Raven of the Inner Palace may have fallen under the radar, but it's another worthwhile watch this season for fans of political intrigue, simmering romances, and nobles plagued by ghosts.
This series is streaming on Crunchyroll
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, I was a little worried for a second there. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and I still needed to source a turkey! But it's all worked out, as I've found a suitable substitute.
Hell yeah! The holiday is saved. We'll eat like emperors as we dig into Raven of the Inner Palace
. Aww, man, the spread looks good already!
Wait, is that all it takes to rope us into covering something? We're such cheap dates; our bosses are lucky that Raven
here is a pretty cool show.
I can absolutely be won over by food, but that's beside the point. It also happens that Raven happens to be one of my favorite shows of the season, and it also happens to involve a lot of birds close to the time everyone's going to be dining on one. Check to ensure your birds don't have scary human faces before sticking them in the oven.
So what is Raven of the Inner Palace
about that's so appealing? To strip it down, it's a supernatural mystery series set in a fictional version of Imperial China. Having just established a new dynasty, the freshly crowned Emperor employs the services of the Raven Consort to sleuth out the many things haunting the palace's history.
Our opening minutes show Xia Gaojun seizing power to the throne to end the former dynasty's corrupt rule, but he's still got a few closet cleanings before he'll be free of skeletons.
Right from the start, we're aware of the previous rule's approach and the show's tone: You don't facilitate these kinds of court-intrigue stories without leaving behind a whole bunch of corpses. And even the dead can stick around and cause other issues afterward.
That would be why the palace has its dedicated Ghostbuster on staff.
A few notes about the title of "Consort" and the Imperial Chinese Ranking system. I doubt everyone will be a total history nerd about this, and the show doesn't stop to explain the positions of the palace to you other than what applies to the specifics of the story. Chinese Empires ran on a system where second to the Empress, the king's official wife, other women were kept around to produce eligible heirs. This was an important status of its own, and all the women and female servants lived in a secluded section of the palace, sometimes called the back palace, inner palace, or forbidden city in the English tongue. Male servants, such as eunuchs, generally weren't allowed to enter.
Admittedly, that's stripping some of the nuances between dynasties and such, but that doesn't really matter to Raven since it's fictional and not 1:1 to history. Part of what makes the position of the Raven Consort interesting is that despite having the high noble status of the other consorts, she's not required to attend "nighttime duties" for the Emperor, as the show puts it.
It is amusing how the narration dances around that terminology with the more flowery language, given every episode of the show opens with it; maybe they didn't want it to stand out as a distraction.
"No, she's not required to fuck."
Not that this show shies away from depicting sexual content in some instances, but right: the point is that Shouxue there is less concerned with physical assistance to the new Emperor Gaojun and more spiritual advising. Even if that requires plenty of on-foot investigation of the palace and its inhabitants' various comings, goings, and petty grudges.
It's all a very dense affair high on intersecting gossip and drama you'd expect from this sort of period piece.
With that said, you don't need to know every detail of historical palace life to be invested in it. The systems in place play an important role, but there's enough context within each story to understand the emotions behind them. All in all, they're all about power, who wields that power, and the victims of it. Even our protagonist, Liu Shouxue, is revealed as a victim, dying her hair from white to sheer black to hide her ties to the previously purged nobles from dynasties past.
That was one of the first things I liked about this show as it got going. It depicts a lot of the same 'court intrigue' that powers so much entertaining fiction throughout history. But through that, it continuously points out the cost of those kinds of power-struggle dramatics: People, the common and marginalized, who get used up by royals and nobles, their spirits left burdened with their own business and unable to move on.
Though most of the ghosts being investigated are also nobles, as even they aren't excluded from being victims of power; in fact, a lot of what makes the "intrigue" part of court fiction is understanding that being of higher status can make you more beholden than not; a real recipe for tragedy.
However, what makes Raven
great is how it seeks perspective on such events. Shouxue is introduced as shrewd and enigmatic in her position as a mystic authority. Still, her dedication to truth results in compassion for the dead and those who survive them, regardless of status.
