Maomao confronting Fengming and her crimes from The Apothecary Diaries

‘The Apothecary Diaries’ Offers One of the Most Nuanced Takes on Trauma I’ve Ever Seen

The Apothecary Diaries‘ Maomao is arguably one of the best female characters in all of anime. She exudes a combination of wit, humor, peculiarity, and emotional complexity rarely afforded female characters in any kind of mainstream media, anywhere in the world.

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While Maomao diligently solves her weekly mystery, the underlying dramas of the story unfold patiently, with Maomao and Jinshi’s deeper emotional landscapes coming to light very, very slowly.

This makes Apothecary Diaries similar to shows like Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, a series that is character-driven but which keeps the reasons why the characters act like they do very close to its chest. But unlike Kaguya-sama, Apothecary Diaries is narrated in the first person, usually by Maomao herself. The deeper you get into the series, the more you realize Maomao is an unreliable narrator—mostly because, as someone living in her own brain, Maomao doesn’t think in a way that explains the depth of her actions to the audience.

These omissions become especially pronounced once you realize Maomao is grappling with PTSD from her early childhood. From Neon Genesis Evangelion to One Piece and beyond, there’s no shortage of anime that meaningfully and empathetically tackle mental health issues. But The Apothecary Diaries manages to stand out from the pack because the slow pace of its unraveling allows the series a level of nuance which I’ve never seen before.

Refusing to be defined by trauma

***Major spoilers ahead for the first season of The Apothecary Diaries ahead***

Talking about PTSD is a tricky beast. If handled incorrectly, you can end up betraying and triggering the audience who winds up identifying with your character. Or else you can overly victimize a character, flattening them just into their trauma.

The Apothecary Diaries avoids both of these frequent traps. When we meet Maomao in episode 1, she’s headstrong, clever, and particular. The show never treats her like “victim” is her primary identity. That’s not to say the show isn’t empathetic to Maomao. But its slow pacing means that Maomao’s internal truth is slowly unraveled to the audience in such a way that we are merely offered an explanation for a quirk of hers we have already grown to accept and love.

For example, in episode five, we learn that Maomao’s signature freckles are not naturally occurring—they’re makeup she puts on her face every single day. “Cosmetics aren’t just for making a face more beautiful,” Maomao exhaustedly states. She explains that the freckles were to make herself unattractive to the drunken, violent men coming out of the brothels where she worked. Anyone who has ever had to grapple with what they feel comfortable and safe wearing in public will understand this train of thought.

This approach to Maomao’s inner world becomes even more pronounced when we slowly begin to piece together the fact that Maomao had an incredibly rough childhood—her mother, a high-ranking courtesan named Fengxian, cut off part of her finger when she was a baby, and her father, a court official named Lakan, was out of the picture. Maomao was sent to live with Luomen, Lakan’s uncle, where she was able to have a happy home life with a loving father figure. Yet both her biological parents remained relevant in her life—she was often sent to care for her mother, who was slowly dying of syphilis.

Maomao sees this simply as something happening in her life and doesn’t feel particularly sorry for herself because of it. The narrative treats the situation accordingly, but all the signs of deep trauma are there if you read them. Episode 18, “Lakan,” gives us the deepest look into Maomao’s emotional landscape in the whole series. Maomao’s inner monologue refers to Fengxian merely as “this woman.” The glare she gives Jinshi at the very mention of Lakan dropping by Maomao’s room results in a legitimate jump scare.

More importantly, her childhood has left emotional scars. In trying to parse out how a courtesan is feeling towards a suitor, Maomao thinks, “If it’s what everyone knows as love, that’s an emotion I’m sure I left behind, in the womb of the woman who birthed me.” (Notice, again, the aversion toward using the word “mother.”) There are piles of books and scores of therapists who will tell you how a child being emotionally abused or neglected by their parents leads to lasting emotional damage—especially when it comes to the ability to trust and, therefore, love. It offers a tragic lens to Maomao’s often comedic inability to recognize Jinshi’s romantic interest in her.

But The Apothecary Diaries has one more twist up its sleeve.

The trickiness of fault

Until its final episode, Maomao’s biological father, Lakan, is painted by the series to be a horrifying predator. We’re led to believe he assaulted Fengxian, and even so, had taken to wandering around the brothel asking for Maomao.

Maomao knows everything about her parents’ history, but we, the viewer, do not. When we learn the full, tragic story of Fengxian and Lakan’s romance, it’s because Maomao has come out with the upper hand, having known the story all along. Their relationship was not only consensual but loving. Tragedy struck because Lakan was called away for three years, without properly communicating to Fengxian what was happening as she, unbeknownst to him, was pregnant. Driven to anger, she eventually cut off her finger and part of her daughter’s as a way to curse him.

The arc of the second cour—introducing Lakan as a villain and slowly revealing the truth—mimics that of a child growing up and slowly realizing the parent implicated in their trauma wasn’t trying to be a bad person. Not every parent of a traumatized child is a genuine piece of shit like Gendo Ikari. Many are simply flawed and in a bad situation—it doesn’t exonerate them, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad people. However, this also doesn’t mean they are easily forgiven. Maomao says in the final episode that she never hated Lakan. She’s smart enough to realize he was trying the best he could, with the limited emotional tools he had.

But anyone who has dealt with trauma can tell you that knowing something and feeling something are two wildly different things. The voracity of the glare she gave Jinshi isn’t magically nullified now, because hurts that deep don’t magically go away. That shit takes years, and Maomao already exhibits a level of maturity far beyond what I personally was capable of at her age. That’s probably largely because she was able to have a home life separated from her triggers. Even though Maomao can logically parse out her parents’ history, and even wants the best for them, she still sure as hell wants to keep her personal distance from them.

I have never witnessed this kind of highly nuanced, multi-level depiction of a traumatized child and her parents before The Apothecary Diaries. It feels important, and it’s just one more reason The Apothecary Diaries is an exemplary series.

(image credit: Toho Animation)


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Author
Kirsten Carey
Kirsten (she/her) is a contributing writer at the Mary Sue specializing in anime and gaming. In the last decade, she's also written for Channel Frederator (and its offshoots), Screen Rant, and more. In the other half of her professional life, she's also a musician, which includes leading a very weird rock band named Throwaway. When not talking about One Piece or The Legend of Zelda, she's talking about her cats, Momo and Jimbei.