There are anime series which excel because they have an original story (Clannad After Story, Stein's Gate and Madoka Magica) and there are those which soar due to well-written characters who carry an otherwise generic story. Akagami no Shirayuki-hime may be dismissed due to its straightforward nature which seems to religiously follow the shoujo genre but a deeper look reveals its characters that defy the tropes which makes it special.
The legitimate weakness of this series is that its story does not stand out. We were introduced to Shirayuki, a girl who ran away from her home because their prince wanted to make her a concubine then she met Zen, a prince from another country. The premise basically rings a familiar trope that was used too many times before (Disney, anyone?).
The first episode is very fairy tale like in my opinion with all the events being mirrored with the first few events of Snow White. We then follow her life and struggles after she made friends with the Prince. In all honesty, it can be tiresome at times since the first few episodes were made to look as if she was a princess in damsel and the prince has to rescue her just at the right moment.
Other moments involve Shirayuki taking an exam, being introduced to Zen's brother and so on but again, the story does not stand out which is a fair claim to naysayers to dismiss the series as just another shoujo show. This hurt the series considerably in its not so stellar episodes and might leave a stagnant feeling to the viewers.
DISCLAIMER: My praise to Akagami Shirayuki-hime begins here and it might border as if it came from a rabid fanboy but I will try my best to balance my review.
The artwork is highly consistent courtesy of Bones and is the prettiest looking series this season. It was as if the staff borrowed some of Shinkai's technique (the man behind 5 Centimeters Per Second) when it comes to the relaxing hues used in Akagami Shirayuki-hime. The artwork (lighting and the characters' expression) was also able to accentuate the heartwarming scenes in this series (Episodes 4 and 11 in particular) and along with the standout score, it elevated an otherwise generic moment.
As regards to character designs, these were cleanly made and these faithfully followed the mangaka's but modified them a bit to have a Bones feel to them. These also mark a departure from your typical shoujo fare where the typical characters are so pretty that you might be dazzled.
Again, Bones is not a stranger in putting the right music at the right moment which makes the effect of crucial scenes in this series very potent to those who invested their time in it. Strings were used during climactic ones which elevated nondescript scenes to heartwarming events. It also knows when to stop during the show's most crucial moment (I am not going to spoil anything) to emphasize something irreversible with Zen and Shirayuki has happened.
For most of the time, the musical score is relaxing enough to complement this languidly paced series which is a very commendable job for Bones.
Akagami no Shirayuki is a character driven show which has actual and relatable characters and a very strong lead reminiscent of Akatsuki No Yona. For what the story lacks, the characters in this show compensate.
Shirayuki defies the traits of a typical shoujo lead. She is socially capable, strong-willed, is not afraid to speak her mind and has actually has a brain which knows her limits. A viewer might expect a typical shoujo lead to go doki doki with her love interest but Shirayuki holds her own and yearns to seek position for her to see Zen as her equal. A crying main character trope because she was intimidated is also not present here but we are given a very rational one who thinks before she acts.
Zen, on the other hand, might err at times to your typical male shoujo character but a closer examination reveals that he is not. While he is kind, his past (a very painful one, mind you) reveals what made him like he is as portrayed. He might be likable and composed but his insecurity (or whatever that feeling is) to his much superior brother is palpable and shows its ugly fang when triggered but not to the point that he shows angst about it. He also narrowly avoided the sparkly main lead syndrome by toning down some of his traits and by not giving him a chick magnet role.
All other recurring characters were also given ample time to get some development. Mitsuhide and Izana benefited from Zen's flashback of his past so much that it can be also viewed that certain story was theirs and not Zen's. They were also elevated from plot device to actual characters which interact with the leads (and contribute to their future paths) without the feeling of emotional manipulation. Izana in particular might just be my favorite character in this show for his reasons and his peculiar ways of handling problems which antagonize him a bit.
Obi, on the other hand, is a very interesting oddball which complemented Zen's calm nature. He is quite perceptive and throws statements which drive the series to a positive direction. The confession scene would not have happened without him after all.
If you are a shoujo junkie and are looking for shoujo-esque moments every single episode, then I am sorry that you are looking for the wrong show. There are no overly complicated relationship webs (A likes B who likes C who likes D... yada... yada...) and we are only given focus with Zen and Shirayuki for as long as the shoujo nature of this show in concerned.
You will also not see Zen getting doki doki around Shirayuki (vice versa until the climactic moment in this show) just because it's the genre's trope. A crying lead being submissive to her love interest after an unfortunate event is also missing here. Instead, Shirayuki has her own resolve in the show's larger problems.
The main leads also prove that we don't have to go for two seasons of confusion and misunderstanding to get a very satisfying confession in the end. And boy, what a satisfying event that was.
There are episodes which fail to copy the oomph of the series highlights (Episodes 2 and 5 in particular can be erased and it will be better in my opinion) but I expected a generic love story upon hitting the play button. Then my prejudice in this show was destroyed in the first episode. This is how execution can make cliches to something special. A second season is coming in January which I hoped will live what makes this one a good romance title.