Readers ranked a list of shoujo tropes early last year and I'm sure a lot of us who have ever watched a typical shoujo series can agree to have seen one or more being used. For the most part, series classified under this genre don't deviate too far even if they do throw in a few twists to keep their viewers' interests. Some take these tropes and have some tongue-in-cheek fun with them (Ouran High School Host Club) while others take a more down-to-earth approach (Sukitte Ii na yo). But occasionally, there will be a series which comes along and flips all or most of its genre's tropes upside-down.
Akagami no Shirayukhime was first serialised in LaLa DX in 2006 and received an anime adaptation mid-2015. It follows the developing romance between Shirayuki, a budding herbalist, and Zen, Second Prince of the neighbouring kingdom. While it can be sweet and flowery at times, there is nothing typical about this shoujo series.
I've already gone over how Shirayuki is an amazing example of good female characterisation so this piece will cover other aspects that I believe make Akagami no Shirayukihime one of the more worthwhile shoujo series out there. There's a lot to cover, so let's start at the beginning...
It starts off typically enough: the poor―but beautiful―girl (Shirayuki) is singled out by the prince of her kingdom (Raj) because of her striking red hair and is asked to become his concubine. Girl refuses his demands and runs to the neighbouring kingdom, where she meets a boy (Zen) who later turns out to be that kingdom's prince. Girl becomes friends with said prince and starts to spend time at his castle, to the disapproval of his advisor (Lord Haruka). Standard intro so far, right? Seems like it'll lead to a classic tale of hierarchical drama where the girl and the boy must struggle to maintain a relationship despite the vast gap between their social statuses.
You couldn't be more wrong. Her lack of social standing is only a minor roadblock in the larger plot. While Lord Haruka's attempt to drive Shirayuki away from the palace provides early friction in the story, Shirayuki doesn't back down in the face of his threats. Instead, she moves to find a way to become a legitimate part of castle life: taking and passing the court herbalist exam. In doing so she overcomes the first hurdle to her relationship with Zen by proving she's not a timid country girl leeching off a prince's goodwill.
Lord Haruka: "One must have authority in order to invite those from the outside into the castle. You do not look like you have the social status to be invited by one with such power."
Shirayuki: "If it is as you say and I should not be here, you may stop me with your sword." (she starts to move forward)
Lord Haruka: "Get back, girl! I will cut you!"
Shirayuki: "Do as you like."
― episode 3, season 1
Now, Zen has many excellent qualities but that's nothing new in a shoujo protagonist's love interest. He's attractive, charming, and of course, he's a prince. His constant sneaking out of the castle to mingle with the common folk makes it easy to like him as well. Unlike his older brother, he's portrayed as a roguish boy. Basically, he's given all the ideal qualities we're supposed to fantasize over. How does this make him different to other so-called "perfect boyfriends"? It doesn't - it's how he's used as a character which is most interesting.
The series throws up a few potential rivals to Zen fairly early on. First is Izana, Zen's older brother. Izana is far more mature, canny, and intelligent than his younger sibling―a model ruler. He functions more as a low-key antagonist at first. After attempting to test the relationship between the pair, he shifts to a more supportive role once Zen and Shirayuki understand the implications of moving into a relationship with one another. There are moments where he deliberately goads jealousy from Zen but, ultimately, Izana makes it very clear that he has no interest in poaching Shirayuki from him.
Thus, rather than create needless drama for the sake of the story, Izana instead sets an example of how family should sensibly and objectively support each other. His caution towards her is not on the excuse that she is of low status. What his concern is centered on is whether Zen will neglect the duties of his position for the sake of his love for a girl, and also whether that girl has ulterior designs in catching his eye.
Zen: "Shirayuki is the girl I wish to marry."
Izana: "...I see. If you're saying that much then go [to Tanbarun] if you want. However, if something happens to you that requires me to take action then don't even think about bringing that girl back to the castle."
― episode 4, season 2 (the Sea Talon arc when Shirayuki is about to be kidnapped)
Then there is Obi, ninja in all but name. He's first used by Lord Haruka to threaten Shirayuki, but Zen ends up giving him a new job as one of his retainers: first as a messenger, and then as personal guard to Shirayuki. Obi is the most overt rival for Shirayuki's affections by far, but he doesn't fulfill the traditional rival role. Unlike in other love triangles, Obi doesn't make any move to try and take Shirayuki away from Zen. Oh, he flirts, but he flirts with just about anyone who catches his eye. Zen, Kiki, Mitsuhide―all fair game. Like a stray cat, he forms no clear attachments to any of the main cast members.
But an interesting twist appears further into the story. The anime hasn't yet reached this point so if you didn't already heed the spoiler warning on the front then look away now!
