YATAGARASU: The Raven Does Not Choose Its Master – Episode 1

By: Alex Henderson April 14, 20240 Comments
Headshots of four different women in elaborate kimono and headdresses overlaid over an ink and watercolor map of a fantasy kingdom, each superimposed over one of the four quadrants it is divided into

What’s it about? The kingdom of Yamauchi was founded by a Golden Raven, who remained on the mountain serving the gods while the lands below were granted to his four children. Tradition states that each of the four houses must send a daughter as a marriage candidate for the crown prince—the symbolic Golden Raven—when he seeks a bride. Lady Asebi, the second daughter of the struggling Eastern House, is sent to the marriage rite in her sister’s place at the last minute, and quickly finds herself in the midst of court intrigue and bubbling political turmoil.

YATAGARASU seems intent on setting up a sweeping epic, a historical fantasy couched in political drama stuffed full with a succession crisis, bubbling tensions between multiple factions, deep magical lore, and a big cast of characters. In a genre that’s often (not always, but often) associated with male nobles strategizing over wine and warmongering, it’s interesting that that this first episode is mostly anchored in the perspective of a female character and concerned with the bridal tradition.

Lady Asebi is our focal point and the closest we have to a protagonist right now. She’s been cloistered away her whole life expecting her older sister to represent the family in this marriage game, which makes her an intriguing underdog but also… well, conveniently naïve so the plot and backstory can be explained to her and the audience can listen along. While she’s likeable enough, she’s not a particularly strong character thus far, serving mostly as a designated outsider and earpiece for gossip and lore that will be important to know later on.

Four women in ornate, elaborate kimono lined up inside a pavilion. Subtitle text reads: you have formally entered contention for His Highness' hand.

Her most defining characteristics are that she’s plucky and earnest but a bit airheaded, all of which makes her an open target for the machinations of the court. As the best example, “Lady Asebi” is the name given to her by the Empress, and is actually a cruel joke—asebi are poisonous flowers known to make horses drunk. The nuances of this insult go over Asebi’s head while the rest of the room titters at her, and only come to light when her fellow bridal candidates explain them in the most condescending way possible.

It’s classic Bitchy Court Intrigue, but it’s not necessarily a sign that the whole story will be about women pitted against one another. Asebi gets a little sympathy from one of the brides, and clearly has a pre-established friendship with the prince’s younger sister. If nothing else, what this first episode gives us is a cast of satisfyingly varied female characters: some are bubbly and naïve, some are serious and standoffish, some are cool and calculating, some are flirty and flippant, and all of them are harboring their own motivations behind layers of court presentation.

Again, Yatagarasu’s focus on the women themselves grants them a little narrative autonomy even if the system itself reduces them to political pawns being gracefully moved around a precarious board. The daughters are ambassadors for their Houses who must strategically offer up their loyalty, their bodies, and even their lives for the political gain of their family, and given the attention that’s paid to each of the four ladies in this premiere, I genuinely have hope that the story itself might unpack what that does to a person and how it makes them feel. What are the motivations of the four brides? Duty? Glory? Genuine lust for power?

A lady in waiting yelling at Lady Asebi, who looks shocked, against a background of an ornate golden screen. Subtitle text reads: This is war!

It remains to be seen, and I really hope the show sticks to its nuanced and intriguing focus on the women in the cast—the more feminine-coded space of the court and the realm of marriage may be just as strategic and bloodthirsty as what goes on in the masculine space of the war room and the more overtly political conversations navigated by the male heads of the Houses. We’ve only gotten a little glimpse of the prince and his plotline, but he seems bundled up in his own mess of intrigue. The Crown Prince—our Golden Raven—was unexpectedly thrust onto the throne in a similar way to how Asebi was unexpectedly thrust into the bridal contest, so maybe there will be some playful parallels drawn between the two that enhance the themes of duty, succession, and power that YATAGARASU seems to be toying with.

I just have my fingers crossed that the storytelling won’t get so tangled up in the male characters’ side of things that it pushes the ladies to the wayside. I also have my fingers crossed that Asebi will get the space to develop so she’s not quite so plainly a ditzy sounding board for important worldbuilding. If it can pull that off, I imagine this will unfold into a juicy, dynamic political drama.

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