In this pseudo-historical fantasy series, Japan is just starting to embrace Westernization, and not everyone is happy. Spirits and humans coexisted relatively peacefully in the past, but now more and more humans are turning away from spirits in fear.
The Japanese government assigns three soldiers to the brand new Ministry of Spirit Affairs, which is tasked with looking into any incidents involving spirits. Each soldier is partnered with a half-spirit. Agemaki, a charming young man who secretly fears spirits, is paired with Zakuro, a half-spirit who loudly proclaims her dislike of humans and Westernization. Riken, a strong, silent kind of guy, is paired with shy, sweet Susukihotaru. Ganryu is the only soldier partnered with two half-spirits: Bonbori and Hozuki, bubbly twins who are absolutely delighted with boyish Ganryu.
Together, the humans and half-spirits have to deal with clashes between spirits and humans while at the same time getting over their own fears and prejudices. As romance starts to bloom, the group is threatened by an enemy from the past, an enemy who knows what happened to Zakuro's mother.
An anime in which female characters with animal ears (I initially thought cat, but they're actually fox ears) are paired off with gorgeous male soldier characters, clearly for the purpose of leading straight into romance....this show could easily have been an icky collection of fetishes and fan service. The Ministry of Spirit Affairs could have been little more than an excuse to parade cute girls with fox ears around, and the soldiers would, of course, have accidentally seen those girls naked (with strategically-placed steam or plants, or whatever) at some point.
I'm so glad that's not what this anime turned out to be. Yes, the characters are very clearly partnered off for romantic purposes, to the point that I snickered and found myself thinking that the military and Ministry of Spirit Affairs should have advertised themselves as matchmakers. However, the fears and prejudices mixed in with the romance made for some enjoyable watching. I found myself wishing that the show had focused entirely on characters' histories and the internal conflicts they had to get over in order for their romances to work out.
The show relies a great deal on character types – that aspect reminded me a lot of Ouran High School Host Club, actually. The male characters were the Strong, Silent Type, the Boyish Type, and the Charming Type – Agemaki was the most interesting of the three, with the fears he tried to hide and then overcome, and I would have loved to have seen more of his family. The female characters were also types, although, unlike most of the men, their pasts were explored a bit. There was the Tsundere Type, the Shy, Sweet Type, and the Flirtatious Type(s).
At first, my favorite couple was Riken and Susukihotaru. What can I say, I like shy heroines, and I'm always interested to see how the “strong, silent” types are dealt with in shows and books. As Susukihotaru's secret and some of her past were revealed, I waited in breathless anticipation for more about Riken. Unfortunately, Riken turned out to never be more than just strong, silent, and reliable.
Another one of my favorite couples...er, trios...was Ganryu and the twins. I don't find boyish characters to be very appealing, and Bonbori and Hozuki got on my nerves at first. However, then the show got around to exploring Bonbori and Hozuki's past, and the trio really grew on me. I had to laugh, though, when Ganryu initially protested that three people can't be in a relationship. Oh, dear.
My least favorite couple was Zakuro and Agemaki, primarily because Zakuro annoyed me. I don't necessarily mind tsundere characters, but, considering how she swooned whenever Hanadate came on the scene, I hated how she treated Agemaki. Agemaki might have deserved it at first, a little, but not after he started working so hard to understand and get along with Zakuro.
I had thought that the entire series might be devoted to the various romances and to stories about trying to encourage humans and spirits to understand each other and live peacefully together. I don't think I would have minded if that had been the case. However, the series chose to go the route of “there's more to Zakuro than meets the eye, and there are things about herself and her mother that not even she knows” and that wasn't too bad, either. I did find it a bit annoying that the opening credits spoiled some things (yes, his face was hidden, but who else in the series had that hairstyle?), although I think I probably would have figured out who the secret bad guy was without the hint in the opening credits, since that character had my hackles rising the instant he came on the screen.
For a series that's only 13 episodes long, I thought it managed to accomplish quite a bit, including some characters' histories, romance, and a darker storyline near the end, all without (usually) feeling too rushed. I do wish the show had been longer, because there was so much that could have been further explored (the characters, the half-spirit girls' powers, etc.). However, I enjoyed it enough that, if it ever came out on DVD in the US, I would probably buy it. I think I'd particularly enjoy watching the first half of the series again.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Spice & Wolf (anime TV series) - You might want to try this if you'd like another pseudo-historical series in which humans have started to move away from needing spirits. This series stars a wolf goddess of the harvest who wants to go back to her homeland and has enlisted the help of a traveling merchant. Like Otome Yokai Zakuro, this series has romance in it. I've written about both seasons of the anime and the first of the books.
- Spirited Away (anime movie) - Another story heavy on spirits. Human relationships with spirits are also a part of this movie, although they're not dealt with quite as directly as in Otome Yokai Zakuro. It's a lovely, fun movie, but don't go into it expecting romance.
- Tactics (anime TV series) - I think this might be set in the same general time period as Otome Yokai Zakuro (or perhaps a little later?), with Japan becoming more Westernized. The series stars a folklorist/writer who can see spirits. When he was young, he became obsessed with finding the ogre-eating demon and becoming friends with him. Those who enjoyed watching the half-spirit girls solve problems between humans and spirits might like this series.
- Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - If you enjoyed the character types in Otome Yokai Zakuro, you'll probably like this series, which also features a Strong, Silent Type, a Boyish Type, and a Charming Type. There is romance in this series, but, in the anime at least, that romance never reaches a satisfying conclusion. I don't know how things go in the manga. I've written about the first volume of the manga and the first half of the anime.
- Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - If you'd just like something set in approximately the same time period, you might want to try this series, which, like Otome Yokai Zakuro, includes romance (to a lesser degree) and action (to a greater degree). I have written about the first season of the anime.
- Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - Another series with romance, spirits, fantasy, and action (even more so than Otome Yokai Zakuro, where the action is usually stylized and filled with flower petals and song). Just be warned, this series is long. I've written about volume 33 of the manga.
- Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - If you loved the complicated, sad, horrible multi-generational family drama that popped up in the last half of Otome Yokai Zakuro, you might want to try this series.
- Blood+ (anime TV series) - Daidai and Byakuroku reminded me of this series, and then it occurred to me that quite a few characters in Otome Yokai Zakuro have their parallels in Blood+.