The Apothecary Diaries Season 1 Review

Protagonist Maomao in The Apothecary Diaries

“Being too good at one’s job can be a curse sometimes”, protagonist Maomao reflects towards the end of the first season of The Apothecary Diaries. She should know: Thanks to a flair for deduction, the young apothecary is continually dragged into petty disputes and intrigue. Lucky for us that it keeps happening, though, because it makes for an incredibly entertaining case-of-the-week medical drama set in a fictional country that resembles imperial China. Despite her misgivings, Maomao is the star of this anime based on the light novel by Natsu Hyūga and Touko Shino – and an incredibly engaging one at that.

The Dark Beginnings of The Apothecary Diaries

The thrill of The Apothecary Diaries’ chase springs from some dark beginnings: Maomao arrives at the palace where most of the show takes place after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. A food-taster and lady-in-waiting to the emperor’s concubines – who live in a separate but extravagant annex called the Rear Palace – she puts her scientific know-how and obsession with poisons to good use to investigate a variety of strange medical cases flaring up amidst the concubines, aristocrats, and their servants. It’s these investigations that part the dark clouds of The Apothecary Diaries’ premise (and the continuing unpleasantness that accompanies its imperial-dynasty setting), along with Maomao’s playfully hostile interactions with her superior, Jinshi.

The Engaging Storytelling of The Apothecary Diaries

Despite her best efforts to mind her own business (and focus on her hobby of testing poisons on herself), Maomao’s curiosity keeps pulling her into various medical conundrums. It’s hard not to feel a similar compulsion toward writer-director Norihiro Naganuma’s adaptation of Hyūga’s story, which leaves a new disappearance, death, or potential encounter with the supernatural to be solved at the end of every episode. Those cases-of-the-week build toward a gripping whole, gradually forming a complete picture of the Rear Palace – how the emperor’s influence hangs over every interaction there, or how different characters desperately jockey for more influence themselves.

Even though she keeps some form of emotional distance, all of The Apothecary Diaries’ stories about secret affairs and questions of lineage come back around to Maomao in surprising and exciting ways. There’s a sense of focus as each storyline feeds into the lives of its main cast, enriching their character through hidden parallels that are unveiled over a compelling 24-episode run. The storytelling makes the Rear Palace feel like its own little world, and while it may not be the flashiest looking show, moments of visual invention give its drama some extra punch: a rain storm rendered in harsh and inky black lines instead of the usual white; details in the characters that mirror the diligence of Maomao’s methods.

The Rich Visuals of The Apothecary Diaries

There’s also a wealth of glossy, detailed paintings of flowers and food, the former underlining the objectifying way the Emperor’s concubines are sometimes talked about: described as flowers, planted in the “garden” of the Rear Palace. Maomao observes these people with close attention, and in these paintings we can see a reflection of her empathy and her botanical expertise. Everyone in the palace is more than they seem, and each story of The Apothecary Diaries does well to play with first impressions. Part of the fun of watching Maomao work is how she sees through these ornate facades.