Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Review: The Apothecary Diaries

An appealing fantasy mystery dealing with difficult issues of gender and class through the eyes of a young apothecary

There’s no such thing as a perfect anime, but The Apothecary Diaries comes close. It is a balanced series that’s charming without being sappy, edgy without being nihilistic, and a show that has truly mastered the art of the super-slow-burn friendship/romance. In the last year, we have had the exhausting intensity of heavy hitters like Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack on Titan as well as a profusion of intensely romantic or adorable anime such as My Happy Marriage, Spy x Family, and A Sign of Affection (all of which are enjoyable). The Apothecary Diaries stands out as an appealing choice for those who want something completely different: clever crime writing, complicated puzzles, and a pair of lead characters navigating upsetting situations with wit and pragmatism as they unravel mysteries both around them and about each other. But, overall, the show succeeds thanks to its smart, savvy, sarcastic protagonist, Maomao.

The Apothecary Diaries is set in a fictional, ancient land ruled by an emperor. Maomao is a clever, educated seventeen-year-old girl living with her apothecary father in an area known as the pleasure district, home to fancy brothels where time with brilliant and gorgeous courtesans can be purchased for a high price. In a town known for beauty and pleasure, Maomao is a girl obsessed with poisons and drugs. Her life takes a turn when she is kidnapped and illegally trafficked to be an indentured servant at the emperor’s palace. Despite her plan to keep a low profile in her new environment, she soon gets drawn into palace intrigue when the emperor’s children (by his various favored concubines) become critically ill. Maomao is able to quickly solve the mystery, anonymously warn the concubines, and quietly get back to her menial tasks. But there’s another super-smart resident of the palace, the ethereally beautiful guard/eunuch Jinshi, who, like Maomao, is more than he seems. Jinshi tricks Maomao into revealing herself as the secret hero and promotes her to a job more suitable to her intelligence. As a result, Maomao is called on to solve a series of mysteries including poisons, murders, arson, and ghosts. But the show’s biggest mystery is the truth about Maomao and about Jinshi. The pair are alternatively allies, enemies, and cat-and-mouse competitors.

Jinshi is one of the palace guards assigned to protect the emperor’s four favored concubines, who each live in their own lavish households around the palace. Jinshi’s main power is, ironically, his incredible beauty, which constantly has men and women swooning. He is able to mentally manipulate others into complying by just looking at them (like a Jedi mind trick), creating a “glamour” effect. However, Maomao is immune to his charms and eyerolls him whenever he tries to control her. She acknowledges Jinshi’s astonishing beauty, but considers it a waste of DNA since he is a eunuch. Or is he? Jinshi is smart enough to know Maomao can help solve the crimes occurring in the palace and soon figures out that she can’t resist a mystery, especially if it involves poisons.

Despite their great character chemistry, Maomao is the primary reason the show is so memorable. Her arms are covered in self-inflicted wounds from her poison experiments. She is incredibly insightful and knows how to read a room, whether she is scrubbing floors with other scullery maids or standing in front of the emperor. She is willing to secretly rebel, manipulate allies, and sneak around to investigate when needed. But she knows enough to remain artificially subservient in public, often bowing her head and blandly repeating catchphrases like “I am but a humble servant” when she’s annoyed, especially at Jinshi.

On the surface, the show is a puzzle box mystery where each episode builds on the others. Viewers gradually realize each successive mystery is connected to the next one and to the two main characters, who are more than they seem.

Beyond being a clever crime drama in a gorgeous historical setting, The Apothecary Diaries delves deeper into difficult questions of gender, exploitation, and self-determination. Every episode has a written disclaimer reminding viewers that the characters are fictional and are not based on real people or true events. It’s an interesting warning about the troubling content wrapped in comedic banter. The emperor’s four favored consorts are given labels (such as “Virtuous,” “Pure”) and lavish households, but their worth depends on the ability to deliver an heir. The courtesans in the pleasure district are paid to entertain men who ultimately aspire to buy them out. Maomao, who has intentionally avoided the courtesan path to pursue medicine, ends up kidnapped and sold to the palace as a slave. In a poignant scene, she dismissively tells Jinshi of her illegal enslavement. Tears trail down his face as he is horrified to realize that her presence is not voluntary indenture but a crime. Maomao tells him to wake up to the reality of how women and the poor are treated. Despite all this, the show emphasizes feminism in the face of objectification. In one episode, a trapped concubine finds an unorthodox way to free herself and reclaim her independence. In other episodes, the alluring courtesans who helped raise Maomao and the submissive ladies in waiting at the palace all support and protect Maomao when she needs them.

Maomao’s pragmatic, emotionless affect reflects the need to steel herself against the shallow, manipulative world around her. The only thing that makes her truly smile is the chance to test out poisons or solve a mystery. She is the heroic center of the story, but she is surrounded by appealing side characters, including the mysterious Jinshi; the kind concubine/consort Gyokuyo; Gyokuyo’s cadre of humorous, doting ladies-in-waiting; Jinshi’s clever bestie Gaoshun; and the love-struck palace guard Lihaku.

The Apothecary Diaries has been a breakout favorite for anime fans looking for something new. If you are new to anime and looking for a manageable, gateway show, this favorite on the Crunchyroll streaming service is a great intro. Its relatable characters, clever mysteries, and hilarious and heartbreaking stories make it one of the best shows in recent years.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


  • Humorous and heartbreaking
  • Difficult themes on gender and class
  • Clever puzzles and likeable characters

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.