Maomao is the heroine we need but don’t deserve.
What They Say:
Maomao lived a peaceful life with her apothecary father. Until one day, she’s sold as a lowly servant to the emperor’s palace. But she wasn’t meant for a compliant life among royalty. So when imperial heirs fall ill, she decides to step in and find a cure! This catches the eye of Jinshi, a handsome palace official who promotes her. Now, she’s making a name for herself solving medical mysteries!
E1 – Maomao
E2 – Chilly Apothecary
E3 – The Unsettling Matter of the Spirit
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
We really are spoiled when it comes to anime nowadays. Almost every genre you can think of is getting an anime. Not so great for the slave-wage animators, but amazing for fans of the medium.
What drew my attention to this title is the resemblance of it to an old favorite of mine, Saiunkoku. It shares the classical China royal court setting, rife with political intrigue and staring a plucky lead who isn’t about to let society crush her underfoot. And of course she will eventually get the guy, who is likely way better than first impressions merit.
Just crank the production levels up and pull down the number of accessory pretty boys and here we have the Apothecary Diaries. Based on a light novel of the same title by (pen-name) Natsu Hyuga that came from the same self-publishing online platform that has spawned so many isekai series. This is not isekai, thank god, but just a good, old-fashioned, fictional story. They make a point of using the ‘not based on real people’ disclaimer before each episode so as to not anger crazy CCP lunatics I suppose.
We meet Maomao (yes, her name is Kitty) working delivering medicine to her regular clients at the local brothel before being snatched by kidnappers and sold into servitude in the palace. It is an extremely played-down moment and Maomao just roles with it. She figures, in her extremely pragmatic way, that if she does the bare minimum to screw her kidnappers and wait out the two-year contract she can return home mostly unscathed. This is some serious ‘can’t fight city hall’ logic. We never find out what happened with her elderly father either! He must have been panicked! I hope Maomao managed to communicate what happened somehow.
In the palace, we quickly learn that the harem of concubines is a nest of vipers all competing to provide an heir to the Emperor and become Empress. Two consorts have just given birth, one to a son, and the other to a daughter. Yet illness rears its head and the infant prince is killed. Was it intentional poisoning or perhaps just coincidence?
Maomao tries to keep her head down and is still discovered trying to warn the consorts about the dangers to their babies. She has all the makings of a perfect detective, curious, intelligent, and has a doctor’s mentality to help those in need. She catches the attention of the lead eunuch of the inner court, Jinshi. The beautiful man clocks her nearly instantly and tries to seduce her to use her as a tool, placing her in a position as a taster for consort Gyokuyo. Thus begins a new life for Maomao, one that is certain to put her in harm’s way. So much for keeping her head down.
The series dropped three episodes at the start of the season, giving us three cases to watch play out. From a situation with poisoned soldiers fighting on the front lines to a concubine who is sleepwalking on the palace walls at night, the episode moves swiftly but not too quickly. The pacing is perfect, and each event is very different. The pacing is far smoother than Snow White with the Red Hair, and despite Maomao being in a dangerous place I don’t feel she’s going to fall into the same damsel in distress situations as Shirayuki.
Maomao is shown to be a good apothecary who knows her plants and ailments. While some of the medical information is completely truthful (the lead poisoning from the makeup) some of the rest is… not so accurate. (Chocolate is not going to turn you into a nymphomaniac, even as a placebo effect.) The author chooses to use the classical tropes of ‘building up a poison resistance’ to explain how Maomao can survive being a food taster. I’ll forgive it since it is almost a classical trope at this point, and Maomao doesn’t live in modern times and can’t know her classical training would be filled with classical medical misconceptions.
I love the opening and ending themes. The opening is “Hana ni natte” by Ryoku Oushoku Shakai. It has a driving beat and is far more punchy than I was expecting for this series. The ending is “Aikotoba” by Aina The End. It’s more subdued and typical for ending themes, but the quality of the singer’s voice is raw and gripping and has a quality I’m missing in most modern US stuff and fits Maomao’s deeper voice. The visuals for both the opening and ending are focused firmly on Maomao and plants, which fit the show. I’m probably missing out on the symbolism of the woodsorrel flower in the opening but maybe it’s just a weed for our plain main.
The Apothecary Diaries makes a strong first impression as the inheritor of the “unassuming brilliant young woman gets embroiled in court politics” genre. Where shows like this usually aren’t known for the animation this show puts forth a solid effort to look alive in a low-action environment. Maomao is a wonderful lead; smart in a natural way, funny, and worth rooting for. While the details of some of the medicinal situations play loose and fast with scientific facts, the drama is strong and the pacing tight. The music, voice acting, and presentation of the characters are on point. I’m excited to see Maomao solve more medical mysteries.
Episode Grades: A –
Streamed by: Crunchyroll