The original title for this piece discussing Snow White with the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayuki-hime in Japanese, and “Akagami” in this piece from now on) read as “Transgressively non-Transgressive Shounen Romance?”, but as “transgressive” is not a wide-spread word, I opted for readability. But this piece needs some unpacking of terms, which will be brief. “Shounen” and “Shoujo” are demographics, with “shounen” referring to young boys and “shoujo” referring to young girls. How do you know a series’s demographics? You look at the publication where it’s released. This also means that over time “shoujo” and “shounen” have grown, at least in the west, to mean certain genre conventions. Though this is “wrong”, this colloquialism is what this piece will use (I wrote about anime/manga demographics before). As for “transgressive”, we’ll get to that soon enough.
Akagami’s anime adaptation ended its second season recently, and after watching it, I thought it is as shoujo (remember: aimed at younger girls) as they come. It’s serialized in a shoujo publication (LaLa DX), it centers around a super-capable commoner heroine, it has a love at first sight encounter in its very first episode, with the super-capable and handsome prince, and the show has all the necessary associated sparkles for the lovey-dovey sequences, balls, gowns, declarations of eternal love and loyalty and not a lot of romantic conflict or plot-progress and external conflict (we’ll get back to this). And yet, watching the second season something suddenly became apparent to me: This quintessential specimen of the shoujo genre conventions might actually not be one?
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for the two seasons of the anime series. I think due to the nature of the story, these spoilers should not impact enjoyment of the show.)
Part 1: What’s in a Shoujo Anyway? Monomyths abound:
When the first season ended, I described it as very pleasant, bringing a smile and keeping it there for 20 minutes every week, but lamented that it did not actually add up to more, just giving us the usual romantic non-progress story with perfect people having fun with their (im)perfect friends and dazzling everyone. “Where is the conflict? Or alternately, where is the progress or even sense of continuity from week to week?” I lamented. The second season has given me exactly what I asked for, and then I realized it wasn’t what I actually wanted, as the show had gone in a very different direction, one where it felt as if it’s taken a page out of a shounen adventure series, where we had a story replete with kidnappings (multiple!), daring rescues, a very “shouty” villain, a prince leading his men to action, a village fortress filled with good-natured bandits, and family reunions. It could’ve been a story straight out of Fullmetal Alchemist or Naruto and I’d have taken it in stride.
More than just being an adventure tale, the story was also “shounen-esque” in how it was resolved, in a manner that was also quite fairy-tale-esque. In the first half of the show, Shirayuki, the red-haired heroine, had made friends, helping people. She had come to terms with Raj, a prince who tried to capture her for her beauty, as well as helping a group of islanders who raised messenger birds. Both of these elements came to her rescue after she has been kidnapped in this arc. This brings to mind all the fairy tales in which the third son saves a fish who later grants him wishes, or helps ant who later help him cross a moat. This form of “good deeds get rewarded” stands at the core of fairy tales which the show references in its very name (but doesn’t do much with later on), but it is a hallmark of shounen battlers, where yesterday’s enemies are tomorrow’s allies, and moreover, friends, as even Shirayuki’s original kidnapper is quickly revealed to having only been operating out of a misplaced desire to help her.
One of the main themes of many of the big shounen battlers is “The friends we made along the way,” the concept of friendship, and how the main character turns everyone they meet into their friends. Many antagonists become allies, or at least become sympathetic and are dignified during such series. Prince Raj who wished to turn Shirayuki into a status symbol, Kazuki who kidnapped her, Obi who tried to scare her off, and Lord Haruka who tasked Obi with that, and even Izana, brother to love-interest Prince Zen, all of them are quickly charmed by Shirayuki, acknowledge her agency and skills, and accept her, grudgingly, or as a close friend.
Where the show both differs and resembles shounen adventure/battle stories is what occurred after said kidnapping arc in the second season concluded, which was a series of vignettes that had shown us some of the background of various characters, in which we’ve seen Obi changing through his interactions with Zen and Shirayuki, the leads, but also how Mitsuhide has changed. But then the show comes around and says “Mitsuhide never changes,” but while it could be seen as a joke, because Mitsuhide is a goof-ball, we also have the show saying through its supporting characters, several times, how Shirayuki and Zen haven’t changed since the show began. Now, this is obviously not true for Zen who is actually putting an effort into being a Prince through Shirayuki’s influence, and more subtly for Shirayuki who now faces the hardships after finding a home for herself, rather than running away from the home she used to have rather than face the associated obstacle of Raj’s courtship. But it’s the message that counts.
