Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Story of Saiunkoku, the Complete Season One (anime TV series)

This series was one of my rare crazy impulse purchases. Usually, before I buy, I research an anime series. Sometimes I'll read lots of reviews, take a look at screen shots (the artwork can have a big effect on whether I like something or not), and watch a few fansubbed episodes. At the very least, I read short summaries, so I know what the series is about.

With this one...I looked at the packaging design. That's all. Seriously.

From the packaging design, I guessed that this would be a nice historical romance featuring at least one very pretty guy. And so I bought this boxed set.

This could have gone very badly. Even though Rightstuf.com was having a Geneon sale, it still wasn't cheap. Had Season Two also been available and on sale, I probably would have bought that, too, because I am a completist. I still don't have Season Two, but I plan to get it once Rightstuf has another Geneon sale and I can compare the price there to Amazon's. I have an Amazon.com gift certificate, so that may win out.

My impulse buy worked out in the end, because I really enjoyed this show. It wasn't quite what I expected, but it was enjoyable all the same. This turned out to be a pretty complicated series, although I didn't understand the full extent of that complexity until the last few episodes. My synopsis includes several spoilers, but, in the interest of not writing something novel length, I still had to leave a lot out. Many characters and events are either skimmed over or completely left out.

Synopsis:

The country of Saiunkoku is composed of eight provinces, each named after a different color. Ryuki Shi is the new emperor, after the struggle for the throne left everyone in the royal family dead except for him and his beloved older brother, Seien Shi, who was exiled. Unfortunately, Ryuki seems to be a useless emperor, refusing to see to his duties and spending his nights with male lovers. Shurei Hong (or Kou - either the translators made up "Hong" or Kou is the Japanese way of saying Hong), a princess whose family has fallen on hard times, is offered, and accepts, a large sum of money to become Ryuki's temporary concubine and help him become a better emperor. What Shurei would really like to do is become a government official, but, although she is intelligent, women are not allowed to become government officials. Being Ryuki's concubine is the closest she can come to achieving her dream.

Ryuki falls hard for Shurei. She is kind to him and cares deeply for Saiunkoku and its people, and her attitude begins to rub off on him. It turns out that Ryuki is not the "idiot Emperor" he pretends to be, and he's not as frivolous as the rumors make him out to be. He's also not interested in men, although Shurei doesn't find that out until later. The reason Ryuki has acted the way he has is because he lacks confidence in himself. Also, he keeps expecting his beloved older brother Seien to come back - he feels that Seien would be the preferred ruler and would be happy to let his brother be Emperor if he returned and wished to be. When Ryuki was little, everyone in the royal family abused him, and the only one who showed him true affection was Seien, who also was not loved by most of the royal family.

Ryuki happily discovers that Seien is alive and well, now going by the name Seiran and living with Shurei as her loyal friend and bodyguard. However, Seiran wishes to continue keeping his true identity a secret, and now Ryuki no longer has a reason to continue avoiding his duties. Once he finally begins acting like an emperor (and after a few assassination attempts), Shurei goes home, but that doesn't stop Ryuki from courting her as best he knows how (his efforts are, unfortunately, way over the top, but at least his heart's in the right place). Ryuki's time with Shurei convinced him that women could potentially make good government officials, so he manages to convince the court to allow Shurei to take the exam one needs to pass before becoming a government official.

Shurei passes the exam and deals with the miserable period afterward. While others who passed the exams slowly get to take on more responsibilities, Shurei is left scrubbing toilets. She's not the only one being given a hard time - the person who scored the best on the exam and the youngest person ever to pass, a 13-year-old boy named Eigetsu, must clean the shoes of arrogant, mildly abusive government officials. Both Shurei and Eigetsu are rewarded for their trials, however. Ryuki demonstrates his trust in them and their abilities by making them the first ever co-governors of a province - the dangerously unsettled Sa province.

It's at this point in the show that it turns into something I didn't expect - rather than staying physically near Ryuki and getting to see him and Shurei fall in love, Shurei leaves and spends very little of the rest of the season with Ryuki. Instead, there is lots of action, political unrest, and drama, as Seiran and Ensei (the former governor of Sa province) try to get Shurei and Eigetsu safely to their destination. There are some additional romantic subplots, as a bored young merchant, who is actually a horrible bastard whose only redeeming qualities are his looks and his affection for Shurei, falls for Shurei and she starts to care for him a little, prompting Seiran to sort of confess his feelings to Shurei.

Otherwise, though, the rest of this show is mostly about politics, which is not as boring as it sounds. Things wrap up tragically in terms of the horrible bastard, who died prettily. Eigetsu and Shurei turn out to be fabulous co-governors who manage to draft a great plan for the future of Sa province, thereby winning everyone's respect and trust. Unfortunately, the horrible bastard (whose name is really Sakujun Sa, but I like "horrible bastard" better) still manages to cause problems, even in death. He set things up so that his brother, Kokujun Sa, would believe he killed his own father and grandfather, making him therefore not worthy to marry Shunki Sa and become head of the clan. Also, although the horrible bastard was never able to bring himself to tell her flat-out, the way he had originally planned to, Shurei is a smart young lady and was able to figure out that she was inadvertently responsible for his death - a death that upsets her, even as she knows he gave most people no reason to mourn his passing. Fortunately, Shurei manages to deal with her grief with the help of her friends.

Finally, near the end of the season, Shurei and Ryuki get to see each other again, so that Shurei can submit her and Eigetsu's plan to him for his approval. As Ryuki has become a better Emperor, he has also become more lonely. Now, Shurei is one of the few people who still treats him like Ryuki and not just like the Emperor. He still loves her, and she still refuses him, but he says he doesn't mind, that he can wait as long as necessary.