The title character that she is, the Raven Consort makes for a pretty strong central character to center the happenings of the Inner Palace. The far-reaching compassion you mentioned comes off as a product of the fact that she's in a position of nobility, yet she came from common origins. Similarly, she shows great empathy for the people she deals with in her investigations. Still, her station has her feel like she must keep herself at arm's length with other potential personal relationships.
Shouxue is cute, cool, and everything in between, and the process of learning about her and why she contains those multitudes is as compelling a mystery to peel back as any of the ghost stories she's solved throughout the show so far.
Due to her upbringing, we can trust that Shouxue's judgment is impartial. Even while living in the Palace, it's the duty of the Raven Consort to be isolated from others; while hers was a lonely existence, it's another thing that removes her from many corrupting influences for those that seek her authority. She has a decent bit of power, but she doesn't use it for anything other than getting the job done, and she doesn't let it go to her head. From Shouxue's perspective, the Raven Consort is more of a caged bird than a free-flying spirit.
From what we learn as the story goes on, Shouxue, as all Raven Consorts have been, is more structurally constrained than might have immediately been apparent. Being effectively trapped in the Inner Palace has led her to spurn closeness with others, fearing persecution for her true white-haired status and pity for her situation.
It's why Gaojun approaching her represents a key turning point in her situation since he seems genuinely interested in who she is and seeks to move past the pettier Old Ways of conducting all that royal intrigue.
He's not quite as cuddly a companion as a cute chicken, but he's got his charm.
Charm indeed. After all, while Raven
is primarily a series of mystery, politics, and intrigue, Gaojun and Shouxue develop a pretty interesting romance.
As the new head honcho, it's easy to be suspicious of Gaojun's ulterior motives as Shouxue is. Still, he has pretty personal solid reasons to seek justice and reform, having lost his mother to a terrible crime.
We also mentioned that Shouxue is a consort in name only, so their budding relationship isn't born out of seeking power over her either. They have more in common with business partners as they try to reach their common goal.
The story clearly illustrates parallels between their situations, both children who saw their mothers sacrificed at the altar of persecution and power structures before ascending to a position of power where they could make a difference.
One interesting thing is that while Shouxue is initially suspicious, as you said, of Gaojun's courting of her favor and abilities with food and gifts, Gaojun, for his part, seems more uncertain about the origin of the overall position of the Raven Consort itself, and what it might say about the covered-up history of the palace's rule. Shouxue herself, he mainly regards cordially, if taking a slight umbrage with things like her re-gifting habit.
What helps is that they both have this excellent rapport. While it's excused by business or pleasantries, it's very chill watching them talk about whether it's Gaojun trying to melt Shouxue's icy exterior and get her out of hermit habits or Shouxue being tsundere and giving a few well-honed verbal jabs. They feel casual and relaxed, work well together, and even give each other advice, like when Shouxue isn't sure what to do about her lady-in-waiting and first friend.
Again, they're not married, but beyond the teasing, it's the kind of back-and-forth dynamic mostly seen in mature couples.
Overall, that episode about Gaojun helping Shouxue out with her lady-in-waiting, Jiu-Jiu, was one of my favorites in terms of seeing the progressing relationship between the main duo and Shouxue's own growth. It's still structured around solving the mystery of another spooky ghost, including a finishing reveal that's its own flavor of bittersweet. But it's just so dang cute to see Shouxue express her vulnerabilities in not knowing how to act around people she's come to actually care about, and grow from those experiences.
A delightful procession of 'Awww' moments, punctuated by Shouxue's textbook tsundere behavior.
While she's a recluse, her duty forces her to interact with various characters within the Palace, talking to them, listening to their stories, and even sympathizing with them. She employs those with nowhere else to go on a few rare occasions, such as Jiu-Jiu. Using her position to grant solace to those displaced, her actions cause the scope of her inner palace to grow. The complete opposite of everything her mentor taught her.
