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by Rebecca Silverman,

YATAGARASU: The Raven Does Not Choose Its Master

Episodes 1-13 Anime Review

YATAGARASU: The Raven Does Not Choose Its Master Episodes 1-13 Anime Review
Deep in the mountains, there is a kingdom of yatagarasu, three-legged shape-shifting ravens. When the time comes for the crown prince, known as the kin'u, or golden raven, to choose his bride from amongst the women of the four great families, more than mere marriage is at stake; power stands to shift from one family to another, and certain factions would prefer that the second prince abdicate his standing as kin'u in favor of his older brother, who has taken religious vows. As the curtain rises, a young raven named Yukiya finds himself working for the kin'u and thrown into the thick of things – and no one and nothing, possibly including Yukiya, is exactly as they appear to be.

YATAGARASU: The Raven Does Not Choose Its Master is a work of art. That's not just a statement on the careful details of the images and animation, although those are beautiful; it's an overall assessment of how the entire series is put together. Where many court political dramas can spend too much time with old men who all look vaguely the same and more named characters than anyone could reasonably be expected to remember, Yatagarasu constructs its story in such a way that you have to pay very close attention to figure out the full depth of the plot and the characters' machinations. It's like a folding paper fan with an intricate image: the overall picture changes with each leaf folded or unfolded. The story ensures that we rarely see the complete fan unfolded, leaving us to make our best guesses about what the entire image is.

Based on the first two (of ten, plus two short story volumes) of the novels of the same name, Yatagarasu takes for its base the Shinto god who serves as a messenger in mythology. In Shinto lore, Yatagarasu is a god of guidance, whose name can be read as "large raven," and different sources attribute various feats to him. Although all of the shape-shifting ravens in the series have three legs, scholars are divided about whether that piece of the myth is indigenous to Japan or was imported from China or Korea since there's no mention of the number of legs in the text or image before the mid-Heian period in Japanese literature.

This may be why the story is set in a pseudo-Heian court, although mostly it is the women whose clothing follows that period, with some of the men looking much more modern in terms of kimono style. When a raven transforms, they must be wearing their feathered robe, a description some viewers may recognize from a different category of folktale, the Swan Maiden tale type, ATU400. In those stories, a celestial or supernatural woman is deprived of her feather robe while bathing and thus cannot return to her home. She is eventually freed when she finds her robe, which her husband has hidden from her, at which point she escapes her forced marriage to him. What bearing this will have on Yatagarasu isn't entirely clear in these first thirteen episodes, but episode twelve, as well as Shiratama's entire storyline, could point to "reclaiming her feathered robe" as a metaphor for taking charge of her own life, while episode thirteen's resolution to the arc suggests that hiding one's true self rarely works out. (How this will affect Sumi remains to be seen.) ATU400 can be interpreted as a woman losing her free will and eventually reclaiming it to once again control her own life, and that's a theme the four ladies ensconced (trapped?) in the Cherry Blossom Palace embody. This may dovetail with another use of the feathered robe in the series, the fact that "horses" are yatagarasu kept confined to raven form either as indentured servants or as punishment for crimes committed —the reverse of the woman's plight in ATU400.

Although the kin'u, or crown prince, is more or less subject to the whims of the courtiers around him, he still has more power than any of the women. Part of how he holds on to it is by keeping his thoughts to himself; when Yukiya first comes to him as a servant, he must figure out the meaning behind the prince's seemingly nonsensical directives. This is a test of his intelligence and loyalty. Yukiya receives a first-hand education in the courtiers' political games, often engineered to attempt to remove the crown prince in favor of his older brother or to make the kin'u do what they want him to. Yukiya serves as a foil to the prince in this way; himself the second child, his trajectory has largely been forced upon him by people who are keeping information to themselves, and like the kin'u, he must discover his truth and make his own choices about what it is that he wants to do with his life—and his power.

That's not afforded to the ladies, so they must engage in different, potentially vicious tactics. The character of Shiratama, the youngest of the women chosen to be one of the prince's possible brides, has the strongest story arc in these episodes as she struggles to force herself to shove her wants and emotions deep down inside her and devote herself to what she's been told is her duty. Shiratama nearly loses her mind trying to be someone she isn't, and Cha no Hana, her overbearing lady-in-waiting, represents the adult forces trying to impose their will on a girl to the point where she doesn't even know how to be herself anymore. Hamayu, on the other hand, is presented as the lady who best controls her destiny, revealing her true nature and using it to secure her freedom (at a cost); she goes with what she's expected to do to a point before revealing anything, although even then the question of her freedom remains open. Masuho-no-Susuki falls somewhere in the middle, ultimately reclaiming her free will after eleven episodes of playing nice.

And then there's Asebi, the lady who initially doesn't seem to belong in the Cherry Blossom Palace. Like the kin'u and Yukiya, she's a second child, and like the kin'u, she seems to be taking the place that ought to have belonged to her elder sibling. It's easy to take her at face value, and the series does its best to encourage that; she is perhaps the best example of the fan-folding metaphor I mentioned before. Asebi forms a trinity between Yukiya and the kin'u, all three showing different aspects of the "spare" second sibling, although the picture that will eventually be revealed remains unknown. The meaning of the name the empress gives her may be a hint, and Lady Macbeth's words about innocent flowers also seem pertinent. But all three of them form an excellent argument for never taking anyone at their word or the word of others: unless you see them with your own, clear eyes, there's no way to know what's truly going on, and the best answers are always in the shadows.

YATAGARASU: The Raven Does Not Choose Its Master is a stellar example of how to do a court drama well. Yes, it has a lot of named characters, not all of whom are quite physically distinct enough, and the plot is dense. But the story is being told on both the surface level and beneath it, and it needs both to show what it is capable of. With its lush backgrounds, lustrous colors, and opening theme images that you ought to pay close attention to enhance the storytelling, this a standout of the Spring 2024 season. It's a story you can sink your teeth into in the best way.

Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+

+ Layered, in-depth story, beautiful art. Interesting mythological and thematic elements.
Characters occasionally look a bit wall-eyed, lots of characters make it a little tricky to keep everyone straight. Opening theme's musical style doesn't quite fit with the show.

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Production Info:
Director: Yoshiaki Kyougoku
Series Composition: Yukiko Yamamuro
Script: Yukiko Yamamuro
Episode Director:
Shigenori Kageyama
Toshiyuki Kato
Shinya Kawatsura
Yoriyasu Kogawa
Naoki Kotani
Yoshiaki Kyougoku
Kaoru Suzuki
Music: Eishi Segawa
Original creator: Chisato Abe
Character Design: Takumo Norita
Art Director: Shinji Matsuura
Chief Animation Director: Takumo Norita
Animation Director:
Reika Hoshino
Hiroaki Imaki
Yūji Kondō
Tomoyuki Matsumoto
Minoru Murao
Momoko Nagakawa
Keizō Shimizu
Yuka Suzuki
Yoshiaki Tsubata
Shi Jie Zhu
3D Director: Kōtarō Itō
Sound Director: Yuji Tange
Director of Photography: Shiho Imaizumi

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