I looked forward to this anime as the Spring 2021 season approached, and while my initial enthusiasm wasn’t rewarded completely, I enjoyed this show. It started with a ton of potential, fizzled in the middle amidst a poorly laid out plot, and finished pretty strong by playing to its strengths and not allowing plotlines to devolve into conveniently happy endings. I am highly satisfied with it.

But while we’re on the subject of overall, this show has some frustrating issues to go along with some good points that really could have been better, so as a whole this show feels a little bland. If it weren’t for some high points at the end, I would’ve said this show was a big miss. But because of that ending, I come away feeling satisfied, like my time was well spent on this show. And that’s the least I can ask of any anime.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 6

It takes a while to really be certain that this show is about Sawa Karasumori, the blue-blooded warrior princess of the Karasumori clan. It’s obvious she’s the main character from the beginning, that’s not what I mean. I mean the handful of other characters that appear in this show take up a lot of the dialogue and plot through the meat of this show, and while she’s always at the center of events among these characters, the focus really seems to shift from character to character for a while, leaving her as a mere participant alongside of them.

There’s a possibility that this is intentional. The writers may really want us to feel like events and people are pushing Sawa around, that she can’t plot her own course. If that’s what the writers intended for the audience to perceive, then I applaud them, because that’s exactly what it felt like. But if they simply let Sawa get lost in all the mess in the middle, then it’s a bit of a disappointment. I never like it when a story gets out of the authors’ control.

Regardless of the authors’  intent, the result is a lack of focus on this central character and a resulting lack of development. We know Sawa belongs to the Karasumori clan, and that they ran afoul of the powers that be because of their extraordinary abilites, whereupon the secret police organization Nue exterminated them, leaving only Sawa behind (for reasons). We know she now works for the Nue organization, and therefore for the Tokugawa shogunate, and that she isn’t aware of their role in her clan’s demise. We know her abilities have to do with her blue blood and her ability to channel extraordinary physical abilities through some inexplicable joining with a white crow (in her case). We know she’s out for revenge on those who killed her family and clan. But that’s all we know about her, and we learn all of that within the first couple of episodes. Perhaps the authors saw no reason to develop her further; and from my view, I can understand that, as she seems a sufficient character for the purposes of the story as she is. Nevertheless, she feels underdeveloped, as if we could know her better.

These various other characters are not many in number, but nonetheless are difficult to keep track of. Elena Hanakaze is easy to keep up with, as she has the blonde European/Russian look. Supposedly she’s a writer, but I continually forgot that throughout the show. And she suddenly got married and had a child, which was inexplicable to me as far as the plot goes. Jin Kuzuhara, one of the leaders of the Nue and Sawa’s direct superior, is also fairly easy to identify, because he is almost always present. He receives the most development of anybody in the show surprisingly, having a lot of backstory behind his role with the Tokugawa shogunate and the Nue organization and his actions surrounding the Karasumori clan. Still, he’s a fairly unsatisfactory character, even if I can see his role in the story.

Tsukishiro sending a thrill down our spines once again.

I was highly interested in the Makoto Tsukishiro. Mystery shrouded this elegant character from the moment she appeared, and Shouta Aoi (who has played both male and female roles over his brief career) does a great job with her voice. In fact, Tsukishiro embodies a lot of the mystery in this story as long as she’s present, so much so that the feeling of mystery almost completely evaporates once she’s killed. Everything about her exterior seems hidden, a lie, an intent to deceive befitting such an operative. Obviously her often masculine appearance is the biggest factor in this, which she, most interestingly, casts aside in her final battle. I loved all her action sequences. The sword fight between her and Sawa, though Tsukishiro is in a weird beast form there, is really good. Her sword’s appearance is fantastic, inspiring fear and awe in viewer and victim alike. This show lost more than just a another supporting character when she was killed. And of all the people who seemed dead but actually weren’t in the end, this was the one I regret that didn’t return. Hey, there’s always season 2, right?

Asahi’s role is predictable, and she doesn’t have a major impact on the story. She does contribute to the most heartfelt part of the show at the very end though, which I won’t mention here for the sake of those who haven’t completed the series but are reading this anyway (I admire your courage but discourage this as a common practice, and definitely don’t recommend you continue this article for now). There’s the shogun himself, who appears one time only to die, and then Janome, the mad scientist who forms the rebel organization Kuchinawa (remember all the snakes?). Rinko Takemichi is introduced super late, and I kind of liked her character, but she isn’t in the series for long enough for much to be made of her. 

