The Magic of the Inner Palace

Raven of the Inner Palace episodes 1-11

While I don’t specifically consider myself a fan of Chinese Imperial Court-influenced fantasy series, I must have a high tolerance for them; after all, three titles which would probably make my all-time Top 10 list for favorite anime series – The Twelve Kingdoms, Story of Saiunkoku (aka ColorCloud Palace), and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit – all fall into that category to some degree. That all but assured that I would give this light-novel based series a fair shake, and the notion of a non-traditional imperial consort who uses magic to help solve oft-supernatural mysteries intrigued me further. I am pleased to say that, even though this was a highly-anticipated series for me, I may have underestimated it a little.

The premise of the series (which is explained at the beginning of most episodes) is that a woman with a special position has long existed within the sprawling Imperial Court: the Raven Consort. Despite the title, she does not service the Emperor, nor interact with him – or much with anyone else, either, for that matter. She has mystical abilities, is intrinsically linked to a certain goddess, and is the person to seek out if you have a supernatural concern, but she is always isolated, though whether by policy or by her personal choice is initially unclear. She looks young but could even be a century or more old. (That she is legitimately young gradually becomes abundantly apparent as the series progresses, though her actual age is not brought up until episode 11.) The new Emperor Gaojun, who came to power after overthrowing the Empress Dowager who murdered his mother and disinherited him (as shown in episode 1), finds the Raven Consort, Shouxue, intriguing enough that he seeks to ingratiate himself to her, despite her efforts to dissuade him and warnings from others that the Emperor should have nothing to do with the Raven Consort. This leads to all manner of supernatural mysteries and intrigues playing out as a kinda-sorta romance brews on a slow burn.

Nothing may seem terribly novel about this on paper, and initially the series gives the impression of a “mystery of the week” type of format. However, as the series plays out, it gradually reveals a far more intricate and fully-realized setting and set of circumstances. The world-building is vastly more involved than one might expect from a series where more than 90% of the total running time takes place within the Inner Palace, with the spread and detail devoted to the construction of the Inner Palace being a big part of that. Each individual residence has its own array of distinctive details, and each building houses secrets and mysteries accessible to one who can see and communicate with the dead. The recent history of the series – with its revelation that Shouxue is actually one of the last surviving members of the outlawed previous dynasty and all of the machinations and cruelties that the Empress Dowager inflicted on everyone around her – are core elements of the story as well.

However, the most fascinating parts of the series involve the exploration of the setting’s foundational lore, and especially how the goddess-chosen Raven Consort fits into that. One mid-series episode details the very specific reasons for everything about her: why she’s in the Inner Palace, why she’s isolated, why the Emperor has traditionally kept his distance from her, why she has status second only to the Emperor despite that, and why she has the powers that she does. All of this involves actions and power plays which go back centuries and have resulted in a delicate power balance where the Emperor cannot live with or without the Raven Consort – effectively, he’s trapped by the circumstances almost as much as she is, though the Raven Consort bears a far more onerous burden. Gaojun’s efforts to change that and release Shouxue from her prison of fate become one of the underlying plot threads of the second half of the series.

But the series has a lot more going for it than just that. With an emphasis heavily on talking and character interaction, getting the characterizations and emotions right is essential, and the writing does a wonderful job at that. Shouxue is a delight as a young woman who mixes the wisdom and cynicism of a much older person with an emotional temperament more befitting a teenager. She knows the role she’s supposed to be playing, and tries to stick with it, but she cannot help herself from reacting in a very tsundere-like way to Gaojun’s regular presence, entreaties, and even mild flirtation. Gaojun, contrarily, is perpetually somber and acts like the weight of the world is on his shoulders (which, to a degree, it is), but he also clearly gets some satisfaction from bribing Shouxue with treats to get her to cooperate with him and he is definitely interested in her in a more romantic sense. Their interaction is not one of big gestures and dramatically-expressive faces, but rather of little details and reactions that nonetheless fully convey their feelings. Over the course of the series, an array of more colorful characters (almost entirely eunuchs, ladies-in-waiting, and ghosts) gradually surround them to provide a greater range of expressiveness, interactivity, and even humor. The one minor negative here is a chicken which functions as a mascot but technically has a role to play as a (non-speaking) representative of the Raven Consort’s associated bird-goddess. He’s an annoyance who adds nothing to the story.

The artistic style of the series favors long, slender builds with long necks for the character designs and the flowing, elaborate dresses and robes typical of Chinese Imperial-influenced titles. Shouxue’s design – whether fully-coiffed or with her hair down – is a masterpiece of delicate beauty, but nearly as impressive is the multi-winged design of the bird goddess. Male designs tend to blend together a bit, requiring some effort to keep names straight, but all the designs are almost unfailingly elegant and pretty (except when they’re supposed to be ugly). Excellent background art and magical effects are complemented by a distinctive color design aesthetic, while stories of past events are often depicted through the art style seen on old Chinese and Japanese scrolls. Animation quality is generally good but not top-tier, with the one minor complaint here being the use of stock footage when Shouxue invokes her magic.

The music of the series also warrants some comment here. The series features some deep emotions, and the musical score does a stand-out job of supporting them, with its mix of symphonic arrangements and simpler string and percussion arrangements. The truly special part, though, is the opener ”MYSTERIOUS” by Queen Bee. It’s a great song on its own, but it warrants regular rewatches as the series progresses because the series also gradually shows that the lyrics and visual content are intrinsically related to the status of the Raven Consort. Taken fully in the context of its series, it’s one of the year’s top anime themes.

An English dub is also available for some of the series, trailing the main release by four episodes. It’s serviceable, but supporting roles are better fits than the leads are. Some of the attitude that original performer Saku Mizuno (also Ryo in Bocchi the Rock!) gives Shouxue doesn’t quite come through in Alexis Tipton’s interpretation, and Christopher Wehkamp is a little too morose as Gaojun. Not bad performances, but this is one case where I distinctly prefer the originals.

Through 11 episodes, Raven of the Inner Palace it has proven to be one of the Fall 2022 season’s best and most under-appreciated series, and it is a legitimate contender to make my Top 5 list for the year.

Rating: A-

5 thoughts on “The Magic of the Inner Palace

    1. You should definitely check it out, it sooo good! It’s one of my favorite series this season. The ghosts are legitimately creepy looking, the Raven Consort is a wonderfully layered character, and the mysteries are pretty interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Turned out to be one of the stronger shows of the season Raven of the inner Palace. Much Kudos to the series. The art lends it a form a mysticism that separates it from regular anime as well.

    I wonder if I might use you as a sounding board for a moment about Eminence in the Shadow. You see the recent two episode seemed to me to be drastically different in writing style and far less witty. But the only talk about the show don’t seem to care about the show going for basic boob and harem jokes. Is it just me who feels how different 10 and 11 has been? You are often very good at analysis then me so I would like your thoughts.

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  2. Completely get what you’re bringing up, as I have noticed the shift, too. That’s an article-level analysis, and I am planning to get to it next week (when I have a lot more time to focus on it).

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