Here's hoping that season 2 brings some resolution to Shurei and Ryuki's romantic storyline - while this ending isn't completely painful, I need something more than this.

Commentary:

For a series with packaging that shouts "romance," there's not a whole lot of that, at least not as much as I expected. The beginning of the season, with Shurei as Ryuki's concubine, didn't surprise me, but I expected that, afterward, he'd court her, she'd become a government official, and that would give them lots of opportunities to see each other and become closer. Instead, Ryuki does the responsible thing and sends her to another province, where she can do the good she wants to do, and the two of them spend almost all of the rest of the season apart. Ryuki pines over Shurei, Shurei finds herself attracted to Sakujun in spite of herself, and Seiran offers himself to Shurei as a better option than Sakujun. Aside from all of that, the season focuses mostly on Shurei's struggle to stabilize Sa province and assume her position as governor.

And yet, I wasn't bored. As much as I hated Sakujun Sa, he was so deliciously messed up and terrible that his mere presence had a tendency to ramp up the drama. Had he not been in the series, it's likely that all the scheming between the various old men, plus the thugs they sent after Shurei, Eigetsu and, by extension, Seiran and Ensei, would have bored me. Thugs are one thing - with Sakujun, I was never really sure what he would do or what he was even capable of. Sure, he was nice to Shurei while she interested him, but what if he got bored with her, the same way he did with everything else?

Even as I liked some of the things Sakujun brought to the show, I was annoyed at how stupid he tended to make Shurei, all because of the supposed similarities she saw between him and Ryuki (which I never really saw myself, even when Shurei tried to spell them out). Usually, when an anime or manga heroine is dumb around a guy, I can at least tell myself, "Well, but it's ok, because she's dumb even when she's not around him." Sad, but true (*cough* Miaka *cough*). In this case, Shurei was intelligent, with a level head on her shoulders - that surprised me a little, since her penny-pinching and slight whining at the beginning of the series prepared me for a heroine that would be much-loved but also annoyingly stupid. She wasn't stupid, and she actually trusted her friends. Amazing. And then she met Sakujun and was like a deer in headlights.

Well, even though the second half of the season, where Eigetsu and Shurei were trying to take their place as co-governors of Sa, didn't bore me, I must admit that I preferred the first half of the season, as stereotypical as it was. I loved watching Shurei and Ryuki together (and giggling every time Shurei figured she was safe with him because she'd heard he likes guys), and I loved watching Ryuki grow up. Unfortunately, in the first half of the season Shurei doesn't really get to do much, beyond cook great food and charm people with her beauty, intelligence, and general affection for her country and its people. Are heroines like Shurei only allowed to do great things if they are not in close physical proximity to romantic situations? I hope not. I would like the second season to have more romance, with Shurei still getting to be a competent government official.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • First Test (book) by Tamora Pierce - Of all of the Tortall books that Pierce has written that I've read, her books starring Keladry are my favorite. Kel is determined to be the first girl to be officially allowed to be a page - Alanna, the first Lady Knight, had to pretend to be a boy in order to be allowed to train to be a knight. Unfortunately, even though girls are allowed to train to be knights now, there are many who don't agree with this, and Kel has to deal with a lot of bullying, in addition to the usual hazing and brutal training all pages go through. Fortunately, Kel's determined, a hard worker, and good at making friends. Those who liked the semi-historical feel of The Story of Saiunkoku and the whole "girl trying to enter a man's world" aspect might like this.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - This anime is based on a series of books written by Fuyumi Ono, which I highly recommend reading in order, just because the world it's all set in is so complex that it's really just best not to create an additional breeding ground for confusion. I think the anime covers the events of the first three books. The series as a whole is centered upon the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, each kingdom of which is governed by a ruler whose very existence determines the health and prosperity of his or her kingdom. Each ruler is chosen and guided by a kirin. One particular ruler who comes up a lot in the show and the series of books is Yoko, a seemingly ordinary Japanese high school girl who was taken from the world she knew by a strange man named Keiki and plopped in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Eventually, Yoko learns that she's the new ruler of Kei and must figure out how to stabilize a place she knows little about, whose people, fearing that she's just like the previous ruler, don't trust her. Not exactly a "woman breaking into a man's world" story, since male and female roles are less divided in this world, but it is another story about a woman finding her strength and trying to make a place for herself, with quite a bit of politics (and even less romance than The Story of Saiunkoku).
  • Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - Miaka is an ordinary middle school student who wants nothing more than some tasty snacks and to be accepted into the same high school as her best friend (who, unfortunately for Miaka, has much better grades than she does - getting into the same high school is going to be tough). When she visits the National Library with her friend, she stumbles upon the book The Universe of the Four Gods and literally gets sucked into the story. She becomes the priestess of Suzaku, protected by her Celestial Warriors. If she can find all seven of her Celestial Warriors, she will be able to summon Suzaku and go home. A good suggestion for those who'd like another pseudo-historical story with lots of drama and fantasy elements, plus way more romance.
  • Moribito (anime TV series) - Like The Twelve Kingdoms, this is based on a book (which is part of a larger series, but the anime only covers the events of the first book). Balsa is a female bodyguard, a skilled spear-wielder who just wanted to get her spear fixed when she found herself with little choice but to protect Chagum, a young prince possessed by a water spirit. Those who'd like another pseudo-historical story with political and fantasy aspects might want to try this.

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