This is a mostly spoiler-free review of The Apothecary Diaries. The first three episodes debuted Saturday, October 21 on Crunchyroll.
The first three episodes of Crunchyroll’s newest historical sensation The Apothecary Diaries adapts a popular light novel and manga series with ease and much flair. This anime adaptation pushes the envelope for solving mysteries while complicating court politics in a drama with a whole cast of colorful characters. The series centers on Maomao, who lives an ordinary life with her apothecary father. She loves to collect herbs for medicines, conduct experiments and mostly keep to herself. Life is simple but ordinary. She’s content. It is not until one day where she’s taken away and sold as a servant to the emperor’s palace. It is there that she realizes that her life has changed.
As Maomao keeps her head down and makes sure that her work as a maid is done in the rear palace, a palace dedicated to the emperor’s consorts, his heirs and those who serve them. It is a place where no men with the exception of the emperor, his kin and eunuchs are allowed to be. It also ends up being a dangerous place where a low-ranking maid as herself is expendable, as she could lose her life as she has no connections or nobility to fall back on. This place, whether she knows it or not, will become not just her home for the near future but also a breeding place for violence, despair yet also friends and her found family away from home.
Episode One: “MaoMao”
This first episode of The Apothecary Diaries does a fine job in not only establishing Maomao’s character but also the often-precarious station of women living in the rear palace. She observes for every consort there are maids and servants at different classes: low, mid and high-ranking girls and women. Earlier on MaoMao demonstrates how difficult it is for some of the young women there: She is befriended by another young maid who requires her help in reading wooden tablets for laundry duties location, because she is illiterate. While our protagonist can read, it is something she keeps to herself as it will only be a boon to those who kidnapped her and only make her workload bigger, which she does not want. She is set on not standing out and making herself a target in any way. All her plans fall by the wayside when one of the imperial heirs fall ill, Maomao decides to step in and get involved!
This first episode of The Apothecary Diaries also introduces another important character: Jinshi, a very handsome and important eunuch who navigates the rear palace with ease. With the palace awash in rumors of a curse because of the emperor’s infant heirs falling sick, he sets out to investigate. Tensions are high with not just the highest consorts of the emperor, their babies in poor health, but also their factions in the palace.
The dark wave of ill health and rumors persist, and Maomao’s involvement manages to do good for one party–at least. The end of episode one takes an emotional turn that focuses on a more realistic reason for those targeted, rather than a curse. This first episode also demonstrates the harsh reality for those, especially women, not just in the palace who adhere to beautification and society standards with a huge risk to their bodies.
Episode Two: “Chilly Apothecary”
Episode two of The Apothecary Diaries work on the detective a la mystery solving element that was promised not just in the trailer but in the promotion of the series, thankfully. Maomao also learns that not all promotions are equal–her new assignment brings her closer to the heart of the rear palace but also closer to harassment and danger. Countless other girls in the palace would love the opportunity to cozy up to one of the emperor’s most beloved consorts and yet our little apothecary’s knowledge of medicine is too important to pass up as some important people in the place have noticed. Poison being used is throughout the country and some answers are needed.
The fun parts of Episode two of The Apothecary Diaries start with building on the hilarious dynamic of Jinshi and Maomao. He thinks he has our little apothecary figured out and his attempts to bend her to his will, misfire in epic fashion. Her reactions to his attempts to seduce her like others instead bring much entertainment to those around them. Maomao also meets her newest coworkers under her new mistress with some misunderstandings hanging in the air until they get to know her better.
Maomao is keen on keeping her head on her shoulders, stepping cautiously as she knows she is an outsider in a more elite location of the palace. As the episode nears its end, viewers will learn a bit more about Jinshi’s clever placement in the palace and how valuable Maomao’s insight becomes as a servant, strange as she is. Also, a fun experiment by our apothecary cements this new, shiny anime series–one with a great balance of comedic and serious–as one to keep watching!
Episode Three: “The Unsettling Matter of the Spirit”
Episode three of The Apothecary Diaries builds more on the detective a la mystery solving element from episode two but within the palace invoking a more supernatural twist, given the episode name. The newest rumor around involves a spirit, and as more and more servants, eunuchs, and concubines hear word of it, it grows in power. Rumors carry weight as do ghost stories, and Maomao is given assistance as she is tasked with her newest palace news. Viewers will start to see the relationships she is slowly building with others like the palace doctor and Jinshi’s assistant.
