks as if the changelings are people who have been bonded with an animal, possibly via ryumyaku. Some people, like Yuki, can control their transformations. Others, like the poor sap who got merged with a white tiger, cannot, and Yuki's specialty appears to be putting them down.
It's all terribly gritty and dark, and there's a definite risk of the story taking itself too seriously. There's gratuitous sex and nudity (none of it explicit), a trip through the red light district, blood both red and blue, and weapons that look like someone's been reading too much Gail Carriger, although I have to admit that I kind of love Hanakaze's parasol-crossbow-gun. Yuki is pale and unhappy, she's got a tragic past, and she's inexplicably making some poor little kid cook for her while she fakes running a used bookstore. The whole episode is so angst-drenched that it's almost impressive. But what's more important is that it more or less works; it matters less that we're not entirely sure what's going on because there's something fascinating about the way the story is reinventing terminology and the between-the-wars years to suit itself. I don't necessarily see myself wanting to watch more of this, but I can't deny that it's really working with what it's got.
Every season there's at least one show that seems like it should be a slam dunk, and going into the preview guide, Joran very much fits the bill. An original story set in an alternate universe Japan? Featuring stylish action and supernatural powers, mixed with Taisho-adjacent fashion and spy tools? Sign me up! And yet, I came out of this premiere mostly frustrated, as the execution so far leaves this show amounting to far less than the sum of its parts.
A big part of that is the pacing of this episode. It attempts to be a very slick, in media res introduction to Sawa and her double life as a secret agent, but it feels like, in trying to streamline this narrative, they cut out anything to get you invested. There's a subplot about how Sawa knows the man she eventually has to kill for her mission, but we never actually learn what their relationship was. We see that Sawa is living under an assumed name with a young girl that she claims she isn't related to, and then that same girl apparently tries to kill Sawa in her sleep at the end of the episode. But they've shared all of one scene together, so this twist doesn't mean anything to the audience. The plot of the episode is about Sawa's team of agents stopping an assassination that's resolved by being told about a series of underground tunnels we never actually see. It's a number of strange decisions that feel like the outline of a script more than a completed one, and it makes for a largely unsatisfying introduction.
The visuals are...mixed. While this is by far a step up from whatever director Susumu Kudo would have been doing with the now-canceled Tokyo Babylon 2021, there's a strange lack of impact to the episode's central action. Conceptually it's super fun: parasol crossbows, swordcanes that become lightsabers, and our main heroine imbuing herself with the spirit of her pet bird to fight a transformed tiger man. But in execution it's often hard to follow, layered with some questionable digital effects that don't quite mesh with the stylized designs. Plus the conclusion of the climactic fight is so short and anticlimactic that I didn't realize it was finished until the show splashed a bit of poetry over the screen to punctuate it. It's an altogether weak showcase for the action of this show, which by all appearances will be a big factor going forward, and that doesn't inspire confidence.
It would be unfair to call this a bad premiere, but it's one that certainly feels disappointing. The pieces are all here to create something fun, action-packed, even stylistically ambitious, yet nothing comes together quite right. There's certainly room for improvement, but as of right now I'm skeptical.
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