House of Shadows, House of Light (I). A Servant Who Leads

“A mere dark shadow without ash/ A loveless individual, like a doll/ A nonexistent ‘self’, nowhere to be found/ I’m not, right?
Ambiguous love, a colorless eye/ Nothing more than a mimicry of someone else’s affairs/ You have my thanks, but whoever could you be?/ The answer comes in many forms

What is the haunting Shadows House trying to say? These words from the ending theme of its first season give us a hint. So do the classics of the “Golden Age” of children’s literature (1865-1926) which it constantly references. Noble children trying to impress the distant “Grandfather” take after Little Lord Fauntleroy. The bond between kid servants and confined kid masters is a central theme in The Secret Garden. Emilico’s cleaning duties have a parallel in A Little Princess, and her personality brings the sunny Pollyanna to mind. And Kate seems to be reading Emily of the New Moon, whose bookish protagonist she resembles.

Those are all hopeful tales about changes of heart both personal and social and brought about by heroic children. They are didactic coming-of-age stories. Shadows House is this too, but also something different. We see roles that don’t fit the person, brainwashing, systemic exploitation, hidden violence, faceless figures in a fake perfect world, and prisons of lies you cannot escape easily, if at all.

These kinds of critiques of a world built by the rigid and unforgiving mores of a moralistic high society usually appear in subversive works like Revolutionary Girl Utena rather than in joyful children’s literature. So which is it? Are Victoriana and its morals good or evil in this show? And what should heroes do about the ambiguous world they find themselves in? Now that it’s back, it’s just the right time to find out.

Our Mutual Friend in the Bleak House

The theme of duality permeates Shadows House; it’s present in its imagery, its characters, even its structure. Loyalty and revolution, the familiar and the strange, the serpent and the dove. You might feel like you have seen this world before. Chances are, even if you haven’t immersed yourself in the works of the Golden Age, you have nevertheless crossed paths with them in some form, or with stories (and anime!) inspired by them.

But isn’t everything… slightly twisted in Shadows House? This feeling of mystery and suspense drives the plot for the first few episodes, as we discover more and more things that don’t add up.

In contrast, we have our viewpoint character, Emilico, whose heroism resembles that of the typical Golden Age protagonist. She makes the show poignant, yet also lighthearted; serious and fun. This is characteristic of the works that inspired the story. You see, the children’s books I have referenced are at times grim, and always morally serious, even with all the optimism and the didacticism.

This is because they acknowledge the Victorian/Edwardian ideal of the heroic gentleman or gentlewoman, and intend for their young readers to embrace it, as in many adult works of the same period. I was one such young reader myself. After all, I spent my childhood with Phileas Fogg, Dickens, and Alice, my teen years with Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Wilkie Collins and Jane Austen, who helped me define my romantic code.

But, as much as I love that ideal, I acknowledge the validity of some of the criticism leveled against the ethos of Golden Age literature. And Shadow House does, too. Let’s see how: spoilers for season one!

Loyalist Sunny Girl Emilico

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”. This is a quote from Piranesi, a recent fantasy novel that portrays the clash between a Victorian worldview and a Modern one. Emilico would surely agree with this sentiment, which was artificially evoked by means of manipulation and brainwashing, and created by an oppressive system. But in her, the manipulation completely backfires.

Emilico knows, of course, that not all is well and good in the peculiar place where she works. But for her, that’s secondary, because she’s intensely loyal and appreciative of the House. In fact, she’s so loyal that, in the eyes of those in charge, she’s subverting the very logic of the system of manipulation and control.

But why? Shouldn’t a sunny, enthusiastic servant who thinks nothing of herself and lives for her mistress be the ideal for those in charge? Well, the answer is no. Let me give four reasons, inspired by this brilliant article about Innocent III (to date, the only Pope ever mentioned in a Haruhi episode!) and his vision of the Cosmos and human history.

First, there’s Emilico’s attention to her world. She approaches the very real circumstances of very real people with striking openness and appreciation. What’s more, she’s becoming more and more embedded in the lives of the House and its people every day, while her way of doing things complements Miss Kate’s intellectual approach and gives Emilico’s words the weight and volume they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Second, Emilico is an excellent, if unassuming, detective. The Shadows designed a generic system with rigid definitions so that the “living dolls” avoid any unnecessary thought. But Emilico finds too much meaning to see the House as “a game played out on a static field, with winners and losers emerging and vanishing within fixed rules”, as the Innocent article puts it. Her world is always expanding and deepening: she’s on an s an ascending path that includes everyone and everything.

Third, as she ascends, Emilico becomes an inspiration for heroic virtue. She loves others deeply and puts herself on the line for them, whether it be for Shaun, Ricky, Mr. John, Rum, Miss Shirley, Miss Kate, or even less pleasant characters. Plus, she’s humble and merciful toward others, even those who are less virtuous. In time, many others start imitating her, even shadows. And as many tyrants know, heroic virtue, even on their side, is much harder to manipulate than, say, Louise’s narcissism or Patrick’s insecurity.

