Content Warning: Child death, forced sex work
What’s it about? Maomao works as a pharmacist in the red light district until she’s kidnapped while collecting herbs and sold to the imperial harem as a servant. Maomao hopes to finish her term without being noticed, but it’s difficult to hide her intelligence when royal infants start mysteriously dying and she can’t resist letting the consorts know the cause.
The question for me going into this premiere was not “is The Apothecary Diaries good?”, but “can the animation deliver this heck of a good story?”. I know the trailers looked hella beautiful and of course with TOHO Animation Studio’s involvement, there shouldn’t have been any doubt on my part. I’m cynical by nature, so I can’t help but wonder if it’s because this series is under the seinen umbrella or that both the light novels AND two manga adaptations are selling really well in Japan, that it was inevitably going to receive a stellar adaptation. Either way, I’m so happy they nailed it!
I absolutely adore the manga and it makes me happy that more people are going to be exposed to this story and my girl, Maomao. This premiere not only looks gorgeous, it also takes its time to introduce all the major characters and how they all operate living under a patriarchal society. The animation does a great job showing the parallels between the red light district and the imperial harem; and while the series will definitely explore the major differences between them, the primary function remains the same — women are forced to compete with each other for the sake of social mobility. Basically, women’s bodies are seen as property for the sake of either making money at brothels or giving birth to royal babies.
Despite the pretty visuals, the sense of desperation is palatable and it’s truly sad to see women risk their lives to protect their beauty and physical attributes because they’re made to feel that’s their only value. Maomao provides plenty of commentary about how cruel and unfair the system is to everyone — including the eunuchs. That’s why Maomao’s pragmatic nature makes her an interesting protagonist: she’s aware that she can’t do anything to change the system and therefore, like everyone else, must figure out how to navigate under it. In the context of the imperial harem, she wants to remain as a laundry worker because she doesn’t want to earn extra money for her kidnappers, and she’s aware that the more power you attain, the more envious eyes will be on you.
Regardless of Maomao’s cold exterior, deep down, she’s an extremely empathetic person and tries within her limited power to help other people. That’s why it’s meaningful when Lady Gyokuyou (one of the main consorts) listens to her warnings about lead poisoning found in the makeup, which has slowly been killing her baby. Gyokuyou’s actions says a lot about her character since she isn’t arrogant enough to ignore servants and she even tried to warn her fellow consort, Lady Lihua, as well.
Lady Lihua’s son clearly threatened Lady Gyokuyou’s position and it didn’t help that the baby prince received preferential medical treatment versus Lady Gyokuyou’s daughter — to the point that she had to beg Lady Lihua to allow her baby to receive equal medical care. It’s admirable that she tried to help even though Lady Lihua’s intense rivalry clouded her judgment. That’s the unfortunate reality of their circumstances since it’s only natural for Lady Lihua to believe her rival would try to hurt her child. Everyone has to be suspicious of everyone’s intentions, which only proves Maomao’s point about why it’s better to keep a low profile. The series doesn’t provide easy answers, but rather is interested in exploring the nuanced ways women try to survive under the patriarchy and, within their capacity, try to help others along the way.
It’s important to mention this premiere does allude to Maomao’s intense interest in testing poison on her body, which is mainly played up for laughs, but her form of self-harm might be triggering to our readers so please be mindful of that. Aside from that, it’s honestly nice we are getting more Chinese inspired historical dramas and thankfully, our readers are in for a real treat accompanying Maomao’s journey solving medical mysteries. There’s so much to unpack in this premiere and while I could ramble on for another 100 words, I’m hoping someone can pitch to us an article, instead. This is a win for me folks and it’s seriously a nice way to end my premiere reviews for this season.