About a year ago, I reviewed the cosmic horror meets slice-of-life manga Kuro, by the author duo Soumatou. I was enamored with their artstyle, so it was exciting when I learned that a full TV anime based on one of their manga was in the works. Shadows House certainly has the look & feel that I also loved in Kuro, so it’s a shame that everything else failed to impress.
The story revolves around the titular Shadows House. A mysterious estate whose residents are all pitch-black, featureless people in fine clothing. One day, a normal girl wakes up inside a small chamber, remembering nothing aside from the fact that she is meant to be the servant of a shadow girl called Kate. The two soon meet, but their relationship is not exactly off to a flying start.
Kate is dignified, calm, and reserved. A proper young lady who doesn’t show much emotion and mainly enjoys reading books. The servant girl, who soon adopts the name Emilyko, is a total klutz. She is excitable and impulsive, but also affectionate. She quickly grows to care a great deal for Kate and goes to great lengths to strengthen their relationship, even if her excitement for doing so often backfires.
This developing friendship between the two made the early episodes of Shadows House endearing to watch. These episodes then also benefited from the series’ excellent mystery.
The Shadows House is a bizarre place. We’re initially restricted to just Kate’s room, but even there you’ll find yourself faced with puzzling questions. The mystery thickens as Emilyko takes up work outside of Kate’s room, where she soon meets other servants and shadow people. Something ominous is unfolding, but it’s unclear exactly what and how it will impact Kate and Emilyko. It all seems to be leading up to one major event: “The Debut”
What will this debut entail? Pay attention to the hints and you may be able to glance ahead of the story…
That may all sound strangely optimistic considering the grim tone of my introduction for this review, so of course there’s a catch. While the mystery builds up well in the initial episodes, it begins to crumble around the midway point of the story. The debut begins far sooner than you’d anticipate considering the build-up it’s given, and this turns it into a meandering ordeal that goes on for far too long.
The story soon becomes reliant on contrived conveniences. Characters make inane decisions that lead to massive detours in the plot, but which somehow, magically, always reveal themselves to have been acts of accidental brilliance. This also led to a trope that we came to call “Chekovs Quickdraw”: any detail introduced into the story will IMMEDIATELY become relevant to its progression. This leads to several scenes where new obstacles are resolved within literal seconds, in turn making the storytelling feel exceptionally rushed.
But the final nail in the anime’s coffin comes just after the debut, after which several episodes still remain. A cast of obvious bad guys get together and just explain the entire plot to each other. All that build-up and mystery that made those first few episodes intriguing is just rendered worthless. They put in all that effort, just to then fall back on a minutes-long exposition sequence that explains all the lore. It’s like listening to somebody narrate the plot synopsis off of Wikipedia.
Shadows House never recovers from this afterwards. It turns from an unsettling mystery story with mild horror vibes into a weird adventure tale, complete with sneering villains who can’t help but monologue about their every intention. It wasn’t even like the answers to the mystery were necessarily bad. The twists are pretty dang good and would be very intriguing, if only they weren’t delivered in such a boring way.
Not even the Soumatou’s visual flair can save this anime. Shadows House has a nice aesthetic to it; lots of gaudy architecture, gold & red, fine dresses, and lavish decors. The character-design is also great, but Shadows House falters when it comes to detail. It’s often a very static anime, which blatantly cuts away whenever the actions gets too complex. This also leads to bizarre inconsistencies and other strange animation decisions. It looks beautiful and makes for great screenshots, but it was obvious where fine cuts had been made with a chainsaw.
As I shared these concerns online, quite a few fans of the manga insisted that these were the results of a botched adaptation. Apparently, the anime begins to deviate from the source material early on, causing many of the problems I described above. So, if the mystery and style of Shadows House seems appealing to you, then consider reading the original manga instead. I haven’t read it yet myself, but Cloverwork’s TV adaptation is a 4/10 at best; a series with a lot of promise, ruined by poor execution.