OP: 「花になって」 (Hana ni Natte) by (Ryokuoushoku Shakai)
As thrilling a setting as a historical Chinese palace may be, it is no garden of roses. Mao Mao (Yuuki Aoi) makes as much clear with her statement about the disposability of the serving girls and lower ranking concubines, with the added grimness that “at least the servants get paid”. Anime/manga can fall in the trap glamorize brothels and prostitution, but here, it is presented as it is, “that’s just how things are”, as opposed to glorifying prostitution as a glitzy institution (which it certainly was not).
Mao’s kidnapping is not a one and done thing- even after being deposited at the palace, the kidnappers can still collect money from her wages. So really, she’s working as a slave or indentured servant, laboring to line the pockets of others. For being a teenager, she knows a lot about the ways of the world (probably only natural for growing up in a brothel). If I were her, I’d be a panicked mess, but she approaches it all coolheadedly, keeping her education level on the down low so that her kidnappers don’t get more money. Necessary to protect herself, but also a shame.
We see the conflict set up right from the beginning, the two mothers and their newborns featured side by side. Mao Mao makes the astute observation that the palace and the brothel are pretty much the same. Women are held there as objects for the men, their bodies the prime objective. In the case of the brothels, purely for pleasure, while at the palace, a mixture of pleasure and politics in birthing as many heirs as possible.
You could feel the stress and anguish of Lihua (Ishikawa Yui). From the palace gossip we learn that Lihua, having given birth to the male heir, is top lady at the palace, and as such, it’s not hard to conclude how desperate she is to keep that position, as well would anyone in her position in the dog eat dog environment of palace life. One wrong misstep or one wrong twist of fate and you could be dead. She takes this out on the other Gyokuyou (Tanezaki Atsumi). in a public slapping- yet, I don’t think they frame her as a villain here, but more so as a very stressed woman who doesn’t know how to handle the hand she’s been dealt in life. This is amplified by the next scene where she curls up on the floor in utter grief, having lost her son. No words needed, it cuts to the core.
Unlike other series, where “poor girl meets emperor and becomes his concubine” is a thing, this isn’t the case here. Mao Mao recognizes the danger of being used more than she already is if she attracts the attention of the emperor and joins the harem. This series is very pointed about poking holes in the standard tropes like that, rather approaching it very scientifically.
While it does have a bit of a happy ending, it isn’t because a guy came and saved the day. Mao Mao gets a better position and recognition through her own intelligence. That the plot rewards a sharp minded woman is something we need more of in the midst of historical series like Watashi no Shiawase na Kekkon where the woman is pretty helpless/needs saving from a man, or Taishou Otome Otogibanashi where the woman is at the man’s beck and call. Mao Mao puts me in mind a bit of the MC in Kokyuu no Karasu, and it’s not just the setting. Both women are analytical minded, resolving matters at the palace through their minds, both stand on their own two feet without needing to become a supporting character for a man.
Mao Mao, unlike her peers, is well educated, logical-minded, and not one to go gaw gaw over such things as “curses”. She also is not one to be bothered with proper skills in the domestic arts like sewing (note that wonderful close up of her shitty mending job). She is a modern scientific mind in a pre-modern world- I love that they channel this through a female character rather than a male character. Sure, educated women were not as common back then, but there still were highly educated women who made contributions, but unfortunately, in fiction, especially anime, that is often overlooked in favor of featuring scientifically-minded men with cutesy female support characters. Speaking as a woman who used to be a scientist, I appreciate and resonate with Mao Mao and her analytic mind- we need more characters like her.
As much of an effort as Mao Mao took to keep her authorship of that note hidden, fate has other plans, the manager of the rear palace, Jinshi (Ootsuka Takeo)., overhearing her mutterings. He comes up with a clever plan to find the responsible party (who he’s pretty much already pinpointed) “You with the freckles stay here”. Which, of course, she’s the only one who can read it.
What comes next hits home the grim reality of the women who lived in those settings. The makeup that glamorizes the prostitutes IRL and in fiction is the very thing that kills them. If that isn’t subverting romanticization, I don’t know what is. Growing up in the brothels, Mao Mao recognized what was going on. Thankfully, rather than being punished (which she was bracing herself for), she gets the gratitude she deserves.
The major theme of this episode is ignorance. Every little thing can and does matter when it comes to health. Things you don’t think matter, matter. Yet, the people who should know (the doctor, who is actually a quack), don’t know and there is no way the palace concubines would know, probably being uneducated about things like science and health. Thank goodness Mao Mao took the initiative to make these women aware- after that, it’s all on them for what they do with it. Unfortunately, Lihua was too proud (and stressed) to take such knowledge seriously and her baby, as well as herself with the guilt she probably has, paid the price.
This message still hits home for a modern viewer because even in a modern age, there are still health hazards that affect infants today, such as lead exposure. Hell, I even worked in a lab with someone who studied pre-natal exposure to lead because it still is a problem even today. “I didn’t know” is probably one of the last phrases a parent, caretaker, teacher, ever wants to say- it carries so much regret over something that was preventable, but they didn’t have the knowledge to do anything about it.
ED: 「アイコトバ」 (Aikotoba) by (AiNA THE END)