Content warning: slavery
What’s it about? Five-hundred years ago, humans defeated fairies and forced the magical folk into servitude. Now, fifteen-year-old Anne aspires to be a magic sugar artisan like her deceased mother, and sets off towards the capital to try and prove her skills in a kingdom-wide contest. But the road there is treacherous. Needing a bodyguard, Anne turns reluctantly to the fairy markets, where she buys a dark and mysterious warrior fairy named Shall to protect her.
This is a compelling premiere perhaps… er… undercut by one key, fraught aspect of its premise. Let’s address that elephant in the room first, shall we?
Over the last few years, “slavery isekai” has become a subgenre unto itself. From Shield Hero to Harem in the Labyrinth of Another World and everything in between, there is an unsettling glut of light novels, manga, and their anime adaptations that excuse or outright glorify owning other living beings as property—often as a combination power trip and sexual fantasy for the male protagonists the reader is invited to relate to and project themselves onto. It’s at the point where something like last season’s Reincarnated as a Sword legitimately stands out for positioning slave owners as antagonistic and granting the enslaved character some agency.
While it undeniably shares a media context and exists in conversation with these other titles, it would be disingenuous to lump Sugar Apple Fairy Tale in with them completely. The first and most obvious difference is that this one has a female lead, though to be clear Sugar Apple is in no way off the hook just because it flips the more common gender dynamic of owner/owned. Yes, it’s worth acknowledging that the power trip aspect of this fantasy has some different connotations, but we’re still dealing with a problematic romantic fantasy—just a different flavor with some different discussion points.
More to the point, Sugar Apple Fairy Tale clears the admittedly very low bar of framing forced servitude as bad right out the gate. Even if owning an enslaved fae workforce is the norm in this fantasy world, our protagonist—taking cues from her mother—thinks that this practice is wrong and feels sympathy for the fairies. Anne even steps in and stops a human from hurting his fairy worker, allowing the fairy to escape. After purchasing Shall, she promises that she’ll set him free when they arrive at her destination and his bodyguard services are no longer needed.
Starting at this point means Anne is already aware of the injustices baked into her society, which prevents her ownership of Shall from being presented as a whole-cloth romantic fantasy. It also saves us from a narrative where she slowly learns that Fairies Are People Too. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, and in fact a story about someone doing the hard work of unlearning their prejudices could be quite rewarding. It would just be a bit more of a slog.
For all Anne’s noble intentions, though, she does still have a lot to learn, and is still entangled in a tricky power dynamic with her love interest. Because of course Shall is her love interest: he’s beautiful, broody, ethereal, and softly snarky in a way that clearly makes Anne’s heart go ba-dump, and Shall seems drawn to her for his own (currently mysterious) reasons.
Interestingly, we actually have two different forms of power imbalance going on in this couple. On the one hand, Anne literally owns Shall—she bought him with money, and is holding onto one of his wings, the method by which humans compel fairies to obey them. On the other hand, Shall is a dark and broody shoujo love interest who invades Anne’s personal space, quips about kissing her, and is clearly physically much stronger than her, and indeed very dangerous, by virtue of being a warrior (not to mention the supernatural age gap between the two, because you gotta have that).
These opposing power dynamics come to a dizzying head in the episode’s climactic fight scene, when Shall leans blush-inducingly close to a flustered and frightened Anne and purrs that she needs to give him an order. It’s probably going to awaken something in a teenager somewhere. It raises the question “who’s really in control here?” — which is a pretty fraught question when it comes to narratives about slavery, at least English-language ones. A great deal of modern fiction fetishizing Black men underlines their supposedly brutish strength compared to the delicate, fragile White Women they’re paired with. And that same line of thought has also been used to justify horrific violence against Black men in particular (it’s the plot of the Klu Klux Klan reviving film Birth of a Nation!)
A Japanese creative team likely isn’t going to be aware of those historical elements, but it’s worth noting because the justification of “protecting our women” is one that can be weaponized against any marginalized ethnic or racial group. It’s likely Sugar Apple Fairy Tale came at this conceit from the perspective “how can we give our heroine an upper hand against a traditional Pushy Bad Boy love interest type,” but that doesn’t stop the other implications from existing.
I don’t want to say these two dynamics cancel each other out, it’s certainly an interesting combination that tips the balance (or the imbalance) back and forth, and dare I say… might make for some actually compelling character conflict as the story rolls along.
Sugar Apple Fairy Tale is a promising premiere that’s complicated as hell from a feminist analysis perspective. I think Anne holds a lot of potential: she’s headstrong but compassionate, and the first things we see her doing are 1) setting out to pursue a career inspired by a female mentor, 2) rejecting a marriage proposal from a foppish and entitled childhood friend, and 3) putting herself in danger to prevent an act of prejudiced violence. She’s got plenty of reasonable flaws and room to grow, steeped as she is in noble naivety that humans and fairies should just “try to be friends”. And even if Shall does fluster her and get up in her grill multiple times, she mostly retains her agency, and is certainly never sexualized by the camera or her costume design.
The issue that Anne bought Shall with money is never going to go away, but it’s at least being presented as a source of narrative conflict rather than a leery power fantasy. The back and forth slide of the power imbalances in this central couple are making me dizzy, but there could also be potential here. A lot will depend on how the story continues to unpack those power dynamics, which parts it leans into and which parts it has the characters grow past. I’m certainly not waving a flag recommending this just yet, but I remain cautiously optimistic, or at the very least intrigued enough to stick around for another couple of episodes.
Editor’s Note (1/6/2023): This article was edited after publication to add additional context regarding harmful stereotypes and historical narratives around Black men