The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Shadows House ?
What is this?
In a Western-style mansion on a cliff lives the aristocratic, faceless Shadow family. They live together with lifelike doll attendants who serve as their faces.
How was the first episode?
I enjoy this kind of fantasy—where you're thrown headlong into a strange setting and are forced to figure out the rules as things go on. This makes everything a mystery to be solved. Who are the shadows? What are the shadows? Why are they revered as nobles? Why do they produce soot? Why do they have body-double servants? Why don't they use makeup? Why is the house filled with secret passageways? Are the “living dolls” really not human?
While our proxy character, Emilico, may ask some of these questions, it's mainly up to the viewer to piece things together. It seems that the shadows themselves need “living dolls” to survive. Of course, whether that need is literal or metaphorical is a different matter.
The excuses Kate gives to Emilico are likely true on some level. To interact with normal humans, the Shadows need a face of sorts. So much of human interaction is non-verbal, after all—the smiles and frowns and movement of our eyes are all crucial to human communication. Talking to a shadow without a face would be like conversing on a telephone, only creepier.
It's also telling that Kate doesn't like people looking at her. After all, when they do, they have no focal point to latch onto. They aren't looking her in the eyes, they're looking at her generally—like an object instead of a person. Thus having a surrogate body, a “living doll” with a face for humans to focus upon during interactions is a way to make both humans and Shadows at ease. However, it is likewise important to note that while the dolls are made to resemble the Shadows, they are never to be dressed identically as the Shadows; the dolls are proxies—not replacements.
While the burgeoning relationship between Kate and Emilico is absolutely the focal point of the first episode, it wouldn't be nearly as effective without the animation and visual style to support it. The claustrophobic rooms, secret passages, and odd steampunk fittings all seem both grounded in reality and a bit otherworldly. Meanwhile, Kate's room seems to be what you'd expect of a young noble lady—except for the copious amounts of soot. The way her hands leave soot marks on everything she touches and the way it billows off her when she is anxious or angry is creepy, beautiful, and, like everything else in this first episode, utterly captivating.
Going into this season, I was excited for Shadows House pretty much entirely on its visuals. Every new image or trailer that released just looked so intriguing and mysterious that I had to see what it was all about. The imagery of old European aristocracy coupled with the ever-so-slightly unsettling shadow people was enough to get me interested on its own, to the point where I never bothered looking up what the actual story was about. Having now seen the first episode, I still don't.
This premiere is an exercise in waiting for a shoe to drop. There are of course some foreboding hints and fleeting glances towards the darker secrets of the titular shadowy house, but throughout this opener we never really get a clear idea of any of the truly significant mysteries. There's obviously more to the relationship between the Shadow family and their “living dolls” who just happen to look identical to them, but the nature of that “more” is up in the air. It's a risky kind of storytelling, implying a larger mystery without giving any real clues about its form, and the only way it can really work is if the rest of the series is compelling enough to keep your attention in the meantime.
On that front, results are mixed. In terms of pure aesthetic and atmosphere, it absolutely succeeds. While we see very little of the titular house this episode, the few rooms we do visit are ornate, gothic, and spooky as all get out. From the steam-powered elevators that rattle and shake like a living beast, to the dimly-lit servants' entrance Emilico traipses through, to Kate's expensive yet dingy bedroom, this has all the feel of a lived-in haunted house. Fun touches like the stalactites of soot that collect when Kate's particularly angry add even more character, and the instrumental opening theme is absolutely perfect. I'm less impressed with the ending song, which feels entirely too electronic in production to really fit, but on the whole both visuals and soundtrack are top-notch.
I'm less impressed with our (so far) main duo. Kate is of course mysterious and tight-lipped, presumably because she's hiding the dark and/or tragic secrets at the heart of the story, while Emilico is so loud and pwecious that she can really start to grate if a scene goes on long enough. Together they have potential to make for an interesting pair of deuteragonists, but even that is a question mark when we still don't have a clear picture – or any picture really – of what their relationship really is or what it might become. The other duos previewed in the OP seem to have more immediate dynamics though, so I'm hoping this will become less of a problem as we eventually venture into the rest of the house. As-is though, I can't help but want just a tidbit more from this episode before giving it a recommendation.