The best parts of episode three of The Apothecary Diaries are when the gears in Maomao’s head are working on what she’s observed and what info she’s been given regarding the “ghost” in question. From surprising others with her knowledge of flowers and how they influence the world around them to taking advantage of place gossip: her little apothecary’s wit is as sharp as her intuition on this case. It is here viewers will learn of a certain part of the code that Maomao and, by extension, her father lived by as low-ranking civilians in the land that is not to be missed. Words are powerful and an assumption can be the tool or execution to make or break another’s life.
Maomao comes to learn that the greatest lesson behind this whole ordeal is the cleverness of women when attempting to gain back their agency in a world that sees them only as objects. The big reveal in this episode is a story within a story layered with meaning that speaks of hopeful and happy endings that are faithfully hard earned and necessary to watch. Not all battles are fought on the battlefield or even by soldiers. People of all genders, classes, and walks of life work with what they have and outsmarting those who hold your freedom and what you hold dear is easier said than done.
“The Apothecary Diaries contains multitudes; bringing drama, humor, heart and mystery that deserves every minute you emotionally invest in watching.”
The Apothecary Diaries does a great job in its first episode’s outing in establishing the narrative and major players of this new series and how Maomao is key to it all. I LOVE Crunchyroll’s approach of dropping the first three or so episodes in this series, like how I came to watch Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End that also was released this month. Both series are newer adaptations that are not to be missed. Having a few episodes available on the ready on release day can give hesitant viewers a fuller look and depth in both respective anime series. For fans who were already onboard, getting more episodes is just an added treat!
The Apothecary Diaries is filled with strong personalities and unique relationships within the cast of major and supporting characters. From the elaborate place setting of the many locations of the rear palace to all the detailed fashion seen in every episode, TOHO animation STUDIO and OLM really brought their A-game to make this series stand out. This makes me grateful as I think back on the trailer for the series where viewers only saw glimpses of future events where Maomao shines. As a whole, the series is a polished animated offering pulling together a consistent musical score that compliments the action on screen along with a well-paced story. The Apothecary Diaries contains multitudes as a new series bringing drama, humor, and heart, and it deserves every minute you emotionally invest in watching.
I love the balance of comedy and seriousness which feels like it was adapted well from the series light novel and manga versions. One moment I am chuckling at Maomao and Jinshi’s antics with their chibi versions of themselves on screen (Maomao with her cat ears as always) and then I’m in awe with how well they work together solving these intriguing medical mysteries! For Maomao, a young woman whose curiosity is only matched by her wit and her unwavering sense of justice, she’s sure to be a welcome addition to Fall Anime Season’s lineup for fans looking for a new series to sink their teeth into. The vibes are right with The Apothecary Diaries as a fresh new series that is sure to pull anime fans new and old.
The Apothecary Diaries
Maomao lived a peaceful life with her apothecary father. Until one day, she’s sold as a lowly servant to the emperor’s palace, but she wasn’t meant for a compliant life among royalty. So when imperial heirs fall ill, she decides to step in and find a cure! This catches the eye of Jinshi, a handsome palace official who promotes her. Now, she’s making a name for herself solving medical mysteries!
Premiered on Crunchyroll
Saturday, October 21, 2023 at 11:15 AM PT
Based on the Novel Series Written by
Director and Series Composition by
Character Design by
Art Direction by
TOHO animation STUDIO and OLM
Japanese Voice Cast
Aoi Yuki as Maomao
Takeo Otsuka as Jinshi
Katsuyuki Konishi as Gaoshun
Atsumi Tanezaki as Gyokuyou
Yui Ishikawa as Lihua
Hina Kino as Lishu
Yuhko Kaida as Ah-Duo
Megumi Han as Meimei
Ami Koshimizu as Pairin
Hiroki Nanami as Joka
Kimiko Saito as Madam
Hiroshi Yanaka as Luomen
Kenji Akabane as Lihaku
Misaki Kuno as Xiaolan
Mitsuaki Kanuka as Quack Doctor
Sumi Shimamoto as Narrator
Opening Song Performed by
Ryoku Oushoku Shakai
Ending Song Performed by
Aina The End
Cover image: ©Hyuganatsu, Imagica Infos / The Apothecary Diaries Project