“Our hero never changed!” is anathema to shounen adventure and battler stories, as the protagonist starts weak and helpless, and grows to change the setting. “Perfectly-formed from the get-go” stories is much more Light Novel material (see Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei / The Irregular at Magic High School, which ironically calls for “meritocracy” and self-improvement, but is all about unequal starting positions). But is that truly the case? Look at most big shounen battler heroes, where most of them have one defining personality trait at the beginning of the story: They are determinators. They might have the need to prove their worth to everyone who looked down on them, or they might not, but in most cases, it’s not their personalities that undergoes change, but their powers/skills that grow, and as they change the world and people around them, they grow in status and gain more recognition.
So although the series, through Shirayuki and Zen espouses a message that goes counter to the self-professed message of shounen narratives, it actually seems to fit right in. Shirayuki changes, but less in her attitude to the world, and more in terms of growing in skills as a healer, going up in social status (as a certified healer, a friend of Prince Raj, friend of Prince Zen, potentially getting adopted into Mihaya’s noble house (and he kidnapped her in the second episode of the first season), and getting acceptance from those around her, as she enables them to change.
Perhaps shoujo and shounen stories aren’t all that different after all, and if we break the story down to its constituent components, they’re pretty much the same, just different variations on the monomyth. It’s not too surprising, as the idea that all stories are the same and the difference is on what you emphasize has been around for a while, and I made that argument with regards to adaptations myself last week. So, let’s talk a bit about romance, and finally get into another form of “monomyth”, or at least a type of story that finds its way across most cultures. Well, two such stories: Transgressive and romance stories.
Part 2: Societal Romanticism and Comfort Food:
Transgressive stories, put simply, are about stories that violate common morality, that cross the boundary. You’ll often find them tied to issues of liminality (border-crossing). An example of a transgressive romance story would be a story revolving around incest, sexual violence, underage love interests, or even multiple partnerships. You’ll note how common these are in anime. In fact, I’d say that the majority of romance stories in anime contain one or more of these themes. Especially if we look at harem romance stories as such, even if the main character is bound to pick one. And even if we look at such stories and say they are truly love-triangles and not true harems, then we still have multiple romantic partners, to some degree.
Most shoujo romances lean heavily into the “(sexual) violence” sub-type, with a deeply troubled love interest who acts in a domineering and forceful manner towards the heroine, often humiliating her or telling her what it is she desires. If Akagami were this type of story, then Raj would be this love interest. And even with Zen who treats Shirayuki with respect, he still has a “troubled past” for her to quite literally heal, and there are those around them who take the part of trying to forcibly tear them apart. Most shoujo romances introduce at some point a second potential love interest, but just as in shounen harems it is clear from the get-go that the “harems” only have two true leads and everyone else is just there to waste time, in shoujo romances the second romantic interest is never truly in the running, and is mostly introduced for three purposes of forcing the heroine to question her feelings (and introduce “angst” over how “impure” she is), to draw things out, and finally, to introduce transgressive options, because everyone knows who she should end up with, so imagining she will not leads to the same transgressive trope as “multiple partnerships”: Disloyalty, cuckolding, or as is known in this scene, NTR (You can read more about that here, written by Froggy-kun). Especially when fan-fiction, especially for the shoujo audience, also often turns the two male love interests into a homosexual coupling.
Before I deal more with transgression, the point about “drawing things out” cannot be underplayed. Manga (and to a lesser degree light novels) are “endlessly serialized,” and if a series does well, it’s going to do everything to keep running. While keeping the series running gives you more opportunities to spend time with the main characters and see their relationship develop, it’s usually done in the manner of introducing new characters to the harem in shounen romance, and a character who competes with the main love interest in shoujo, or just going off and depicting all the heart-aches another side character has gone through (and then either having the heroine fix them, or not). These sidetracks can’t give us more opportunities to enjoy the main attraction of the series, the romance, as it necessarily focuses on something else. It’s designed purely to keep the series from climaxing too early.
