Taisho Otome Fairy Tale

Japan, 1921, during the reign of the Taisho Emperor (1912-1926). Tamahiko Shima grows up in an economically privileged environment as the second son of a wealthy industrialist. His father, however, is both demanding and emotionally distant; and when Tamahiko – at age 17 – loses the use of his right arm in a motor vehicle accident that also claims his mother’s life, he is written off as “dead” and exiled to the family property in rural Chiba prefecture. Traumatised and subject to long bouts of depression, Tamahiko resigns himself to the idea that he will die alone and forgotten. However, one day a 14-year-old girl named Yuzuki Tachibana arrives and tells Tamahiko – since his father hasn’t bothered to inform him – that she has been “bought” as his housemaid; and, when she is old enough, will become his wife. Although she was happy pursuing her studies at a girls’ boarding school, her parents, heavily indebted to Tamahiko’s father, agreed to the arrangement in return for the debt being cancelled.  Initially, Tamahiko finds the circumstances of Yuzuki’s arrival deeply humiliating, and her relentlessly upbeat disposition irritating; over time, however, she gradually draws him out of himself and into the world of the neighbouring village. There they meet Ryō Atsumi, a young woman who takes care of several much younger siblings; and though their initial encounters are problematic, it is through her that Tamahiko discovers a talent for teaching. Likewise, when his younger sister Tamako visits, her initial hostility turns into deep affection for both Tamahiko and Yuzuki, inspiring Tamako to pursue a career in medicine. Eventually, Tamahiko realises that Yuzuki has rescued him from a life of isolation and despair, and that he has developed feelings for her as a result; but at that very epiphanous moment, Yuzuki is Tokyo visiting an old school friend, and goes missing amid the destruction and death of the Great Kanto Earthquake…

Based on the successful manga by Sana Kirioka, and produced by animation studio SynergySP, “Taisho Otome Fairy Tale” aired from October to December 2021. In Japanese culture, “otome” refers to the idealised young unmarried woman who is both chaste and obedient, and which the Japanese middle classes in particular acquired from Victorian morality during Japan’s period of modernisation in the late 19th century. Thus the title effectively reads “A Taisho-era Maiden’s Fairy Tale” – and insofar at least, it presages both the narrative thrust of this story and the character of Yuzuki herself. Yuzuki appears to not merely accept but to actively believe in the gender roles which the cultural expectations of the time assigned to her, and essentially models the view that her happiness is located in ensuring the happiness of her husband-to-be.  Tamahiko, for his part, demonstrates a certain self-involvement that is in part an understandable response to trauma as well as a product of social and class conditioning. Yet despite the restraints imposed by these socio-cultural paradigms (and which will no doubt make more than one 21st century audience member uncomfortable), “Taisho Otome Fairy Tell” also depicts strong female characters who live unconventional lives, especially in the personages of Ryō and Tamako. The series also puts forward the challenging notion that there are certain personality types which, while they may be viewed as unsatisfactory or undesirable from the standpoint of modernity’s insistence upon autonomous individuality, are nonetheless legitimate on their own terms and actually make for successful relationships. By turns a fluffy feel-good piece, a study in historically and culturally determined relationship dynamics, and a comedy with moments of genuine, laugh-out-loud humour, “Taisho Otome Fairy Tale” manages to touch (however lightly) on the important issues of gender roles and stereotypes, the myth of idealised family life, and the unlikely sources from which happiness and fulfilment sometimes arise.

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.