As a story, it ends up with a good cast of characters supporting our protagonist. I was surprised by how active even most of the servants are, like Gaojun's main attendant Wei Qing. He not only helps Shouxue on behalf of his master, but he proves that his loyalty is based on genuine trust rather than blind devotion. Also, it is known that being a eunuch sucks beyond the whole castration deal (which, again, might not apply to Raven
Wei Qing's deal gets dropped into the middle of another story we're exploring at the time, and I think it's intentionally jarring; warning for that sexual content I alluded to as we find out the poor kid was abused by his masters before being taken in by Gaojun. It turns out to be relevant since it lets Wei Qing conclude that Shouxue does look out for the little guys in the palace's court, like the ladies-in-waiting and the eunuchs.
It speaks to what makes Shouxue so effective as a spirit investigator since she's able to collaborate with people at all levels of the royal court to piece together what happened to these ghosts and how best to let them be sent off to rest.
Many individual stories are also touching, and several even tie into larger plotlines. Presentation-wise, there's a range. The day-to-day scenes may feel serviceable with generally flat lighting and color palette, but there's still great attention to detail to palace life. Meanwhile, there's a flare to the mysteries, such as the traditionally-styled illustrations used for flashbacks and Shouxue's gorgeous power sequence. Overall, it's well-designed and much more elegant than most recent shows with a primarily female demographic.
They're a great example of showing some of the show's darker subject matter without being too detailed.
On the other hand, I hope you like seeing Shouxue's little magical flower sequence since, while it looks nice, you'll be watching it a lot as it serves as her magical girl stock footage finishing move.
They're usually consistent with her outfit, hair, or what side of the head her flower is, depending on the context of the episode. Details!!
That's fair; I had noticed bits like that. And they still cut loose at the same time Shouxue does, like when she's getting ready to wreck first arc antagonist Bingyue for threatening her friend Jiu-Jiu!
Even if they try to convince you a few seconds later that he might not be all that bad.
Same! Aggressive screen-shotting for column purposes pays off!
We don't end up finding out everything. Still, Shouxue was upset after Gaojun claimed to feel sorry for her and unsure how to help her, the real reason he was sticking his nose into everything involving the Raven Consort. But, the reveal that they're both equal in authority is interesting. It reflects on their relationship that even though they're a woman and a man living under this extremely unfair (hint: patriarchal) system, a real relationship is compromised of two individuals with equal input. This applies to deep friendships as well.
It's also forbidden for the Winter King and the Summer King to be in love with each other because that's how bad shit happened.
It's a very deep-reaching iteration of generational trauma. It makes sense why it might take someone like Gaojun, who attained the throne specifically wanting to cast off the style of rule of the previous Empress, would be the one who could break that chain by treating Shouxue as an equal ruler again.
It's reflective: As Shouxue grows by learning about the people of the palace outside her inner sanctum, Gaojun grows by learning about Shouxue herself.
To add to my read, all the rules speak to how only transactional interactions should be tolerated because being passionate or emotional can lead to significant conflict. Shouxue, being new to relationships, similarly fears their consequences. She thought a minor squabble with Jiu-Jiu was a huge deal. She's unsure about the risks of growing close to all these people, yet the episode always ends with a picture of everyone laughing and smiling.
It's all demonstrative of why, even amongst all the backstabbing and ghostbusting, those growing relationships, specifically the one between Shouxue and Gaojun, remain the primary thrust of the narrative. It's why so many episodic ghost stories are about relationships between people and how reconciling those connections lets them "move on."
Be they family, lovers, or given that these are ancient nobles we're dealing with, some perhaps questionable mix of the two.
Overall, people who enjoy rich narrative-driven shows will enjoy this. Some people may be drawn or pulled away by the historical setting, but the characters are what drive the story. It's well-plotted, and like Shouxue's sheer raven-black hair, there's always a silver lining underneath every dark set of circumstances.
Also, that Avu-chan
opening song? Slaps!
Agreed on the killer song, though I think I could do with a little less of Niao Lian's mildly horrifying bird-person visage throughout it.
That's one turkey that maybe doesn't deserve to be pardoned.