Ironically, we’re drawn to romantic series for the romance, and if they’re successful enough, it means we get less romance per chapter, so they could keep going. How is this relevant to Akagami? Well, that shounen adventure side-story was very much a series of distractions to keep the story from progressing forward, from having Shirayuki and Zen be separated as she travels elsewhere, to having her consider whether she wants to be with Raj, and then whether she could be together with Obi, to her being taken even farther from Zen. This was as much anti-“Zen and Shirayuki’s romantic story” as it gets. But the final nail in the coffin of this read was the whole “They haven’t changed” spiel, because if this is indeed true, then why did we need the whole show for them to finally kiss, and then get together, which we all knew would happen? Because that’d have ended far too quickly for the medium in which it is released. If two characters love one another, then they don’t change, nothing changes, and two years pass, and then they’re together, the only question is “Why did we need those two years?” And the question is we sort of didn’t. Except, that’s what we come to the story for, because this is the comfort food.
And here we go back to transgressive stories. What’s comfort food in media? Usually a story that we know how it goes, and gives it to us in a competent manner without surprising us or breaking out of the mold. What decides what’s “comfort food” in this regard, aside from our tastes? The medium. Comfort food is what the mold is, it is the “standard story”. Is Akagami a comfort food story? It sure seems that way on the face of it, with a story that boiled down is, “A commoner meets a prince, they fall in love at first sight, and spend all their time together, with romantic moments and some silly adventures interspersed within the story.” We know from the get-go that Shirayuki would end with Zen, and if she somehow didn’t, the show would not only stop being comfort food from that point on, but it’d be seen as betrayal of its status as comfort food retroactively.
But is that truly the case? And the question of retroactively being non-comfort food is important. We often pick “comfort food” stories when we’re in a specific mood, and want to know what we’re getting into. So what about all those stories that begin like comfort food but then suddenly introduce incest or rape or anything else? Are they not comfort food? They are, so long you go in knowing they’d be that way. In fact, I’d argue that if anything, it’s Akagami that is transgressive as a piece of media, rather than all these works involving harems or incest, just because of how rare it is in anime (I’ll not address the topic of manga, where I’m far less familiar). If you look at the crop of anime from the past 5-6 years, almost every single anime involving romance is not playing “straight” to societal norms, but is transgressing against them.
Transgressive stories have always been of interest, and are in part a safe way to explore what society deems unacceptable. So people who are unhappy with society’s story, or have just grown tired of them, often turn to anime, which is much more fresh and risque in this respect. So, after 100 fairy tales that are heteronormative and vanilla, your first NTR excites you, your first incest story sends shivers down your spine. But there you are, several years later, and your heteronormative fairy tale romance count has gone up to 110, but your “transgressive story” count is now in the low-hundreds. Is it still transgressive? I’d say at this point you find comfort food of going through the motions of transgression, of identifying with the transgressive as part of your identity, as a response to culture, rather than transgression itself still being the main draw.
And what are you left with then? A situation where ironically, the story where the couple remains true to one another throughout is the true transgressive model. A model where playing things straight, from the get-go, with no cheating or changing one’s mind is what stands out as uncommon, un-normal. Mixed-races or mixed-religion weddings used to be unthinkable, while today it’s banning them that is transgressive. What is transgressive is socially mediated, and can become the new normal quite quickly, until the old normal becomes fresh all over again. Akagami isn’t only playing things “straight,” it’s brazen in its rejection of these tropes, as Shirayuki never truly considers whether to go with Obi or Raj romantically, but they who look at her in that light.
What changes in Snow White with the Red Hair is never the characters, and most of them do not truly go through internal struggles to try and affirm their feelings for one another, which is the hallmark of shoujo romance, but what changes is the situation around them, and their inner struggle mostly revolves around finding their place in the world. These are the hallmarks of a shounen battle-adventure story. These are the hallmarks of a bildungsroman. Akagami takes its genre tropes and subverts them, and in said subversion, ends with the form of the original story all over again.
The romance is drawn out, but in the end, it’s true, the real payoff is the friends we made along the way. So yes, it’s a worthwhile comfort-food story, in spite of all that I’ve said. But being comfort food, don’t expect it to surprise you, except for existing as it does, considering its contemporaries.