And fourth, Emilico instills hope. Those who are inspired by her see something new through her. Her behavior points to a greater world, where people serve each other and appreciate one another, living in harmony and justice. She is a living icon of the House that could be, and unveils its potential future for others.

These traits, common in the Golden Age literature (and other young adult fiction, including the shōnen genre) explain the powerful effect that Emilico has on the people around her during season one, changing them and filling them with hope. In the end, even when she’s removed from the picture, those around her have matured enough to work together and save her in turn.

The Perils of Glad Games

But let’s talk about the other element. Sure, in living up to the rules of the House so perfectly, Emilico is a problem for the powers that be. But isn’t she also a problem for herself? Isn’t her attractiveness as a character actually dangerous for any serious, effective resolution of the problems afflicting the House?

You see, some of my readers may take issue with the show’s (and the Golden Age’s) hopeful narrative as a whole. We’re dealing with the exploitation of child laborers, inequality, elitism, manipulation, brainwashing, and deeply rooted systemic problems. Inspired, if you ask me, by the Industrial Revolution whose symbols are precisely the soot and the steam train we see on screen here.

To rely on an overload of almost inhuman heroism surely isn’t a practical strategy for overcoming oppression. Even in fiction, why deal with it through pleasantries and cheerful nonsense? Would it not be better to resort to a violent revolution?

Don’t we, in this day and age, want our protagonist to be more like, say, Ryuko from Kill la Kill? To take no shouting or punishments, to laugh at those trying to use her, to burn the House down and curse the Shadows? After all, Utena, the so-called “Evangelion shoujo”, shows the problem of fighting twisted systems from the inside by using a heroic ideal. The pressure might crush you. And one day, you may just break.

I’d say that Golden Age literature is sometimes clearly off in this respect, with children satisfying the impossible standards of adults and conquering them with their heroism, something they cannot always do, and sometimes shouldn’t even try.

Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna portrays a heroine that closely resembles Emilico’s personality. She staunchly refuses to be anything other than a perfect optimist, to the point of finding reasons for thankfulness when she’s punished under flimsy pretexts by her aunt. She calls this “the Glad Game”.

This mentality can be a huge problem, especially because of the toll it takes on the optimist, the possibility of disguising or enabling abuses, and the inauthentic relationships it may create. In Utena (spoilers), the “Prince” died of exhaustion. Won’t there be a moment in which, to quote the ending again, Emilico will say: “It is useless. I don’t have enough faces to match“?

It might also slow the rightful rejection of the twisted elements of the system. With the use of Utena’s shadowplays (see above), its daily reality repurposed into a stratified society, and its high society ceremonies (and even a clearly Utena-like minor character, Maryrose), Shadows House shows us it’s aware of this critique.

A Different Sort of Rebellion

A similar accusation has been occasionally leveled specifically against Christianity. André Malraux wrote: “those who teach the miserable to endure their misery must be punished: Christian priests and others…” Instead, he argued, the oppressed should cultivate hatred for their oppressors, hatred for their situation, and love only for their own dignity.

Similarly, Marxist ideology labeled religion in general as the “opium of the masses”, a trick the oppressors use to distract the oppressed from their misery and hinder their protest and the revolution it would birth. Violence is the answer. Protest is the answer. Aggressive action is the answer. This idea is not new. You see, back in the time of Christ, He himself was expected to destroy the conquerors of Israel. Of course, the Messiah would solve the real problems, resorting to real solutions. Even His Apostles would get impatient.

Wasn’t the Messiah, after all, their prophesized savior? Why all the niceties? Let’s defeat the Romans and sit on Jerusalem’s throne! But what would that have accomplished? In all, there were 192 uprisings against Rome, many of them successful. Punicus and Venutius prevailed over the Empire, but they didn’t change the world and you probably don’t even remember their names (luckily, Wikipedia does).

But by choosing other means, Christ did overcome the enemy.

Back to Shadows House, Edward may reign instead of Lord Ryan, but what’s the difference? The show knows that you might fight and prevail, yet remain in the darkness. Hatred and utopia are the true opium: intoxicating, poisonous, and darkly addictive. Burning the House down is as much of a fantasy as bringing light to everyone by yourself. Only, it’s the less healthy of the two.

Kill all the oppressors, cultivate hatred, discard others, and do away with the niceties of morality, love, or a heroic life, and the world you build will be as corrupt as the last one. And I don’t mean just that there will be new oppressors. Evil makes us slaves, more than any external system could, and we cannot escape it any more than we can escape our own shadows.

So we need something different. A different sort of rebellion.

If Emilico’s attitude is off, and revolution is not the answer, where’s the balance? I believe that the show has an answer—and a wise one at that. One that parallels how the way of Christ looks in practice. Shadows House gives this answer to Emilico in the form of… Miss Kate.

But unpacking this answer and doing it justice will require us to go on a journey through history, Scripture, and the faithful practice of exegesis. This article is long enough already, so with this cliffhanger, it’s time to fade to black with an ominous “To be continued”. Come back tomorrow for the final part! Enjoy the gloomy September!

Shadows House and Shadows House 2 are streaming on Crunchyroll.

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