Taisho Otome Fairy Tale Episodes 1-12 – Review

There have been many shows over the years that I have felt deserved a bigger audience than they had, shows with interesting storytelling, challenging themes, and Daring visual styles. Taisho Otome Fairy Tale… is not one of them. It’s not so much an underappreciated gem as it is a hunk of quartz to be picked up by the roadside, admired briefly, and then put back down. It could shine a bit brighter with a level of polish, but at the end, it just doesn’t have the substance necessary to be worth keeping in your pocket.

At the start, I was skeptical of whether it could sustain my interest. Tamahiko Shima, newly disabled with a paralyzed right hand, has been effectively banished from the family home in Tokyo to their villa in the still-rural mountains of Chiba. A self-described pessimist, Tamahiko struggles to survive on his own as he learns to function using only his left hand. After a week, his father informs him that he has a helper on the way in the form of Yuzuki, a full 14-year-old sold to the Shima family as Tamahiko’s bride-to-be to settle her family’s considerable debts. Yuzuki’s optimism in the face of her tragic circumstances confuses Tamahiko – how can she possibly be so happy with such a terrible lot in life, with no idea whether things will turn out for the better?

In that question laid the source of my skepticism: how could Yuzuki be so cheerful and accepting? She had to withdraw from school and move in with a boy she’d never met from a family with a reputation for cruelty. Her life has been completely derailed beyond her control, and she accepts it all with an unwavering smile. I’m a big proponent of the idea that kindness is a skill and optimism is a form of strength, but Yuzuki felt one-dimensionally cheery, a perfect little wifey come to light up Tamahiko’s dreary life and chase away his pessimism. She never developed the level of internality needed to carry through the idea that she’s making a choice when she looks on the bright side, despite the narrative gesturing at it.

There are some strong themes at work here, such as the way that people are the product of their environment, the healing power of the community, and the potential for good. Tamahiko’s father really did a number on him and his little sister Tamako, while the village girl Ryo steals to survive so that she can raise alcohol and feed her younger brothers when their abusive father falls short. Yuzuki doesn’t singularly save Tamahiko’s soul; As time passes, the two of them gather a warm little found family in their mountain community. Tamahiko may be dead to the outside world (and I do mean that literally; his father had him declared legally dead so that having a disabled sibling wouldn’t bring shame to his older brother and sister), but here in Chiba, he has people who love him and that’s enough.

It’s a pleasant narrative, but I found myself longing for something a little more hard-hitting. These are people with deep trauma, the kind that leaves lasting psychological scars, but here all they need is a little love and sunshine to make everything hunky-dory. The series has a number of parallels to Fruits Basket with a different setting and minus the supernatural element, but Fruits Basket had a much stronger understanding of how abused people interact with the world, and how true love and compassion take a conscious effort. In Taisho Otome Fairy Taleall it takes is a couple weeks of exposure to Yuzuki and all will be well again, and acting as everyone’s emotional support wife doesn’t cause Yuzuki any hardship whatsoever.

One thing that Taisho Otome Fairy Tale does handle well that few series do is how it depicts Tamahiko’s struggle with being newly disabled. At first, he struggles to perform tasks that he would have been able to do independently with no problem before. When Yuzuki arrives, he doesn’t want to accept her help, but she persists. As the two grow used to living together and he adjusts to only having use of his left hand, his struggles fade into the background, to the point that they’re a non-issue. However, once he starts to reenter the larger world and goes places where Yuzuki can’t join him, he once more becomes aware of the ways his paralysis limits him.

There is a lot of truth in how Tamahiko navigates the world, and how the world responds to Tamahiko as a disabled person. At first, the only thing he can think about is what his injury has taken from him and what he can’t do. Over time, in his own private home, with access to the accommodations he needs from people who understand and care for him, he adjusts. However, when he finds himself in new situations where he lacks those accommodations, the disability and the way it others him becomes a point of focus again. The animation team never slips and accidentally animates him using his right hand, which is usually hanging limply by his side.

Stronger direction could have gone a long way toward building up the unsaid, using visual language to bolster Tamahiko’s evolving emotional state in his journey from an isolated pessimist to a young man living life on his own terms, and Yuzuki’s own inner life. A close-up shot here, a detailed gesture there, and the characters gain much greater depth. However, while it has its moments, the production is consistently middling. The art stays on model and the animation is, well, animated, but the storyboarding and character acting are a bit on the stiff side. It’s not bad, considering this is Jun Hatori‘s first time helming a series, but a visionary director could have made this into something truly great.

Overall, Taisho Otome Fairy Tale is a nice enough series, but it’s held back by a hesitation to venture into anything beyond nice. There’s no person too troubled, no relationship too complicated to be solved by Yuzuki’s smile. If it had a bit more oomph, a bit more willingness to sit in its conflicts, I truly believe it would have been a memorable series worth recommending. As it is, it’s good as a relaxing watch if you’re tired of the “cute girls doing cute things” rigmarole, or if you’re looking for something with well-handled disability representation.

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