Obi likes both Zen and Shirayuki. Yes, possibly in a romantic way (it's not clear but it is highly suggestive given the flow of conversation; read chapters 58 and 59 if you want to see). It's something which Zen takes it upon himself to confront and, impressively, accepts, even though he cannot reciprocate in full. I don't know about you, but the only other series I've known to deal with differing sexual orientations in such a non-gimmicked manner is Shinsekai yori (From the New World). A lot of the time such characters end up as caricatures so it's refreshing to have someone with clear leanings towards both genders who isn't also a walking stereotype. While a love triangle of sorts is established between Zen, Shirayuki, and Obi, there is never any cliche sense of competition because the three do not to let it slide into a messy pit of jealousy.
Zen: "Obi, you like me don't you?"
Zen: "What a quick reply... Well, that's fine. What about Shirayuki?"
Obi: "Yes, I like Mistress (Shirayuki). But I'm sure you've already found that out."
Zen: "There's no way I would have. This is the first time I'm hearing it from you."
Zen (to Obi): "Don't worry, I have no intentions of tying you down. Being nimble is your strong point. But I have no intentions of handing over my reins on you either, especially since I relatively like you."
― chapter 58/59
Between his elder brother and Obi, Zen becomes a role model with regards to the ideal way relationships should be handled. He takes Izana's concern and works towards an outcome which leads Izana to accept his relationship with Shirayuki, and he reacts with neither horror nor shock upon confirming Obi's interest in himself and Shirayuki. Zen's worth is not just in his good looks or kind personality. He is the sort of human being we wish more of existed.
Another character of significance is Raj, the prince who originally wanted Shirayuki as his concubine. He goes through rapid growth after repeated meetings with Shirayuki, spurred on to become a better person thanks to her rebukes. He can't be considered a rival in the same way that Obi (and to some extent, Izana) are because Shirayuki made it plain from day one that she has no interest in him. While the topic of him trying to win her over comes up repeatedly during the Sea Talon arc, Raj's time spent with her leads him to realise that having Shirayuki stay with him would be worthless unless it's a choice she freely makes.
Rona: "But don't you think so too, brother? That it'd be nice if Shirayuki stayed at this castle forever."
Raj: "I do not. A Shirayuki made to remain with me would be boring."
― episode 8, season 2
The point is that Raj can be held up as an example of someone who respects Shirayuki's autonomy. He is not the only one of course, but he is the one who had the most issues with accepting that she is someone rather than something. His words there demonstrate that he understands Shirayuki is her own person. This is a clear message to the audience that people (whether women or men) aren't things to keep.
It's not only the characters which this series handles well but tropes as well. There are several instances where typical romantic moments are taken and upended - and I don't mean in the self-referential, comedic way either. Below are some moments you may commonly see in shoujo anime.
The "I'm Glad You're Alright" Kiss
Often after a harrowing encounter, the boy will kiss the girl out of sheer worry for her safety. This will often be the first time a couple kiss and realise their feelings for one another. Zen does exactly that after Shirayuki injures her arm leaping out of a window into a lake then makes the unusual move of apologising for doing so without her permission afterwards.
This is a lesson worth remembering actually: Unless you know for certain your intrusion into someone's personal space is accepted, don't kiss or touch anyone intimately without warning.
Zen: "Shirayuki, the next time I touch you, I will tell you before I do." ― episode 11, season 1
The Hand Kiss
We all know that scene where the boy goes to one knee and kisses his girl's hand. Well, Shirayuki does just the opposite here, asking Zen to hold out his hand so she can kiss the back of it.
Shirayuki: "Zen, will you put out a hand for me?"
― episode 12, season 1
The "May I Have This Dance?" Question
Again, it's usually the boy initiating this. Shirayuki breaks typical gender roles once more to ask Prince Raj for a dance. This particular scene also has Shirayuki follow up the question with her suggesting they settle whether their relationship can change, to which Raj responds that she's already won (i.e. She has managed to change it for them).
Shirayuki: "Well then, Prince Raj, would you do a round with me?"
Raj: "When you're the one asking, it sounds like some kind of fight."
― episode 8, season 2
Bath Talk: Peeping Toms and Comparing Busts
A tired old trope which adds nothing to the story but is thrown in anyway whenever there's an excuse for a bath scene between characters. Usually the men will joke about peeking on the women and at least one woman will make remarks about the size of someone's breasts. The former isn't entirely avoided thanks to Obi's personality but the latter is! No gratuitous boob shots whatsoever.
In the end...
Akagami no Shirayukihime is not your average romantic fairytale love story between prince and pauper. It retains the sweetness which one expects from such fables but subtly tears down traditional gender roles. The characters develop into people with clear personalities and motivations, and while it's admittedly an extremely idealistic romance set in an equally idealistic country, it provides a good template for healthy, balanced relationships. They may be friends or they may be lovers, but Akagami no Shirayukihime makes it very clear when certain actions are not okay and doesn't ever excuse rotten behaviour. Raj's lack of social awareness, for example, is repaired and rewarded with friendship.
Hopefully there are (or will be) more series out there which can help normalise good examples of couples. For now, I'm going to sit tight and hope that a third season is in the works.