If this show has taught me anything it’s that it’s important to question ‘trivial’ things.
What’s the Story?
High atop a cliff sits the mansion of the noble Shadows family, a mysterious clan whose bodies are constantly covered in soot. They are served by living dolls, very human-like creations that serve both as the cleaners of the mansion and the ‘face’ of their appointed master. Emilico is one such doll and, honestly, she couldn’t be happier. She loves her master, Kate, and can’t help but be curious about all the wonderful things she comes across, whether that’s another part of the mansion or the other dolls and their masters. Of course living dolls aren’t suppose to concern themselves with trivial matters, such as why their masters produce soot in the first place, or why a doll should get hungry and feel pain. Whatever the answers, I’m sure it’s absolutely nothing to worry about!
Gothic can be defined as, of or relating to a style of fiction characterised by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious or violent incidents (definition courtesy of www.merriam-webster.com). At the time of writing this review, I can’t think of a single anime that better exemplifies that definition than this one. Oh sure there are plenty of anime that borrow the gothic aesthetic to add a bit of flair and style to proceedings (most of which I love), but there’s none that feel as gothic as Shadows House (if you can think of another series that’s as gothic as this one, please let me know in the comments). From the imposing mansion constantly surrounded by mist to the ever-present questions about just what is going on, this series is gothic down to its bones. Honestly all we’re really missing is a few grisly murders, but the way this series is going I’ve no doubt things are going to end up that way eventually (when we get a sequel. We are getting a sequel right?!)
Okay, before this just turns into me gushing about how much I love gothic stuff, let’s break this series down and really dig into it. To my mind, Shadows House has three very clear arcs, one of which I definitely feel is the weakest, but we’ll come to that in a little bit. The arcs, as I called them, are the Pre-Debut, the Debut and then, finally, the Children’s Wing. The Pre-Debut is very much what hooked me into this show and is probably the most gothic portion of the series.
It almost plays out like a slice-of-life with Emilico waking up in the Shadows House and going about her daily duties. Each episode she’s either introduced to a new concept or learning about another part of her duties. It would all be really sweet and innocence if it wasn’t for the pervading sense that something was very, very wrong here. It does a wonderful job of establishing the atmosphere of the show and letting you soak in it, all the while making ground rules of this place clear and introducing key characters. Honestly, I’d have been happy if this series remained in this phase for its entire run, but it’s probably for the best that it moved on to the next phase.
The Debut switches things up. Now that the basics have been laid out the series changes from a slice-of-life to a puzzle-based adventure. Instead of wondering about all these nebulous questions about what’s really going on, the characters are given more immediate challenges to face. Here the focus narrows in on a specific set of characters, both dolls and their masters, as we explore how they face difficult choices and begin to bond with one another. It’s a great deal of fun seeing how each doll thinks their way through problems and the relationships they build between one another. Also, I’m a sucker for a puzzle so seeing all the solutions that people come up with was a lot of fun too.
That brings me to the end of the Debut, where I think the series makes it’s only real misstep. The end of the Debut is where we get our answers to what’s really going on and I can’t help but feel like it takes some of the wind out of the series’ sails. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that we did eventually get the answers, you can’t keep stringing along your audience forever, but there had to be a better way to do it. The series just stops dead to dump all the answers into your lap, when surely the series would have been better off drip feeding them to us a bit at a time. I said you can’t string your audience along forever, but that doesn’t mean you have to give them everything all at once.
For me, this really hurts the final arc of the series, the Children’s Wing, which is definitely the weakest arc of the series. It was bad enough that my enthusiasm had dipped thanks to having the answers I’d been craving, but for this arc we move to a new location and we barely get any exploration of it. Prior to this the series had been so good at letting you get to know a new area, but here all that’s ignored in favour of setting up a quick bit of drama with our series antagonist. It doesn’t help that this arc gets the least amount of episodes dedicated to it, so it can’t quite build up the atmosphere it needs.
In the end, Shadows House is a great gothic series, even if my enthusiasm for it had deflated somewhat by the final episode. The first half of the series does a fantastic job of building up this sense of dread and laying out all these mysteries to hook you in. You will get the answers eventually, even if I’m not a fan of the way they’re given to us, but by then you should have fallen for this series’ cast of sweet and charming characters. Throw in some great visuals and an atmospheric soundtrack (including a great op and ed) and you’re really on to something. When the second season releases I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday or you can follow me on Twitter @ChrisGJoynson.