Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood

Japan in the early 1930s. But it’s not any Japan you ever read about in history books. In this Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate continues to rule, the emperor nothing more than the puppet they’ve always been. Tokugawa rule rests on two foundations. The first is control of a substance known as “ryumyaku” (lit: “dragon’s vein”): found only in Japan, it fuels both Japanese economic development and underpins the might of Japan’s military forces. The second is a shadowy organisation known as Nue: comprised entirely of highly-trained covert assassins, they are dedicated to eliminating the Shogunate’s enemies by any means necessary. Of these, the most lethal is the woman known as Sawa Yukimura: ostensibly the owner of a nondescript second-hand bookstore, she ventures forth at the command of her controller, Jin Kuzuhara, to eliminate those individuals deemed by the Shogunate to be enemies of the state. But Sawa has her own reasons for participating in this deadly trade: as a child, she watched helplessly as her clan were annihilated by unknown enemies. Now, however, Sawa has learned the identity of the man responsible for her clan’s annihilation: Janome, head of the rebel organisation Kuchinawa – a monster whose obscene genetic experiments caused him to slaughter Sawa’s clan in pursuit of the secrets contained within their strange blue blood. But as the net closes in on Janome, Sawa learns other, more terrible secrets: that Janome was not acting alone but at the behest of the Shogun himself in service to his craving for immortality; and that Jun Kuzuhara, the man who saved Sawa and trained her in the assassin’s arts, may have had a hand in the slaughter of Sawa’s clan. As the supply of “ryumyaku” begins to falter and economic hardship sets in, the tides of civil discontent grow stronger; and as the flames of open rebellion eventually beat against the gates of the Shogunal palace, Sawa must confront the brutal truths of her past if she is to save any traces of her humanity and of those she loves…

An original anime series produced by entertainment conglomerate Bushiroad and animated by studio Bakken Record, “Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood” premiered in April 2021. Animated in vivid style that combines the neo-noir aesthetic of “Psycho-Pass” with the colour palette of the traditional ukiyo-e school of painting, “Joran” is at once a classic sci-fi alternate history in the manner of “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade” and a doomed medieval tragedy reminiscent of “The Ninja Scrolls” and  “Basilisk”.  The narrative is complex and involved, but the various threads are woven together in a way that not only provides for a satisfying denouement, but also for a few surprises along the way.  That the final outcome was always going to be tragic is never in doubt – revenge, afterall, brings its own consequences. But that the task of vengeance and redemption is not merely Sawa’s alone forms a nice variation to the usual Hamlet-esque trope of the lone avenger. Likewise, the brief epilogue brings a nice touch of ambiguity to proceedings, a timely reminder that cycles of events are never closed, and that the future is always open. Complex, violent, and often emotionally powerful, “Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood” is a compelling meditation on the nature of our responsibility to the past, the consequences of acting on memory, the legacy we leave for others, and the ties of love and humanity that not only constrain our impulses, but also offer us an alternative way forward.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.