Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Snow White with the Red Hair Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Shirayuki is a young herbalist training in an apothecary shop with her grandparents. Her life is turned upside down when the prince of her kingdom, Raj, demands that she come to court to be his concubine. He is fascinated by her bright red hair, and must have it for himself. Yet Shirayuki is no one's toy, so she defiantly cuts her hair off, and leaves it for him while she escapes. On her journey, she runs into Prince Zen, of the neighboring kingdom of Clarines, and saves his life from a poison intended for Shirayuki. He's clearly taken with her, but she's focused on her career as a herbalist. He offers her a chance to train as one at his court. The story focuses on Shirayuki's adventures in healing, and her budding romance with Prince Zen.
The past year or so has been good for shojo romances with strong-willed heroines. Snow White with the Red Hair is just the latest after Yona of the Dawn and The World Is Still Beautiful. What sets Shirayuki apart from her fellow heroines is that she's no princess herself. She's an ordinary girl, but one with enough intelligence, ambition and compassion to stand out. Unfortunately, she lives in a world where all some people notice about her is her unusual, and striking, looks. The first episodes set up the story of a plucky girl making her own way in the world, defying people's false first impressions. It's a great formula, and one that's not terribly common in anime, but shows up a whole bunch in Western animation and other children's media.
Indeed, there's a lot that's very "Disney" about Snow White with the Red Hair, even outside of the name. The heroine would fit right in with some of Disney's smarter, spunkier heroines, like Belle or Mulan. It's part coming-of-age, proving-yourself story for Shirayuki, part romance—where her boy-prize likes her for herself. Closer to anime standards, Zen himself is a compelling character, too. He's an idealistic, sweet, but not spineless monarch who has trouble living up to his more calculating older brother. He's a perfect mirror image for Shirayuki. It's easy to see how the two click so well, and the source of their chemistry. Their romance is built on mutual admiration and rooted in a strong friendship, a breath of fresh air in a genre full of toxic power dynamics.
Weirdly, that perfection might be part of the issue with Snow White with the Red Hair. The characters themselves are not perfect people. They're good, but in a role-model way, where the viewers can still see something of themselves reflected in them, but it's an upgraded version. Shirayuki and Zen struggle with stubbornness, inaction and all other sorts of human problems. Yet their romance comes together a little too perfectly, and as the series wears on, that's where it spends more and more of its narrative energy. It was nice to see the two finally get over their shyness about their feelings, but it also sapped a lot of the desire to keep watching this show. Without any conflict, what is there to go on for a series like this than nice people being nice with high production values?
To be fair, those production values go a long way in making Snow White with the Red Hair ultimately work. Studio Bones anime always look good, and this one is no exception. It's full of the lush, inviting backgrounds one would expect from their fantasy-adventure output. Every scene is bursting with color, evocative lighting and the sense that it's a fully formed world you could drop right into yourself. It's one of the studio's talents, whether in the dystopian future of Wolf's Rain or No. 6, alien-infested NYC of Blood Blockade Battlefront, or gentle fairy tale worlds like this one: they make the setting come alive. The music is even better, scored by Michiru Oshima of Fullmetal Alchemist and The Tatami Galaxy. As anime composers go, Oshima has a recognizable style that is still uniquely tailored to each show's world. Here, it's full of lilting violin solos for touching moments, cutting low strings for scary ones, and bouncy staccato traveling music for the pleasant strolls that stretch between them. It all adds to a strong sense of romance and adventure, perfect for a girl striking out in the world and finding love along the way. Even when the script might feel cliché, Oshima's music is great at straining out the maximum emotional response.
Great aesthetics can't make a show alone, of course, so luckily there are quite a few moments where that extends naturally from the narrative. Snow White with the Red Hair works best when it focuses on Shirayuki's burgeoning career. As a European-fantasy medical drama, it conjures compelling variations on adventures-of-the-weeks, bringing something to the plate that's genuinely unique in anime. (The closest would be Spice and Wolf, if you replaced all the economics with herbal medicine.) It would work better as a whole if it shifted its focus there, making the show's interpersonal drama—especially its central romance—feel sweeter and more earned.
Another place where the show paid off was in backstory episodes, for our mains and supporting characters. For the larger narrative, there's little internal conflict among the major players. Even initially antagonistic characters have their edges rounded off over time. Still, many of the characters have interesting pasts, and the show does a good job of exploring these while still connecting them to their larger role in the story—how they came to be in Zen's court. Zen himself gets some powerful development, too, especially focusing on conflicts with his brother in his younger days. Viewers can easily see how these moments made him into the kind, but conflicted ruler he is today. There's a colorful cast here, and a lot of potential. When the show knows how to prioritize, it can be something special.
If you'll look carefully, though, you'll notice almost all of these types of conflict are self-contained. Shirayuki curing some new ailment, or Zen's bodyguard getting introduced with a personal history—those are episodic stories. While interesting and rewarding in their own rights, they don't make for much ongoing conflict. That's where Snow White with the Red Hair stumbles. It doesn't give you much reason to keep watching week-by-week, other than the central romance. But since we know where it's going to go anyway, that's not enough on its own. That dynamic can work with a goofy comedy, like My Love Story!!; it doesn't so much when it seems like it's reaching for a larger story, and that larger story isn't the reason that's pulling you back in from week to week. It had something like that in the beginning, with Shirayuki on the run from Raj. The show could keep running with that, but instead it slumps into a comfortable formula, choosing healing happiness over meaty plotting.
Luckily, there is a lot of potential for improvement in the winter season. There is Izana, Zen's Howl-doppelganger of an older brother. He's colder, and doesn't seem to appreciate Zen's taste in a potential future princess. There is our original antagonist, Raj. There is Shirayuki's career, and if she might have to choose between it and her man. Snow White with the Red Hair has so many interesting paths it could go on, and now that it's loaded every character with exposition, it's time for it to march forward on one of them.
So far, that Disney comparison is a double-edged sword for this show. Disney princess plots are classic and heartrending, but can also be predictable, so a lot of why they work is their movie-length. Snow White with the Red Hair might make for a great hour or two, but stretched out over the course of twelve episodes, its story wears thin. Still, with so many lovable characters, and such eye-popping aesthetics, you might find that you couldn't care less. Even when it doesn't tug at your heartstrings, it's always a joy to behold.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ Gorgeous art and animation befitting a Bones production; rich, luxurious musical score; refreshing, well-realized characters; episodic plots can be very dramatic and fun
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