The first thing I noticed with this week’s episode (yes, just a single) of The Apothecary Diaries was how different it looked. I mean like, totally. Most striking was that the colors were much more saturated and less cartoon-bright, giving the palette a much more natural look that suited the setting far better. There were lots of other differences too, enough to make me think that (even with this being an OLM-Toho co-production) this ep must have been fully outsourced. But no, turns out it was because it was put in the hands of episode director China (the animator, not the country) and key animator Moaang. They have very distinctive styles and were clearly allowed to express them unfettered here.
I must say, visually speaking this all worked far better for me, though I’m resigned to a return to the premiere’s style. Story-wise we were right in the same ballpark. Maomao is a really engaging protagonist, and the scenarios are quite interesting. I don’t see anything brilliant here but there’s an attention to detail that serves the material well, and with a lead with as much presence as Maomao that seems to be enough to keep things ticking along nicely.
This week’s serial finds Maomao assigned to the Crystal Palace, home of the ailing Lady Lihua, at the behest of the Emperor (Endou Daichi). Lihua made a far less favorable first impression than Gyokuyou, and while she’s basically comatose for most of the episode her ladies in waiting are certainly a pill. They reject every attempt by Maomao to treat or even examine Lihua, which strikes me as being pretty foolhardy considering she’s there on imperial order. If nothing else Maomao prepares her healthy and easy to digest meals, which the LiW reject in favor of the usual gout-bombs they feed her. None of which she can consume in her current condition.
I don’t blame the retainers, per se – in their situation they’d likely be pretty ignorant, and Maomao is a member of the enemy camp. It’s not until Jinshi intervenes on her behalf that Maomao gets a foot in the door (which has to gall her). But once she does, she uses it to stomp right on the throat of the LiW. Especially the one who hid a supply of the poison face power to use on Lihua. I don’t think it’s unrealistic that a lady in waiting would do something that stupid, but I do think it’s unrealistic that she would keep her head once it was discovered. In any event once the poison is taken out of the equation and Maomao has fully stamped her authority on the situation, Lihua begins a slow recovery.
Seeing Maomao really get nasty like that was an interesting turn. She’s no shrinking violet, that’s for sure. As for Lihua, the element that’s only hinted at here is that she may just have been ready to die after having lost her son – though Maomao opines that her willingness to eat indicates she still had the will to go on. She even gets some advice from Maomao – who has a background in such matters – on how she can win back the favor of the Emperor, a trick based on her sizable natural assets. And it clearly gets his attention, judging by the fact that Gyokurou is finally able to get some sleep.
In practical terms, having done the Emperor’s bidding and not only saved Lihua but rehabilitated her as a sexual partner (he won’t know the specifics, but they’re irrelevant) will surely raise Maomao’s standing in court tremendously. From a relatively obscure apothecary she’s now officially a rising star. In this setting that’s certainly a mixed blessing – being the center of attention in this cutthroat world means you have a target on your back. Maomao is probably street smart enough to realize that and act accordingly, and I think that’s where a lot of the natural drama in the premise will flow from.