Spoilers for all of Castle in the Mirror
For many of us, fairytales were our very first foray into literature, with famous stories such as Snow White and Cinderella linking us to a literary heritage that winds back centuries. However, they are not without fault. Certain features of fairytales—such as the strength of association between physical beauty and inner virtue, the black-and-white takes on ethics and morality, and (of course) sexist tropes such as the damsel in distress—have raised questions as to their relevance in the 21st century. Tsujimura Mizuki’s best-selling novel Lonely Castle in the Mirror is proof of their retained significance and their progressive potential, as it twists and plays with familiar fairytale tropes to empower its young female characters.
The novel follows a group of troubled teenagers in Tokyo, transported to the fantastical “Lonely Castle” through their mirrors. The castle is controlled by a young girl in a wolf mask, a mysterious personality who promises them wishes, but also threatens them with the “truly horrible penalty” of being “eaten” should they stay in the Castle past five o’clock.
The protagonist, Kokoro, struggles with anxiety, a product of the bullying she faces. At the thought of going outside or attending school, she experiences extreme stomach pain and when this prevents her from going, she feels her “chest [tighten]” at the thought of being “blamed for being slack and lazy” and disappointing her mother. The Castle provides escapism at its most literal definition, providing a space where she can play games, exchange presents, and socialise with children her age, all without the pressures that usually terrify her. However, when the danger comes from the Castle—or rather, the Wolf Queen—itself, Kokoro must play the hero.
In traditional fairytales, the villain’s malevolent actions usually invite the presence of another powerful force for good: Cinderella is saved by the Fairy Godmother, Snow White by the Prince, and Little Red by the Woodcutter. However, there is no outside force that can save Kokoro: she has to confront the Wolf Queen alone.
Kokoro is not a one-dimensional “strong woman” that lacks complexity or character development. She is not constantly courageous, nor is she untouchable—the novel acknowledges her vulnerability from the very first scene. As such, she travels between passive and active, with her characterisation blurring the lines of traditional fairytale categories more subtly, but just as importantly, as the Wolf Queen’s.
At the beginning of the story, Kokoro is extremely nervous about mixing with her peers, but her defeat of the Wolf Queen requires her to convince all the other inhabitants of the castle to open up to her. Kokoro uses the information from her friends to access the wish the Wolf Queen promised them at the beginning, sacrificing her own desires to wish for the safety of the others. The story is resolved through human connection and puzzle-solving, as opposed to the defeat of the “villain.”
After they are all safe, the teenagers reconvene to try and make sense of the Rules of the Castle, and the Wolf Queen—or Mio, as we come to know her—offers her help. They then move on, with healthier attitudes to relationships in reality. So, Tsujimura doesn’t simply place a female character into the traditionally male archetype of the hero. Rather, she critiques the toxic patriarchal ideals that come with the role, refusing to romanticise brutality or physical conflict. Lonely Castle in the Mirror offers her readers a kinder, more empathetic conclusion than the violent murder of the Evil Queen or the “Big Bad Wolf.”
At the end of the novel, we learn that the Lonely Castle is a world entirely of Mio’s invention. In reality, she is terminally ill, trapped in an unhappy home and hoping desperately for more time with her younger brother. Her imagination defies time and space, creating an entirely new physical realm in which she and the other characters can escape their problems.
In her world, Mio is reinvented as The Wolf Queen—a figure with more power and agency than she has access to in real life. Mio creates a world where familiar tropes are remixed and reclaimed, blurring lines of power and gender, where she can not only claim agency for herself but offer it to other disenfranchised young people.
The Wolf and Little Red both are embodied by Mio. As established from the very beginning, she is a clashing personality, the helpless heroine and the monstrous villain in one. Her characterisation is an argument for moral complexity as opposed to the black-and-white categorisation of characters into “good” and “evil.”
Historically, these categories have been defined based on the gendered politics of their contexts and storytellers. Fairytales not only reflect morals and standards of their times, but serve to encourage them. This, too, is interlinked with the gendered tropes that fairytales repeat. As any avid Utena fan will tell you, differentiations between the princess and the witch are tied up in social ideals and expectations of “suitable” girlhood.
Attractiveness is also a common signifier of “goodness” in fairytales. The Ugly Stepsisters of Cinderella are an obvious example of this, but it’s also a feature in other, lesser-known stories such as Vasilisa the Beautiful. But—perhaps more relevantly, in the case of the Wolf Queen—“good” and “evil” women can also be considered through the lens of passivity and activity.
In Snow White, for example, Snow herself is a reactive character, not making many of her own decisions, and famously spending a portion of the tale comatose until she is rescued. It is the Evil Queen who has active motivations and who performs tasks beyond the housework that would have been expected of the period; and it is her, not Snow, that is the main driving force of the narrative.
Casting this division between active and passive through an ethical light reinforces patriarchal ideals that demonize female power and agency, particularly as a recurring theme within the genre. These visions of “good women” versus “evil women” are particularly worth considering given that the most familiar versions of these stories were, in many cases, popularized by male writers and folklorists such as the Grimm brothers and Charles Perrault.
Tsujimura rejects this completely, taking the typical fairytale focus on outward appearance to spin the expectation of female passivity on its head. Even at her most sinister, the Wolf Queen is described as wearing a “pink, lace-trimmed dress” like a girl might wear for “a piano recital or a wedding.” (It is worth noting that, in every story mentioned above, the “good” woman’s happy ending comes in the form of marriage.)
By dressing Mio in this way throughout her portrayal as a powerful, morally ambiguous character with direct control over the narrative, Tsujimura questions conventional femininity as an outward indicator of “goodness.” This critique is also embodied by Mio’s wolf mask, one that “[clashes]” with the frilly dress. Although she dresses like a “doll”, the names Mio chooses for herself—“Wolf” and “Queen”—are both more strongly associated with fairytale villains than princesses.
Mio is indeed happy to take on the role of the Big Bad Wolf. Her actions are questionable but come with positive results; she forces the other characters to open up to one another, and it is she that forces Kokoro to take control of her own narrative. The Lonely Castle uses the trappings of familiar fairytales to create an escapist space: here, the characters can be free of the issues that make their real lives traumatic, from bullying to academic pressure to sexual assault.
Each character may seem like a “damsel in distress”, but the Castle invites them to turn the tables and reclaim their agency in new ways. The Wolf Queen takes power by embodying a fairytale villain, rejecting the notions of “good” and “evil” girlhood. Kokoro rejects the notion that a “good” princess waits for someone else to save her, and becomes her own hero using compassion and connection. Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror has fairytales doing what they do best: subverting, reinventing, and reflecting what we know, painting us an even clearer picture of reality to examine once we have closed the book.