This series has always been deliberate and thorough at examining economic issues for its fantasy setting, so I suppose that it eventually getting around to dealing with a thornier issue like slavery shouldn’t be a surprise. What I did not expect was that the series would take a mostly bottom-up angle on the matter.
To be clear, I generally don’t have a problem with fantasy anime series using slavery, especially where contextually appropriate. Throughout the history of human civilization, slavery or its approximate equivalents (i.e., serfdom in some feudal settings, helots in ancient Sparta, and others) has been a widespread institution, with cultures across the globe using it to some degree or another; not until the 1800s did it fall out of favor world-wide. In most cases where it appeared, slavery had a substantial or even critical impact on both the economy and social structures, as well as providing a convenient way to deal with convicts and prisoners of war. Even more advanced civilizations (like the Roman Empire) used it widely and depended on it heavily, to the point that over a third of the population of Italy around the end of the first century BC was estimated to be slaves. (Also notably, early Christianity opposed the ill treatment of slaves, but not the institution itself.) Hence slavery not being present to some degree in this world’s setting would have been odd. I really only have a problem with slavery depictions in anime if they are being used in a fetishistic fashion outside of S&M scenarios.
Up to this point, though, the series has largely danced around the matter, aside from Carla being relegated to slave status as part of her punishment; I think it was mentioned once or twice in the first half, but the series has done little to actually depict it prior to this episode. Here the writing clarifies that slaves in Fredonia nominally have some rights and protections, though in practice they can still be mistreated quite a lot. (Even so, that’s still on the enlightened side as slavery goes throughout history.) Rather than focus on Kazuya’s efforts to reform the system, the story features a young man who has inherited a slave trading business but decides to shut it down in humane fashion since he doesn’t have the temperament to run it. He comes up with the idea of treating the slaves he inherited well and educating them, both to make them more attractive for purchase in general and to assure the likelihood that they will be picked up by more responsible new masters. The irony is that this coincidentally dovetails exactly into Kazuya’s efforts to reform promotions of knights and nobles by connecting it to governance, which hence requires more educated staff – which thus makes educated slaves much more valuable.
The story perhaps softens and oversimplifies the realities of the situation, but I did like how Ginger Camus’s actions were shown to start a trend, and how that brought him to Kazuya’s attention (through Roroa) as the kind of person he would want to have working for him. It almost turns the whole scenario into a moral lesson, but the series can be forgiven for that because sometimes actions like this are all it takes to start a trend of common decency. I can also appreciate Kazuya being cautious about how he goes about getting rid of slavery. He uses the example of the American Civil War to explain how directly abolishing an institution deeply-ingrained to local economics can have violent consequences (even if that may be the more moral thing to do), so he opts for a path towards gradually phasing it out instead.
There are a number of potential problems with this approach that Kazuya’s plan is still glossing over, however. Educating slaves so they can get proper jobs is all well and good, but the economics of paying for labor, rather than just purchasing it up front, also has to be worked out, as will situations like how San got sold into slavery (i.e., by being sold off by family to cover a debt – an altogether common occurrence in many societies which have used slavery in the past), and the economy will have to adapt. Also, can such resources be devoted to slaves if underlying problems like poverty are not dealt with first? (In other words, are the poor also going to get educated to this degree?) Finally, changing attitudes about slaves will not be so easy; granted, this is not a situation like the American South, where slaves were all the same race and thus visually distinct from the regular population, but even so, changing the attitudes of some towards slavery may take generations. But at least the series’ heart is in the right place.
The one production criticism here is that the series is, once again, seriously skimping on animation. Quality control is rough in numerous scenes, and the episode uses just about every animation shortcut imaginable without being too obvious about it. In general, though, the episode handles the whole matter about as well as possible, and I do hope that Ginger and San are shown together in future content.