Fall 2023 has been a phenomenal season for anime, with plenty of series across multiple genres to keep me excited for each new episode. But thanks to a set of screeners provided by Crunchyroll, I could watch The Apothecary Diaries, the latest period anime to grace the platform and give my review for episodes 1 to 3.
The series will appeal to fans of period-style dramas in fictional settings, along with those who appreciate elegant artwork, strong cinematic quality, and Seinen storytelling and themes. It doesn’t hurt that its main characters, Maomao and Jinshi, are incredibly entertaining to watch. Read on for my thoughts.
A Cerebral Mystery Packed Into Each Episode
I love an anime that commands my attention. Stories that use dialogue and monologue without going anywhere interesting can lose me quickly. Still, in episode 1-3 of The Apothecary Diaries, I found myself rewinding at numerous points to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Each episode moves along at a robust pace.
The story progresses quickly, not lingering too long on a trope-filled origin story, either. Maomao worked as a young apothecary versed in poison and medicine, before being kidnapped and put to work as a servant at the emperor’s palace. The setting is Chinese-inspired with matching aesthetics and colors, but never specified. But her experiences as a prodigious young medicine-maker quickly made her a valuable asset to one of the emperor’s many concubines, a powerful connection to have.
Maomao’s first mystery ties into her experiences working alongside courtesans, and how their pursuit of beauty led to using high-end whitening powder that turned out to be poisonous. This same powder resurfaced as one of the emperor’s children born to his concubine showed similar symptoms. Maomao correctly identifies this, a lifesaving discovery, which catches the eye of Jinshi, an androgynous eunuch serving the concubine, and this nets Maomao a new station of power.
This was all in the first episode, and each episode builds upon this, with Maomao identifying and diagnosing a new mystery illness. She factors in not just symptoms, but the causes and vectors of transmission, her brilliant and curious mind is all the more entertaining due to how odd, funny, and adorable she can be. There’s a cerebral mystery packed into each episode, and I got pretty quickly hooked.
Elegant Style and Cinematic Appeal
The Apothecary Diaries uses numerous appealing visuals in each episode courtesy of Toho and OLM, accented with some wonderful use of dramatic, moody lighting changes. It feels like a play on stage at times, with the characters’ moods being conveyed wonderfully. The result is an anime that demonstrates elegant style and cinematic appeal, whether it’s Jinshi making the locals swoon, or a mysterious and beautiful concubine dancing in the moonlight.
Equal Measures of Mystery and Romance
This is not necessarily a love story, and in fact, you’ll quickly notice that Maomao is the opposite of bewitched by Jinshi’s looks and mannerisms, which pleasantly surprises him. She looks down upon him for his eunuch status, while he sees her for her cleverness, engaging with her more meaningfully than any of the women swarming him at all times.
But each episode is equal measures of mystery and romance, even if not about a love story. There is emotion packed into many moments, particularly Episode 3 where the underlying cause was genuine, concealed affection and an overwhelming sense of longing between two characters we’ll not likely see again. It creates a premise of an engaging “mystery of the week” which in itself is a type of drama I particularly enjoy, especially when I realize what it reminds me of.
I Can’t Shake the Impulse to Compare This to House, M.D.
I realize it’s pretty Western-centric to talk about this show with consideration for an older series that might have had nothing to do with it, but I can’t shake the impulse to compare this to House, M.D.
Maomao is eccentric, does not conform or see herself as meeting societal standards of beauty, can be crass, and rude, and is often hilarious. She also finds medical mysteries compelling, tests the poisons on herself, and has an intelligent male companion in Jinshi who supports her sleuthing. Give her a limp and some stubble, and you’ve got a female Greg House.
I also realize that House is in itself a clear homage to Sherlock Holmes, which has also gotten some love in anime form. Maybe it’s just all sheer coincidence, but the mystery genre has some pretty fantastic contemporary nods to the classics, and this does nothing but enhance how I watch The Apothecary Diaries.
While it is a niche story with mature themes appealing to a smaller audience, The Apothecary Diaries is also brilliant and elegant. It’s funny, extremely smart, and aesthetically pleasing, with each episode being dense yet easy to process and digest. Maomao and Jinshi are easily likable characters with wildly different personalities, and upon a glance, it is a very interesting and potentially long-running premise that’ll keep viewers wondering what sort of mysteries they’ll solve together next.
This review of The Apothecary Diaries Episode 1-3 was made using a screener provided by Crunchyroll. This anime premiered on Saturday, October 21, 2023, at 11:15 AM PT, and is available to stream on Crunchyroll.