And so we come at last to the
end middle of things.
Snow White hits its first-cour finale today, so it makes sense to spend the first half of this post providing a mostly spoiler-free review for anyone who somehow hasn’t made this a part of their watch list and is wondering if they should. Short answer: Yes, you should. Long answer: Hit the jump for some glowing paragraphs, and I’ll let you know when we’re moving back into spoiler territory.
I’ve spent the last twelve weeks falling deeper in love with this series, and that holds true through its finale. Snow White is a beautiful anime, a fairy tale for the modern age that approaches every element of its production with affection and a tremendous amount of skill. Each piece—writing, acting, art design and animation, music, cinematography—weaves together to create a singular mood that wraps itself around you like a blanket on a cold day, drawing you into its world and characters’ lives.
Showrunner Masahiro Ando (Hanasaku Iroha, Blast of Tempest) has a talent for creating works with a unique flavor that are greater than the sum of their parts, but he and the creative team at BONES have outdone themselves here. Dreamlike backgrounds, restrained but expressive characters, smooth, consistently quality animation, and of course Oshima Michiru’s positively transcendent score make Snow White the most polished, complete, and artful production of the season, and one of the best of the year.
All of which wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if the original story wasn’t up to snuff, but fortunately Ando picked a lovely little manga to adapt here, elevating the material while still remaining faithful to it. In general terms, Snow White is the story of Shirayuki the young pharmacist and Zen the second prince of Clarines as they both struggle to find a balance between personal agency and public expectations.
They are joined by a gradually expanding cast of characters, including Zen’s retainers, Shirayuki’s fellow herbalists, and various political figures, all of whom are well-written individuals that serve to add color the world. But it’s our central pair who carry the story, and they do so with aplomb.
Shirayuki is talented, level-headed, and determined, as dedicated to her work as she is her personal relationships, and while she struggles with insecurities and prejudice, she never lets it control her for long. She’s an excellent example of how a female protagonist can be complex and capable without being a warrior, and it’s easy to root for her whether she’s navigating her career, Clarines’s political scene, or her personal life. Zen is equally likable, a noble with a streak of wanderlust who’d rather be a commoner but has come to accept his responsibilities as a prince. And, unlike so many romantic heroes before him, he’s neither aggressive nor cold, but amicable, open, and respectful of others.
Simply put, they’re responsible, compassionate adults who deal with their problems using a combination of reason and empathy. They struggle with conflicts both personal and social, but they never let those problems spiral out of control, and they’re always quick to communicate honestly with each other. Their relationship is one of trust and equality, with each inspiring and pushing the other to improve. So, basically it’s what every fictional romance ought to be, and it’s wonderful.
In terms of overall story, Snow White is character-driven and semi-episodic, less interested in a single plot line as it is in story arcs that build on each other, developing individuals, relationships, and the politics of its palace setting at an unhurried, almost sleepy pace. It’s an intentional narrative decision that doesn’t lead to high tension, but rewards patient viewers as we come to know (and love) our cast, as well as dive into the show’s understated but ongoing exploration of the power imbalance between nobles and commoners and how those in positions of authority can best serve others. Oh, and those themes are explored via visual motifs as much as dialogue, because seriously, this show knows what it’s doing and does it exceptionally well.
Honestly, I’m not sure I have a real complaint at this point. Maybe that the first couple episodes were a little repetitive and slow to get started? But even that’s part of Snow White‘s charm, the way it teases out personalities and relationships over time, allowing the audience to grow closer to Shirayuki and Zen (and the rest of the cast) as they grow closer to one other. I said in my Rule of Three Review that the level-headed protagonist, aversion to melodrama, and restrained tone wouldn’t be for everyone, and I suppose that’s still true. But if so, that’s a genuine shame, because you really are missing out on something special here.
