Veiled in Darkness: Shadows House is This Season’s Hidden Gem

May 2 · 6 min read
Kate and Emilico, Ebony and Ivory, Eldritch Abomination and Unsuspecting Meat Puppet

This article is a part of AniTAY’s Spring 2021 Early Impressions series, where our authors offer their initial thoughts on the new, prominent, and exciting anime from this season!

Taking thematic cues from 1971 period drama Upstairs, Downstairs but moving the setting to a survival horror mansion and infusing its atmosphere with existential, Lovecraftian dread, Cloverworks’ Shadows House is a very strange show to quantify. Perhaps because of this nebulous quality, the anime fandom has more-or-less overlooked this fascinating production. Understandable, considering Spring 2021’s incredibly busy season.

Emilico’s head is… kind of empty

This is no super-shiny action extravaganza like 86: Eighty-Six or Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song. Nor is it a chilled, grounded Super Cub or an emotionally complex deconstruction of potentially problematic relationships (Higehiro). Based on a seven-volume seinen manga series (published in Shueisha’s Weekly Young Jump, 2018-present) Shadows House presents the story of Emilico, a stereotypically (for anime) young, cutesy, chipper, blonde girl who awakens to her calling as a “living doll,” servant to the Shadow Kate.

Let me just do your hair for you… Oops! I left soot splotches wherever I touched your pale, exposed, supple skin. There’s probably a hentai doujin where this concept is explored in excruciating detail.

Emilico has no memories of any life before her entrance to the house, and Kate implies that she was created to serve the shadow family that reside there. The first episode is a two-hander between our two central characters, where they are compared and contrasted. Kate appears to be an exact replica silhouette of Emilico, right down to her hairstyle. Her features and expression are completely unreadable due to her completely inky-black countenance. Rather than Emilico casting a shadow and it assuming a new identity, Kate claims that she, as a shadow, is the original, and that Emilico is the replica. So begins an unsettling deconstruction of identity, purpose, and belonging that expands to explore the relations between other shadows and their “dolls.”

Our little flesh-puppet pals are so happy in their subservient sub-human existence

Kate is extremely reserved and high-strung compared to Emilico’s sunny, eager-to-please nature. When experiencing strong (negative) emotions, shadows emit a plume of soot that coats every surface, so Emilico’s main function is to clean Kate’s room of powdery contamination. We later meet other dolls when Emilico joins them to clean the rest of the creepy, labyrinthine mansion. They are essentially unpaid slaves, dehumanised to the level of “things’’ and used as disposable tools. Some are not even permitted to have exposed faces, or voices.

Sara and Mia. That’s not normal, right?

Characters make multiple allusions to dolls that are “discarded” when they lose their usefulness, so the threat of failure forever hangs over Emilico’s head. One of the most unsettling functions assigned to the dolls is to be their twin shadow’s face, a concept illustrated most effectively when Emilico meets fellow doll Mia alongside her “master” Sara. Alone, Mia is friendly and helpful, yet alongside Sara she mimics the shadow’s body language and threatening expressions as her personality is subsumed by her master’s. Like Emilico, the viewer is disconcerted by the sinister oddness of this situation.

Aww, isn’t it cute? Wonder what it’ll look like when it grows up?

The house itself is as much a character as its strange residents. Full of secret passages, dangerous traps, and aggressive semi-sentient soot monsters, it is reminiscent of older PS2-era games like Rule of Rose, Clock Tower, and Fatal Frame, All games I spent many hours exploring until the creeping dread infected my nightmares and I moved to less unsettling pursuits like We Love Katamari and Guitar Hero.

Oh god, oh god, forget I asked. It’s a demonic spider zombie shadow thing. Kill it with fire!

Cloverwork’s production design here is similar in many ways to their earlier The Promised Neverland, at least its superior first season. Thematically there are similarities — a cast of young children/adolescents imprisoned in an old, creaking house while those in unseen authority above them plan their (potentially grim) futures. So far, the first four episodes seem mostly concerned with introducing the basic concepts and conflicts of the series. A much larger plot is cooking in the background, and surely the first stirrings of rebellion can’t be far off.

Ooh, get ready for some incredibly detailed bathtime shadow-fan-service. Uh…You can’t see a thing.

Shadow’s House is dark, intriguing, and compelling despite its focus on an improbably peppy main character. Look past the superficial cuteness and you’ll find a deep, dark exploration of class-based abuse that pairs interestingly with this season’s Moriarty the Patriot, another underrated gem. Except Shadows House isn’t so much about the poor eating the rich, than the rich devouring the poor in darkness.

In case you missed the implied dual relationship between shadows and dolls, the official promo image kind of spells it out for you…

Shadows House
Based on the manga by:
Director: Kazuki Ōhashi
Produced by: Cloverworks
Streaming on: Funimation
Episodes watched: 4

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