The most intriguing thing about Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth is how it places two mirrors face to face, so to speak. It's about Japan as seen by outsiders — in this case, France (and Europe, and the West generally), but also about all of the above as seen by Japan, and with the interplay between both parties also as seen by Japan. If this series had been created by a Westerner, it wouldn't just be different in that the main character might well not have been Japanese. It would have been created for an entirely different audience, with entirely different expectations for what the work was meant to provide, and inspired to draw entirely different conclusions. Examining how and why Croisée was put together in this manner is as fascinating as the story itself.
I should start by saying that on its own, without any critical baggage to weight it down or theoretical lenses to peer at it through, Croisée is a wonderful little series. "Wonderful" in the best and most literal sense of the term: full of wonder, even if it does intermittently fall back into the safe haven of easy anime tropes. It takes a premise which could have easily devolved into mere cuteness, and attempts to imbue it with a little thought and scrutiny. It also tries to do something else I don't see often in a show like this: confront the very feelings produced in its audience by its main character. The fact that its heroine is adorable is made into a full-blown theme and not just an ingredient.
Stranger in a strange land
Croisée's plot is simple enough on the outside, and played off in such a sprightly way as to be entertaining for anyone not up for digging into it very deeply. In the 1890s, Japan had only recently emerged from its self-imposed isolation courtesy of Commodore Perry's gunboats, and so Japan and France (among other nations) had started coming that much more eye-to-eye. It's during this time that Yune, a girl in her early teens at her oldest, comes to France the company of Frenchman Oscar Claudel to work in his metalworking shop ("Enseignes du Roy").
Oscar's grandson, Claude, is currently running the shop, and his first glance at Yune in her kimono and clogs fills him not with curiosity but dismay. He doesn't see what Oscar sees: a denizen of a fascinating culture worthy of study. He sees yet another mouth to feed, and he doesn't want her underfoot while he tries to do what work remains for him in a world where artisanry is being pushed out in favor of the factory. Yune, by contrast, only wants to make herself useful, even as she is almost wholly ignorant of day-to-day life in France.
Yune's not wholly ignorant, though. She speaks and understands the language, something that gives Claude no end of chagrin when he realize she's understood every word of the denigrating things he's said in front of her to Oscar. She's also an attentive observer and a good learner, but the biggest barriers she encounters are those that stem from her own presumptions about what she should be doing and why. Early in the show she sits down for a conventional French breakfast — bread, cheese, coffee — and it's plain from one bite of the cheese that she doesn't enjoy it. it. Oscar and Claude pick up on this immediately, and gently insist that she doesn't have to eat anything she doesn't want to. But she's determined to do it — not only to eat the cheese but to enjoy it, to fit in.
Oscar and Claude find this tendency baffling, but they will have to deal with it as one of the many things about her being Japanese that exists above and beyond mere clothing, cuisine, or language. It's difficult for them to realize that whenever they say, "You don't have to do this," what she hears is, "We don't want you fitting in." It's as heartbreaking for us as it is for her when she's told "You shouldn't smile at everyone you meet," since we know it amounts to "Don't be yourself." But what is she, really? Japanese, or a Japanese amongst Frenchman (which is, no matter how you approach it, amounts to being a different person)?
A quest for selfhood
Then again, too much interest, or sympathy, can be just as much the wrong kind as too little. One of Claude's quasi-customers is a girl named Alice, the daughter of a wealthy family and also a raging Nipponophile. She takes one look at the "cute, doll-like" Yune and squeals with joy: now she can add an actual Japanese person to her growing collection of things from the Land of the Rising Sun. I liked how the show pokes holes in her enthusiasm without being mean-spirited about it: there is a very funny scene where Yune has to explain to Alice that the "hairpin" she is sporting is in fact a tea scoop, and the "makeup brush" is intended for writing, and the "washtub" is ... well, I wouldn't dream of giving away that last joke.
Alice is also made into something of an antagonist for Yune and Claude alike, since her family purchased Yune's heirloom kimono from them. Claude could never make enough money in his lifetime to buy it back — or so they assert — but Alice is willing to cut a deal of sorts. If Yune leaves the shop and comes to live with her, she will get the kimono back without it costing any of them a dime. This puts all of Alice's enthusiastic antics into gloomy relief: all she can think about is what this stuff means to her. The same goes with Yune, who at first is seen less as a person by most everyone; the "cute, doll-like" formula most people trot out upon first seeing her, Alice included, only reduces her to the level of one of the artifacts in Alice's collection. It's easier for them to see her not as a person, but as something symbolic of their own curiosity or needs.
But she's not a mirror, or a totem, or a dress-up doll — although Alice and Yune alike at one point do enjoy playing dress-up (although that crinoline Alice wears does give Yune pause). Yune's a person, one who must choose all the more deliberately her manner of personhood in the world she now inhabits lest someone else choose it for her. She may learn how to cook a good pot-au-feu for Claude, and enjoy a "genuine" Japanese tea sitting with Alice — well, as long as she's not throwing cream and sugar into it — but she has to find an identity for herself that lies beyond merely being a foreigner coping with the local customs.
Moé as a theme, not a fetish
If the show falls short in any respect, I suspect it's because it is constructed along the open-ended lines of an adaptation of an ongoing manga, and so it doesn't really put a bow on many of the issues it brings up. The climactic episode involves, of all things, Yune getting stuck up on a roof and Claude having to go bring her down. It does give us a kind of satisfaction, I guess, that of seeing how Claude and Yune now care for one another without as much of their cultural baggage weighting them down. But it's still something of a retreat from the show's more general ambitions, even if it is presented to us in a way that's likely to be palatable to all viewers, not just those who are keen on the underlying concept.
What the show does get right, though, is how it sees its characters as being more or less equal in the face of history and advancing modernity. I mentioned Claude grousing about the way craftsmanship is losing out to mass production, but the show finds other ways to bring the concept to life. At one point Oscar sets up a shadow lantern and a zoetrope, and they come off as being just as new to Alice as they do to Yune. A less intelligent show, I suspect, would have cast Yune as the bewildered beholder of superior Western technology, when such advances were in truth steamrolling over everyone equally, Westerner and Japanese alike. (The one thing it does not hint at, and I suspect this would have been out of the show's scope by any measure, is how the lineage of aristocracy represented by Alice and her family would eventually be replaced with mere wealth.)
The one thing Croisée gets most right, for me, is how it uses the fact of the heroine's objectification as part of its story without becoming exploitive or insulting. Because so much of the story is in fact about how people see Yune, she's one of the few examples of a moé heroine that embodies the concept without making it into a fetish. Her evolution as a character is matched through the rest of the story by the evolution of the attitudes of those around her. At first, all they see is doll-like cuteness, something to be savored and cherished and protected and engrossed with. By the end, they see that much less of those things and that much more of an actual person. As do we.