Season Grade: A
…Well, that got longer than intended. Ah, well. Now all you newbies out there know how great Snow White is! So go watch it! Just don’t read past this paragraph, as it’s going to get real spoiler-y in 3, 2, 1…
And hello to all you continuing viewers and returning readers! I just clocked a whopping 800 words of review, so you’ll excuse me if the episode post is on the short side this week. The good news is “Goodbye to the Beginning” is relaxed even by Snow White‘s standards, functioning as a sort of coda to last week’s emotional climax, so there’s not a whole lot to add in terms of analysis.
We follow Shirayuki and Zen (and our Loyal Retainer Trio, of course) through Open Castle Day, a festival held every few years where a portion of the palace is turned into a kind of fairgrounds for the public. It’s a mostly lighthearted adventure where the biggest “threat” is an ambitious theater troop leader (the HORROR!), but it does some clever things thematically, and of course provides us with more wonderful ShiraZen moments.
Before we get to the meat of my commentary, let’s take a moment to appreciate our side characters. Obi’s constant needling of Zen never fails to make me giggle, and his loyalty to his “master” is genuine, even if his interactions with Shirayuki continue to be full of the mixed signals. I don’t think he’s a threat—he respects and cares for both Shirayuki and Zen too much to do anything untoward—but the series seems to be intentionally dancing him along this line between love and love, and I’ll be curious to see if that goes anywhere next cour.
Kiki remains woefully underused (fingers crossed for more of her next cour, too), but Mitsuhide makes up for it by being a delight, equal parts Group Mom and Overprotective Older Brother. His Glomp O’ Joy in response to Zen and Shirayuki getting together provided the biggest burst of heartwarming in an episode full of them, and easily earns him the spot of Best Bro Runner-Up of the Year (second only to My Love Story‘s Sunakawa Makoto, because obviously).
As for our main pair, they spend the episode figuring out how to be a couple, and especially how to shift between the realms of the private and the public. The central conflict wasn’t my favorite of the series, as Zen gets a little “possessive boyfriend” with the hand-kissing bit, and there are some unsettling harassment/assault connotations to the stories about Shirayuki’s hair that, while tastefully and sympathetically handled, always feel a bit tonally jarring in a show as soothing as this one. But it does feed in nicely with the episode’s central ideas about performance, and leads to a finale that’s well worth the journey we take to get there.
Both Shirayuki and Zen spend large portions of this one in public spheres, and are by necessity forced to don disguises in order to blend in. Zen hides beneath a guard’s uniform so no one will recognize him as the prince; Shirayuki raises her hood to keep from drawing too much attention to her hair. Then we slap a performance on top of that performance when the two literally take to the stage, Shirayuki playing the part of the helpless princess and Zen the defending knight. Set before the backdrop of a castle almost as beautiful as Clarines’s real one, it’s the fairy tale we’ve heard before, and the one we may have expected Snow White to be.
The two seem to have fun playing these temporary roles (Zen more than Shirayuki, for obvious reasons), but the series takes care to remind us that these are masks, not their true selves. Once the two are in private, their disguises fall away and we’re able to see them as they really are: Two compassionate, capable individuals who see past the other’s public personas and meet each other honestly, as equals.
Shirayuki is no one’s passive princess, and she demonstrates her own refusal to be boxed into that expected role by taking on the mantle of the active prince, kissing Zen’s hand and declaring her affection and loyalty to him instead. And, despite his occasional bursts of jealousy, Zen respects and loves Shirayuki for that. Snow White does a remarkable job of showing how two people can “rely” on each other without losing their individuality or agency, and it makes every quiet interaction between these two an absolute joy to watch.
We wrap up with Shirayuki reaffirming her decisions up to this point, coupled with one last unreasonably gorgeous bit of scenery porn courtesy of the lantern festival, because Snow White just couldn’t go on break without reminding us of how much we’re going to miss it. This is a beautiful ending to a wonderful little fairy tale, and if this was where the series had chosen to conclude, I would have been more than satisfied. The fact that I get to return to this world again is just icing on the gorgeously drawn cake.
So have one last lantern shot to tide you over for a few months, and I’ll see you again in January for the second half of Shirayuki and Zen’s tale. I’m counting down the days already.