Content Warnings: Violence (some blood); sex (not graphic); nudity; the review briefly discusses sexual assault, but it’s not present in the anime itself.
What’s it about? In a fantastical alternate-history version of 1930s Japan, a group of secret agents works to keep the peace for the Tokugawa shogunate. One of these agents is Yuki, a young woman seeking revenge for her murdered family. The group fights political enemies and supernatural ones alike—and their latest target may finally lead Yuki to the vengeance she’s sought for so long.
I solemnly swear I am not going to spend this entire review giddily cheering about the umbrella crossbow. Yes, the bolt comes out of the tip. Yes, it doubles as a bulletproof shield. Yes, it made me clap my hands with childlike glee. And yes, it’s only like the third wildest thing to happen in this premiere. All true. All important.
But this is not a review of an umbrella crossbow. It is a review of JORAN THE PRINCESS OF BLOOD AND SNOW, a show so confidently over-the-top it needed caps-lock to convey the full extent of its Extra Power. Whether it’s going to be good is still up for debate, but I’ll give you this: it’s definitely got my attention.
Joran is inspired by Lady Snowblood, a popular manga-turned-movie series from the 1970s about a young woman out to kill the men who once raped her mother. I say “inspired” because, at this point, Joran has little in common with Lady Snowblood beyond the central premise—and even then, only a little. The anime seems to have altered Yuki’s backstory, focusing on her relationship with her brother and cutting the assault element entirely. (Probably for the best, as I’m not sure this show is prepared to grapple with sexual violence in a meaningful way.)
If you’re a fan of Lady Snowblood and looking for a more faithful retelling, you’ll likely be disappointed by this fantastical premiere full of secret societies, assassins, and the aforementioned crossbrella. But if you’re like me and have little to no knowledge of the source material, Joran works perfectly well as a standalone series, albeit one that throws a lot at you in its first 22 minutes.
Joran’s premiere performs a bizarre balancing act between serious historical drama and totally ridiculous supernatural action spectacle. What begins as a mix of alt-history political intrigue and grounded spywork quickly morphs into a paranormal shoot-em-up. In addition to my beloved crossbrella, we’ve also got a tiger-man, a superheated sword (lightsaber?), an organ-playing snake-man, and a ghost-bird that fuses with Yuki so she can become the world’s most metal magical girl.
The show introduces these elements so matter-of-factly that it takes a moment to realize just how buck-wild it all is, and by the end-of-episode cliffhanger it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Joran going forward. It’s the kind of tonal fluctuation that could draw in multiple audiences or push them all away equally, depending on how well it balances its plot points, characters, and fantasy elements as it goes.
Fortunately, it looks gorgeous regardless of what’s happening on-screen, shifting between layered, colorful backgrounds and action scenes that make use of thicker, paintbrush-style lines to provide a sense of depth and motion. Joran may end up being a big ol’ mess, but at least it’ll be a pretty big ol’ mess.
The jury is still out on whether Joran will have substance to match its style, though. Director Kudo Susumu (K, Cinderella Nine) has a mediocre record at best, while series composer Nezu Rika’s past work is almost entirely in live-action series (including shoujo manga live-action adaptations like the Kimi ni Todoke movie and the Absolute Boyfriend TV series). It’s great to have a female writer working on a show about a female fighter, but there’s no guarantee that will translate to a feminist-friendly or even compelling full-length series.
That said, while this premiere didn’t give us a ton to chew on, it’s also refreshingly free of a lot of the issues—namely, objectification or violence against women—that often plague “dark” action shows. Despite a couple scenes in a brothel and some instances of naked women, the camera never ogles, instead presenting sex and nudity as matter-of-factly as it does crossbrellas. In a similar vein, one of the main spies is also a sex worker who seems to enjoy both of her jobs, which the narrative presents without judgment (even reminding one of the other characters that sex work is just as much a “real job” as spying is).
Of course, our protagonists are also currently working for the oppressive government who just built a massive wall around their stronghold to help them maintain their monopoly over new resources. So, that’s not great! But, hey, there’s plenty of time for Yuki to realize their corrupt ways and turn on them. Probably. Maybe. We can hope.
Joran The Princess of Snow and Blood has a lot of style, a lot of action, and a lot of balls in the air with no clear indication of where they’re gonna land. At this point it feels like it could go absolutely anywhere, from political thriller to popcorn action flick to historical-focused character drama. It could soar high, fly completely off the rails, or putter along somewhere in between. Heck, it could even mix metaphors as badly as this paragraph.
If its gleeful blend of genres sounds like it’d be up your alley, definitely give it try. Otherwise, it might be best to sit tight for now and see how it’s looking at the three-episode mark. As for me… I mean, c’mon, y’all. It’s a historical fantasy with crossbrellas, organ-playing snake-villains, and mahou murder girls. I live for this delicious nonsense. Of course I’ll be back for at least two more.