The Story of Saiunkoku 1 by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino: B+

From the back cover:
Shurei Hong, destitute but of noble birth, has always dreamed of working as a civil servant in the imperial court of Saiunkoku, but women are barred from holding office. The emperor Ryuki, however, refuses to take command, leaving everything to his advisors. Shurei is asked to become a consort to the emperor to persuade the ne’er-do-well ruler to govern.

Shurei enters the palace as Ryuki’s consort, but he has yet to seek her out. It is rumored that men, not women, share the emperor’s bedchamber. Shurei must think of a way to stop the emperor from shirking his responsibilities, but she has to find him first!

I can no longer remember when or how I was exposed to the anime adaptation of The Story of Saiunkoku (originally a series of light novels). While I liked the characters and the setting, I never mustered a passionate devotion to the series and didn’t get beyond the first few episodes. Happily, I have a feeling things will be different with the manga adaptation.

The first volume covers ground familiar to me: sixteen-year-old Shurei Hong is the clever and hard-working daughter of an impoverished but noble family in the capital city of Saiunkoku, “the country of the colored clouds.” Her father maintains the imperial archives but doesn’t make much money, so Shurei supplements the family’s income by tutoring children and taking on other odd jobs. One day, the Head Minister, Lord Advisor Sho, turns up at their home with a proposition: he’ll pay Shurei a hefty sum to enter the court as the emperor’s consort and whip the nineteen-year-old shirker into shape.

Shurei immediately consents, and it’s a job she’s well-suited for, as a noblewoman with nothing but beauty to recommend her would not be learned or capable enough to complete the task at hand. Alas, the emperor, Ryuki, avoids her to the point where the ministers (a trio of awesomely scheming old dudes) are about to orchestrate a meeting. When they finally do meet, Ryuki pretends to be someone else, but Shurei sees through him almost immediately. Still, she plays along, sharing her ideal vision of an emperor with him and letting him know that she’ll be beside him all the way. Ryuki eventually declares that he will learn governance, and the two of them begin taking lessons from Koyu Ri, a brilliant young civil servant.

Although Shurei is a strong and interesting lead, towards the end of the volume Ryuki steals the show in a big way. He pretends to be somewhat of an elegant spaz (He actually reminds me of Tamaki in Ouran High School Host Club, though not as frantic.), but is actually educated and an accomplished swordsman. As we learn more about his past—as an “unnecessary” sixth prince, he was bullied by his brothers and neglected and abused by his mother—we learn why he finds Shurei so appealing. Rumors abound of Ryuki’s taste for men, but it’s not clear whether this is something sexual or merely related to his fear of being alone with the dark. He’s a damaged but likable guy, and being with Shurei brings him peace but also strength. The happy expression on his face when she finally invites him into her bed chamber for the night (he’s previously had to sneak in) is positively adorable.

The enjoyable interaction between Shurei and Ryuki may be the centerpiece of the story, but a pair of political subplots serve to flesh out the story. First, due to her proximity to the emperor, as well as rumors that an heir will soon be produced, Shurei becomes the target of assassins. Ryuki enlists the aid of two retainers to protect her, earning their loyalty by finally placing his trust in their abilities. The second concerns Ryuki’s older brother, Seien, who was banished as a teen for treason committed by his maternal relatives. It’s hinted very strongly that Seiran, the sole remaining servant to the Hong family, is the missing brother, but that’s not yet confirmed.

Somehow, the manga interpretation of the story is able to capture my interest more fully than the anime. I feel like I understand more what’s going on and can remember the cast of characters more easily—maybe Kairi Yura’s lovely art is responsible for that. Too, I’m now eager to reach parts of the story that are new to me. Alas, I shall have to wait until February for volume two!

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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  1. I sort of hope you give the anime another try (maybe from the library or streaming?).

    I thought it was a very unique development of a strong young woman who never totally succumbs to romantic love, because first she has to awaken to it – which happens connected to danger and tragedy and makes her somewhat wary – and then in the second arc, which wasn’t licensed, she can’t decide whether her position and role as the first female civil servant isn’t much more needed for the empire and the emperor than her love. And the amazing thing is that Ryuki comes to almost the same impression…

    And the side characters all have their detailed development and dark pasts as well. I sure hope that – since they are not releasing the light novels – the manga will cover as much ground as the two anime series (both 39 episodes).

    • That does sound fascinating. I too hope the manga covers the same ground.

      Alas, my library doesn’t have it. Is there a legal place one can stream it?

      • I seem to have been too optimistic – many streaming sites but none seem to be legal – and the funimation site itself is at the moment only of their parent company, hmm.

        Maybe interlibrary loan? Or someone else has it and can lend it to you? Of course the fansubbed versions of both seasons are easy to get.

        Here’s Katherine Eliska Kimbriel’s review of the first season – she explains the strenghts better than I can(she did a great couple of anime reviews on the BVC blog)

      • Update: if you have netflix all three collections (which they separated the first season into) are available:

        • Oooooh. My friend has Netflix and they’ve just made a Netflix app for her phone with video out support. That’s probably my best option.

          • A lot of the LJ people I read have it – I wish it was an option in Germany, heh. Do give it a bit of time, because while all the males and all the women are beautiful there really is a rare depth of characterisation and the series main emphasis is on duty, being the best you can be at what you want or need to be and choice versus the expectation of others.

            Well, K.E. Kimbriel, being a writer, said it much better than I did ^^.


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