Shadows House is a show where I was waiting for the other shoe to drop the entire time, and yet we didn't quite get there by the time the credits rolled on its premiere (if “there” is even a place the show is going, at all). Here we have a world where a living doll named Emilico serves as the "face" of her counterpart, Kate, who is one of the people in this world that seems to be made of pure shadow (and also magical soot, I guess?). The delightful opening and ending themes hint at the sinister goings-on that might be afoot within in this surreal shadow puppet version of a Gothic Victorian fantasy world, and the episode gives us such unsubtle moments of foreshadowing as Emilico shattering one of Kate's dolls, only to wonder if she'd be tossed out were she ever to break, herself. At the end, when Emilico leans out of Kate's bedroom window to clean up a pesky soot spot, I was convinced that the episode would end with Kate shoving her out of the window or something.
Instead, “The Shadow and Her Doll” gives us precisely what it says on the tin: A half-hour slow introduction to this world and our two main characters. Kate is somewhat aloof, prim and proper in the way that you'd expect her to be, given that you can only see how she holds herself and how she dresses. Emilico, on the other hand, is a walking pile of infinitely chipper enthusiasm, crashing into things and singing Kate's praises at a volume that is always a notch or two higher than it needs to be, given that she is only ever speaking to Kate or herself.
The pair's dynamic is cute, but hard to put a finger on. As I watched Emilico figure out how to perform basic functions like eating and cleaning, or when Kate demands to "play with her doll" and give Emilico a makeover, I found myself stuck trying to figure out what the tone of this relationship is supposed to be. Is there more than a hint of romance to be read in the loaded imagery we see (especially from the OP and ED)? Is there a kind of master/slave dynamic that the show is trying to explore? Is the story itself trying to present its mysteries with a tinge of dread and unease, and if so, how much?
All of these questions may very well be properly addressed in future episodes, and the setup that we get in this premiere is good enough that I'm eager to find out more. I kind of wish all the characters didn't seem like they were twelve, and I hope that Kate and Emilico's friendship can grow in a way that makes both of the girls more interesting as individuals. Still, it doesn't hurt that Shadows House is sporting a pitch-perfect aesthetic, so much so that I am dying to live in this world some more each week. Time will tell if the series can live up to the ridiculous amounts of potential that this premiere throws out. I certainly hope it will.
In Hans Christian Andersen's 1847 literary fairy tale “The Shadow,” a man and his shadow trade places, only for the shadow to eventually become the more “real” of the two, forcing the man who was once the human to become his shadow's shadow. I don't know if the creators of Shadows House are familiar with the tale (it's not necessarily one of Andersen's best known), but it definitely seems as if this first episode is working with the ideas it put forth. Emilico's “living doll” to shadowy Kate's “human” seems to be pointing out that who is real and who is not is largely a matter of action and perception, because by most of our measures, we'd be tempted to say that Emilico was the more human of the two – at least in terms of looks.
There are a lot of very interesting aspects to this episode, which is good because the plot is admittedly rather thin. What catches my attention the most is the silhouette-like state of the Shadows family: they look like old-fashioned silhouette artwork dressed up in colored clothing. That this may not be their natural state certainly seems like a real possibility. Kate tells Emilico that she emits soot from the top of her head when she's feeling a strong emotion, something most frequently seen in this episode as a manifestation of her anxiety. What if that's all that the blackness is? Could the Shadows once have looked like their living dolls, but became soot-stained due to their constant strong emotions? The soot certainly seems to come off – we see Kate leave sooty fingerprints on surfaces and soot-stains on her white nightgown. If the soot functions as (more) visible sweat, it feels like a possibility, and the fact that we see her bathing once with sooty water right around her body may also factor in here.
More telling may be the fact that Emilico has a much more carefree personality than Kate. Yes, she does worry, specifically about her status as a living doll; at one point she looks down her shift to see if she can oil anything to make her body work better. But the fact that she gets hungry and that we haven't seen a joint, seam, or cog anywhere on her may also mean that she's not a living doll at all, but a human girl in an Andersen-like relationship with Kate. It will bear watching the other doll/human pairs to see if they also function similarly, as well as if each “human” represents or is prey to a different strong emotion, with Kate representing anxiety. No matter what, the steampunk/Gaslamp fantasy aesthetic makes this unique even without a question born of Mary Shelley and Hans Christian Andersen – the question of who is the shadow and who is the (hu)man.
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