But that’s it. That’s all the characters in this show. And yes, despite the limited number, it’s a little difficult to keep track of who and where everyone is and what they’re doing. A few other side characters appear and disappear quickly along the way (Sawa’s brother is a good example), but they play a role for a few minutes in an episode and then usually are killed. But they add to the distraction just enough to further hinder character development for the main core of characters. 

So while I like some parts of the individual characters, there’s not a lot to attach oneself to in any of them. They all have their own troubles, but we can’t really get that involved in them because of the way the story is told and the resulting lack of development for each character. I think all of them had potential, but only a few of them even approached that full potential. Still, like most everything else in this show, while I see holes in the characters, I find them satisfying overall.

Artwork

Rating: 8

Big positive number one for me: this isn’t sourced from a manga or LN, and it looks very original as a result.

What does that mean Hawk? It means it’s not constrained by the unfolding of still frames of a written source, so the cinematography is free to explore and create. It’s difficult to describe, but when you’re told this doesn’t come from written media, you can look at it and somehow feel like that makes sense.

And I like how it looks. It starts off strong right away with the blue beast thing. I really liked the blue fire, and never got tired of it appearing alongside Sawa’s trademark chant. I felt a bit of an AoT vibe from Sawa’s beast appearance, as the blue flames that flare from her face reveal her skull and teeth, leaving the rest of her face fairly normal. But despite that vibe, I otherwise felt these beast designs were pretty original, and very eye-catching. My only problem with it is I’m not sure how much of a role it played in the story. Where did this superhuman ability come from and why do they take on these weird beast aspects? Maybe there doesn’t have to be a reason, but it begs the question.

The coloring is cold. Very cold. I like that. I’m still not sure what this show has to do with “snow” (I could be missing something), but for that word to be in the title, we see a lot of snow, a lot of cold weather, and the appearance of nearly everybody is very cold. Particularly Sawa. She’s deathly white, something that’s made overtly obvious throughout the show. Her eye lines and outlines in general are very clean, white or black with little shadowing. She stands in high contrast to everything around her almost 100% of the time. This certainly highlights her centrality and the difference between her and the people around her, something that one could overlook if not for this part of her appearance. Black, blue, white, red are the primary colors in this show, in that order, and it works really well for her and everyone else. It’s kind of exciting to look at.

Most scenery is darkly lit, something else that adds to the coldness of this show. For those that live in the most northern or southern latitudes, of course winter means less sun and lots of dark, and I think that’s part of what we’re supposed to be experiencing here. But it works well for this show, allowing Sawa to stand out even more against her bluish backgrounds.

This got my attention instantly.

I definitely think the artists were striving for some level of uniqueness here. I always like that. Typical anime artwork of course is lovely, and many times typical artwork is best suited to the situation. But I’ll always give a show credit for trying to explore this art style, even if the show is terrible overall (Ex-Arm). But when a show is good and it tries to make its artwork just a little unique, I really enjoy it. Usually, when outlines are super clearcut like this, we’re talking about horror. Think Parasyte or Future Diary. And while this art certainly isn’t really in the vein of those two shows, the distinct outlines add to the suspense in the show effectively, and play a part in the uniqueness of this artwork.

I’m not sure what role the beasts play in this show, but I like the white crow. It’s inexplicable, it’s bizarre, it’s mysterious, and it’s always nearby. The closer it gets, the more mysterious the story becomes at that moment. And it looks good as part of Sawa’s overall appearance. At the end of the show we see Jin in a black crow form, and I feel like this contrasting white versus black has some important plot role, but I’m not certain of that at this point. But overall, the crow thing works for me, and particularly the strange, unearthly white crow of Sawa’s

Something that consistently caught my attention was the landscape. Or cityscape. This show is based in the Meiji Era (late 1860s-early 1900s), so heavy foot traffic and some technological advancements are expected. What’s not expected are the large overarching structures that span throughout the city, colored a prominent red against the night lights of the city. I believe this is some sort of gondola system that runs above the city, perhaps available only to the privileged few who are in good with the shogun. This is one of the earliest indications of the fantastical we see in this show, telling us that all is not as we expect here in late 19th century Japan. It’s very effective, and quite striking to look at.

