Don’t you hate it when your father is right? For Maomao, it takes on a more urgent meaning when it turns out that her father’s almost blunt warning that kidnappings are on the rise was just a premonition, and the young pharmacist finds herself at the mercy of the kidnappers. Human traffickers kidnapped her while she was picking herbs. Next thing she knows, she’s gone from working in the red light district (as an apothecary, despite the Verdigris House landlady’s offer of a different kind of job) to doing laundry In the Inner Palace, an area reserved for the royal family. for the emperor’s concubines. And if Maomao was a little more salty about this she would be the Dead Sea in human form.
Maomao is one of my favorite lightbook heroines. As we can see in these three episodes, she is a combination of prickly and realistic, unhappy about her situation but still willing to work through it to come out the other side and go home. Years of working with the courtesans of Verdigris House seemed to have taught her that anonymity was safe; if you don’t stand out, no one will notice you and get in your way, and she decided to apply that theory here. Sure, some women working in the Harem received the emperor’s attention and moved up to become concubines, but that was the opposite of what Maomao wanted. Unfortunately for her, she is one of the only people with any real knowledge of medicine and she can’t keep it to herself. She tries, but she encounters a formidable opponent in Jinshi, the eunuch in charge of the Inner Palace, although she probably wouldn’t put it that way.
If you’ve ever found yourself having to back down from a man (or anyone) who knows how handsome he is and uses it to his advantage, Maomao’s reaction to Jinshi will be very familiar, and it’s really fun to watch this animation. The animation makes great use of both the fact that her name means “cat” and the way she shivers every time Jinshi tries to get sexy with her. Whether or not he had enough manly equipment was not even an issue for Maomao; she just finds his sweetness and certainty annoying. And although Jinshi wasn’t sure where he went wrong with her, her disinterest left him spellbound. Yes, it’s a tired old romance (Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy is a prime example of it in action), but The Apothecary Diaries does it well, while also giving us we see that Jinshi is more than just a pretty face and makes us ask questions. What is his real role? He seems to be well versed in a lot of matters within the Inner Palace, more than you’d expect if he was just there to ensure it ran smoothly, and Maomao notes that his assistant, Gaoshun, is also seems a bit odd.
Of course, there are a lot of “slightly weird” things. Each of these three volumes covers a separate incident, mirroring how the first few novels unfold. Eventually, the story starts to come together, so we’ll just have to hope that we get enough adaptations for that to become clear; for example, the story of Fuyou in volume three just reappeared in novel nine of the series. That means you have to pay attention to everything, even if at the moment you feel it’s unrelated to anything else. (A preview of episode four will show this.) However, that’s easy to do because each episode’s story is interesting in its own way. The opening mystery, about arsenic-based makeup, also draws directly from humanity’s history of extremely bad decisions—arsenic beauty devices have been on sale since at least as late as 1889, very long after everyone knew it was poison. If you have any knowledge about arsenic poisoning (from reading books, of course!), then the truth about face powder and the sick women and children who died is easy to find out, but even without that, the solution to the mystery still has a basis in reality. The story may take place in a fictionalized version of China, but its logic is rooted in history, and that makes it all the more intriguing if Maomao is a detective who is “the smartest person in the room” according to Holmes style. This is especially evident in episode three when Maomao “solves” the case of a woman sleeping around. Everyone else jumped at the supernatural explanation, but Maomao simply used what she knew and what she could learn to give Gyokuyou a reasonable explanation.
We’re just getting started with this story and there’s a lot more to learn about the characters that will inform the mysteries Maomao is solving. These episodes do a great job of planting hints throughout and the visuals are beautiful, even of the silliest chibis. I’m not sure why the opening theme has so much dancing (I mean, other than it looks really good), but it’s hardly a deal-breaker, and for now, stands alone. This novelist is very satisfied with the adaptation. Hang in there, because this will only get better from here.
The Apothecary’s Diary is now streaming on Crunchyroll.