Director: Kazuku Oohashi
Streaming on: Funimation
I don’t like moe. I am not immune to the charms of cute anime girls starting a band or taking an expedition to Antarctica, but I simply don’t get the hype. I plan on eventually writing an essay on why moe doesn’t do anything for me, and the steps I’ve taken to analyze that, but the gist of it is that most of these anime substitute their cast being adorable for a compelling story and characters. It’s the same as an ecchi anime relying on its fanservice, or a shonen throwing out a braindead fight every episode.
I have also addressed the hard time anime has in horror when I praised The Promised Neverland for succeeding where so many others have come short. That essay aged like fine wine for all of five episodes. Regardless, anime is not good at scaring you, but our review today is not concerned with the frights anime can provide, rather the spooky atmosphere it can produce. It’s also the product of the same studio as both the best and worst seasons of The Promised Neverland.
Shadows House is a phenomenal example of the power mood holds, and if anime can’t scare us, then it can use all the imagery we associate with horror to create an enticing world and mystery lying at the center of its story. It doesn’t neglect because the audience is content just watching how cute the characters are; the characters being cute elevates the story. It’s not something I ever thought I would want, but I know how good anime can be at spooky themes, moe, and tantalizing mystery, so it’s only natural that they could all come together so naturally. Dare I say it, it’s my favorite anime of the season, and I’m just as surprised as you.
I usually prefer to give background on the series I’m reviewing, but that is difficult in Shadows House’s case because, as of writing this, I know next to nothing about the inner workings of its world. It’s based on a manga, too, so there’s no guarantee that the end of the season will reward my patience with definitive answers. In summary, I’m going to have to be pretty vague in my synopsis.
The Shadows House is a mansion populated by shadow people, whose entire body is pitch black with no discernible features. You can see the outline of their face if you see them from the side in good light, but the shape of their mouths and eyes are a mystery; in summary, they can’t share their facial expressions. These aristocratic shadows produce soot from their bodies as a residue, but also in greater quantities when they are stressed or anxious. To present their faces to the world (and clean up the messes they leave wherever they go), the shadows have servants.
Each shadow noble is served by a Living Doll, who must mimic their master’s expression and behavior in everyday conversation. We follow the life and work of Emilico, a novice doll serving Kate, a young and anxious shadow girl. The two have a lot to work out and misunderstandings to overcome, and once they do, there’s a lot more going on in the Shadows House to figure out.
So far we have only met a handful of Emilico’s fellow Living Dolls, as well as fewer of their masters, and that only includes the youngest of both groups. Kate and Emilico have not had their “debuts”, and the adult shadows and their faces remain enigmatic figures, especially the lord of the manor. The lord is not even referred to by the dolls so as to not reduce his name’s importance, but Kate’s grandfather is responsible for crafting each Living Doll and giving them life. The true nature of the dolls or the family they serve remains as dark as the shadows themselves.
Usually presentation takes up a third of the review’s main body, but that doesn’t do justice to how much I enjoy the animation, music, and sound design of Shadow House. Most people don’t care much for sound design, but it’s an underrated piece of creating a piece of art’s aura. Kisuke Koizumi has brought this manor to life with each creak and echo in the vast chambers and winding halls, and it can’t be dismissed out of hand.
And the music is so perfectly creepy and yet somehow inquisitive, it stands as a reflection of its characters. It’s captured in the series’ opening and ending just as well in the score, but the opening gets me excited for different reasons. We see a large lineup of shadow children and dolls that we have yet to see, and it only piques my interest further.
It feels a bit weird to praise the character design of the show where half the characters don’t have a color palette or facial features to critique, but even the shadow children designs are ingenious. Each shadow has a distinctive silhouette (duh) that makes them distinctive even without color, and their own fashion sense that suits their personality. The Living Dolls, in contrast, don’t get a choice in their outfits, and instead are given vibrant faces and color palettes to compensate. More than anything, I’m just impressed with the choices in eye color. Emilico’s rich blue, Sarah’s sparkling green, it’s gorgeous in motion and immaculately selected.
I don’t get the appeal of moe characters, but I call good design where I see it, and superb color choice just is a little touch on top to bring it all together. The rest of the Shadows House is a blend of Gothic and Victorian-inspired architecture, leaning heavily into dark wooden furniture with black and red decoration, so any color integrated in is magnified in significance.
And then, when I can’t go over the background story or presentation anymore, I talk about the themes that a story has presented so far. Problem with that is I have no idea what is going on in this world, how it got to be this way, and what kind of message the author was trying to send.
So instead, all I have is the atmosphere and the mystery that rises up as a result. I already praised the sound design and music, but the design of the mansion manifests their claustrophobic and menacing space. We see this estate through the eyes of a child who is just as ignorant as us, so the terror and probing curiosity about what lies beyond is tangible.
We have been slowly fed information through the first several episodes, and the danger that our protagonist is in is unclear. Emilico seems to be acclimating to her role just fine, but she still has to do well in her and Kate’s debut, and when she asked what would happen if she did poorly, she was only told to not fail. It honestly reminds me of The Promised Neverland again, where the children’s understanding of the threat is as vague as possible but the threat is inevitable. To Emilico, the Shadows House is the place she was created for, and her purpose could not be clearer, but there is no guarantee that the shadow family will permit her to live should she outlive her usefulness as a doll.
And I could be wrong, this could just as easily be a story about the wonders of a house populated by shadow people who make smoke when they’re mad. That could be an entire intriguing series about the practicalities of how these people would live. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this spooky slice of life could give way to something more sinister.
Shadows House is a competently produced story with a lot of fascinating cards still in its hands, and I’m very interested in seeing how it plays them. What would otherwise be an unambitious slice of life with a scary twist is shaping up to be one of the most interesting outings this season.
It goes to show that even you withhold the facts of your story in favor of a long payoff, you can compensate for it with a palpable mood. It’s one of the hardest things to nail down, and with its subjective nature, you could just as easily fall flat in trying. It is the result of so many people having to be so good at their specific roles that the fact that any work of collaborative art winds up being good is honestly amazing.
I have no idea where this show is going, and I can truthfully say that I’m enjoying that kind of suspense. With that, I dub Shadows House worthy of a Boring Pleasing. But, if you’re curious as to whether or not the rest of Shadows House lives up to the setup that the first half put in, you can check out my ever-changing opinions over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Or you could just follow the blog so you can pick up the last few reviews as they come, either way. Until next time, thanks for reading.