I wouldn’t say there’s anything super special about this artwork. I recognize the attempt at uniqueness, and I applaud such effort, but the result is not earth-shaking. But it’s very engaging, somewhat different, and very interesting to look at. It has all the creative freedom and resulting interest factor I’d expect from original material not drawn from a written source. My anime sense is very pleased by it.

Story

Rating: 5

There’s some big negatives in this story and some redeeming positives. If it weren’t for those positives, I would find this story very frustrating. And since this anime tries to be a story-driven show, the negatives threaten to effect my entire view of this series, making the positives even more important. And timely, as most of those positives occur right at the end.

Politics must be used carefully in anime. I don’t mean modern real-world politics, a distasteful wasteland that should be avoided at all costs in this artform. I mean the politics of the world in which the characters find themselves. In Jouran, those politics serve as the motivations behind the various characters, as their loyalties are tested and waver between political actors. The problem with it here is that it creates a lot of backstory that isn’t explained very well, making it very hard to follow the main plot because we don’t always know which characters are in opposition.

This started very early on, but reached a peak during the Kuchinawa mini-arc. It took me some time to recognize that Janome and the shogun were both antagonists. I got it that Janome was the evil mad scientist who wanted to steal and abuse the power of the Karasumori, and I got it that he once worked for the shogun and had subsequently entered into rebellion against him. But I didn’t recognize that each of these political factions were to blame for the wrongs being done to the city, the people, and the Karasumori. Perhaps that’s concealed intentionally to allow the story to unfold as it does, but it confused me a lot during the show. First I thought Yoshinobu-shogun was the antagonist, then suddenly Janome was the antagonist, but he was opposing the shogun, then we see Janome and the monstrous results of his experiments (nice fighting sequences through here by the way), then he’s gone and suddenly it looks like Sawa’s journey is at an end. You still have half the show left at that point however. So the shogun becomes the antagonist once more, with Jin sometimes appearing as an antagonist even until he finally decides to outright oppose the shogun in the end.

It’s confusing as the characters’ loyalties move so fluidly between parties. This was where subplots met the actual plot surrounding the main group characters and Sawa herself, and it was a bit of a trainwreck. Tsukishiro is a double agent, working for Nue and Kuchinawa. Sawa herself works for Nue in depressed ignorance of their role in the Karasumori’s massacre. And Jin can’t decide where to place his loyalties, as his humanity is tested by the presence of Sawa. I think the writers didn’t handle all of this carefully, resulting in Jin appearing and disappearing conveniently, sometimes opposing Sawa and the Karasumori, sometimes regretting his past actions and opposing the shogun. The writers extricate themselves from this messy knot well enough, but it’s all fairly confusing while you’re watching, and distracts from the better parts of the show.

One thread the writers didn’t tug at much was Sawa’s humanity. Judging by the artwork alone at the beginning, I thought this was going to be a huge part of her character. She was deathly pale compared to everyone else. And while other blue-blooded monsters would appear as her opponents here and there, we could tell she was unique among these, retaining some remnants of her humanity despite her impassive exterior. She seemed very alone in her monstrosity, and I thought this presented a big opportunity for the storytellers. Such a plot device can feel cliche or trite, especially if it’s presented in a cliche or trite manner, but I still thought it had potential here. But I never saw it develop. We saw Sawa try to abandon her way of life a few times, and once try to live a normal human life. All of this was disrupted and she was forced back onto her destined path every time. All of this could have played a very interesting role in her monstrosity and the distance between her and the rest of humanity, but nothing much ever became of it. She embraced her monstrous self at the end, and she dies as a human. It’s nicely done there at the end, in this sense, but it’s not a huge part of her character or the plot overall.

Nakanaide, Sawa-san.

