Content warning: transphobia/anti-intersex bigotry, child abuse (emotional/neglect)
What’s it about? In the late 15th century, England is torn between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, each of whom claims a right to the throne. Richard, youngest son of the Duke of York, wants nothing more in life than his father’s approval. But no matter how he tries, he finds himself unable to catch up to his older brothers; and his own mother curses him as a “demon child” due to his intersex body. Still, he remains steadfast in his life goal of seeing his father on the throne, whatever the cost.
Longtime AniFem readers may remember that several years ago I mentioned the Rose King manga as “that series I’m obsessed with and recommend to basically no one” (more or less). It certainly feels made for me: it’s got a gorgeous gothic aesthetic, it’s based on my favorite Shakespeare play, it stars an angry little gremlin, and it’s got Gender Feels. It’s also a flaming chainsaw party of fraught issues, to such an extent that whenever I praise the series I feel a burning compulsion to follow it up with “but also…”
I’ll confess that initial news about the production team—director Suzuki Kentaro’s has predominantly worked on comedies and idol shows along with heading up the camptastic Angels of Death, while series composer Uchida Hiroki is a newcomer who’s pulling double duty this season with the latest overpowered isekai snoozefest—did not fill me with confidence. I get to eat those words a little bit now. While nothing will stop me from tuning into each new episode with my buttcheeks firmly clenched (my other nickname for this series is “the one I don’t want to hear cis people’s opinions about,” for reasons we’ll get into), I came away really impressed by how this first episode captured the gothic horror mood.
This is far from the animation spot-fest of the season. In fact, it barely moves at all in some places. When combined with the composed frames that use the paper cutout style popular in gothic-leaning works and a painterly veneer, parts of this premiere made me think of avant-garde classic Belladonna of Sadness. We have dark, thorny vines wrapping across the frame like Sleeping Beauty, sickly disorienting greens of Richard’s self-doubt to contrast with the cool blues of a moonlit meadow. This is a dark shoujo melodrama that’s all about the Big Feelings and a few battles on the side, and this first episode absolutely gets that drawing us visually into Richard’s state of mind is paramount.
Speaking of Richard…alright, let’s talk about the gender shit. I want to try to be careful in how I talk about this, and I encourage intersex readers to pull me up in the comments if I overstep. Trans representation is a very small pool in the world of fiction (here anime, manga, et al); within that, trans-masculine representation makes up an even smaller percentage of that small percent; and when we get into the adjacent world of intersex characters, I can literally count positive recent depictions on my hand (Luca from Astra Lost in Space and Kainé from Nier, if you were wondering). Basically, even if it’s a puddle versus a thimble, I don’t want to steal this boy accidentally.
Richard is intersex and not trans—but as a transmasc reader/viewer, there are a lot of elements of his story that I find intensely resonant. Richard spends so much of this story angry that people refuse to recognize him as a man because of physical characteristics he can’t control, who feels frightened of attraction because of how it might affect society’s view of his gender, for whom puberty is a terror. It makes him bitter and cautious and afraid to trust, and that anger resonates on such a raw level that it’s kept me tied to the series no matter how many other elements of the series frustrate me. He is a truly special protagonist.
He’s also the lead in a tragedy. Not to spoil anything for y’all, but Richard III does not have a happy ending for the title character. Moreover, this series absolutely loves to use the threat of exposing Richard’s body as a source of tension. This first episode features it twice: once when Richard tears his own shirt, and once when he’s threatened with a knife in the jail. And boy does that not go away. It’s tapping into a fear of vulnerability and rape culture in the same way shoujo classic Fushigi Yugi did back in the day—and like Fushigi Yugi, it’s quickly overused to the point of feeling hack and exploitative, with an extra veneer of luridness around Richard being forcibly feminized. I fully expect non-cis viewers to have emotional reactions all across the map in terms of the emotional toll versus value of this storytelling.
Walking into this series means going along with a protagonist who has thoroughly internalized the sense of monstrosity that’s been thrust on him since birth and who lives with an unending paranoia about his bodily autonomy, who grabs hold of small moments of happiness but also finds himself in the seemingly inevitable spiral of courtly politics. This is not a happy series. At best, it’s cathartic watching Richard persevere against a world that hates him, even as it kills him. It’s also frustrating, and I’d hear the argument that it’s tragedy porn. And it gets fetishy. And while I’m here, it’s a lot more vicious in its portrayal of conniving female characters than male ones.
All of which I’ve elected to spill out in front of you because when it’s good this is a raw, affecting melodrama. The kind that can cut a viewer open unaware if they came into this just wanting to cheer for Richard as a queer intersex man. And if the production can hold onto this level of skill for all 24 episodes, it’s gonna hurt. I’ll be watching it every week.