But still, it’s the resolution of this story, there at the end, that saves this show for me in the story sense. I think the effectiveness of tragic death can be exaggerated, as people usually react with such emotion to it. But also, that’s just it. It’s almost always evocative. And it’s much more so when you can’t really see a way out of it; or to put it another way, when it seems like it’s for the best. Poor Sawa has tried to live a normal life, has tried to live as a vengeful killer, has tried to live a normal life again, and is constantly driven back to being a killer. Killing is the only method ever presented to her as a means of escaping that very way of life. She has to kill Tsukishiro. She has to kill Janome. She has to kill Jin. All so she can finally live a normal life. But in the end, none of it is possible. She lives by the sword, and dies by the sword, and there’s no way it can be otherwise.

Apart from all of that, even how it plays out is just really tough to watch. In the tenth or eleventh episode, Sawa sits beneath the evening sky and finally cries buckets of tears (the picture above). It’s hard at this point because, whether you can put it in words or not, you know what she has to do. And you know she knows she has to do it. And you don’t want her to cry. Not now.

Then she does it, and everything is resolved. There’s no more organization, no more Janome, no more shogunate, no more orders, no more killing. Against all the odds, she can return to Elena’s new life and the seemingly resurrected Asahi. And even though it happens so fast, we know somewhere inside that this isn’t to be. Rinko, following orders herself to the end, stabs Sawa from behind in the streets, as Sawa attempts to return to the new life awaiting her. Sawa makes it home, reunites with Asahi, and dies sitting beside the peaceful Asahi under that night sky that has seen so much pain and so much joy in her brief life.

It was really good at the end. The confusion of the rest of the story makes the details a little difficult to grasp, but the core emotional impact is there. It’s really sad and very effective for the story overall. And it definitely saved this series for me. If it wasn’t for all the knots being tied off there at the end with this quick succession of events, I would’ve thought this story had very little direction. I would’ve thought it was a messy attempt to try and tell a complex story while highlighting some interesting visuals and mis-displaying underdeveloped characters. But with the evocative events of the final couple of episodes, I can overlook even the convenience of Jin’s actions and Rinko’s literal backstabbing and simply admire the world the writers created for Sawa and these unhappy few were so very fortunate to cross ways with Sawa in the path of life. I was happy at the end.

Overall: 7

We don’t get a lot of historical fiction in anime. All of the characters are fictional except Tokugawa Yoshinobu-shogun, though technically he had abdicated his position as shogun by the Meiji Era. And the one time we see him, he’s a doddering old man, which would be inaccurate historically. But he was known for his attempts to instigate “Westernization” in Japan, encouraging French and even American political involvement in the state, something that kind of appears in dialogue here and there in this show. Others can comment on that history better than me. As far as I can tell with limited research, that’s the only real-world character appearing in this show. While historical figures make various appearances in anime at times, under various guises, etc., usually it’s not in a historical context or placed in the correct historical period. Since that is the case here with Tokugawa Yoshinobu, technically this show can be called historical fiction, making it a rarity in the anime world.

Being historical, it makes great use of traditional Japanese music, or what we modern listeners might imagine is traditional at least. It sounds great. The last few episodes have all the aforementioned emotion in them, and most of it occurs right at the end, right as the final scene transitions into the ED. That transition is really well done on those episodes, and this show really finds its niche in moments like that. It feels really right somehow, and it makes the music that much more appealing.

Because of the way it ended and its interesting artwork, I came away from this Spring 2021 series very satisfied. I keep saying “satisfied.” I don’t watch anime to be “satisfied,” but that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about my feelings on this show. And I wouldn’t deny the voice of my gut reaction to a show, because I don’t have such reactions to every show. Some series I find indescribable, others I find academically interesting. Some I find completely empty. Then some I have just an overall feeling about. And for Jouran, that feeling was “I’m satisfied with how this worked out.” It sounds a little emotionless, and perhaps it is. But perhaps that’s the result of a mostly confusing show meeting with a very heartfelt and tragic resolution at the end. They average out I guess I could say!

But still, overall I like this show. I recognize what it was trying to be and what it could have been, and I find satisfaction in both. I like that it’s original, not sourced from manga or LN. I like that it’s nicely wrapped up in a single season. There’s some potential that we could just bring all these characters back and have a second season, as several characters that seemed dead during the show suddenly reappear later. But I hope they don’t do that. I like this as it is. A nice piece of historical fiction that stands alone in its twelve episodes. I don’t need or even want a second season. I like it how it is. I am satisfied.

Sleep now, princess of snow and blood.

 

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