I watched the first season of the anime version of The Story of Saiunkoku approximately three years ago. I had heard the manga was pretty good, so I decided to give it a shot during my vacation.
Although I could see lots of elements in the manga that I remembered enjoying in the anime, I have to admit that several of the early volumes were a bit too slow for me. I liked the overall story and wanted to eventually get past the point where season 1 of the anime stopped (assuming that the anime and manga were fairly similar), so I kept going. Unfortunately, I became hooked on the manga just a couple days before my vacation was over. I still had several unread volumes left – it hurt to leave them behind. This is a series I definitely plan to continue reading.
Read on for spoiler-filled summaries of each of the volumes, plus a few short comments.
The Story of Saiunkoku (manga, vol. 1) – Shurei Hong, a poor noblewoman, accepts the task of being the emperor's temporary consort. If she can convince the emperor to finally rule (and hopefully sleep with women instead of men), her family will receive a lot of money. The emperor turns out to be sweet and almost childlike, with deep emotional wounds that Shurei begins to heal. Shurei has no clue that Ryuki, the emperor, is falling for her and is a bit jealous of Seiran, a mysterious young man who has lived with Shurei's family for years.
My first exposure to this series was the anime, but it's been long enough ago that I saw it that I could only remember some of what happened. Even though I loved the anime, I wasn't completely sold on the manga at first. I felt it was a tad too wordy and the art seemed too busy. Also, Shurei's face occasionally looked a bit odd, like her proportions were off.
Still, the manga had enough things that I enjoyed to carry me through to the next volume. Ryuki was an odd character, with moments when he seemed innocent and naive and moments when he was very sexy. There were indications that he had hidden depths, which were possibly even more fun for me than they would have been for a newbie to the series. Shurei was practical and fairly innocent (although in slightly different ways than Ryuki), and she managed to be all those things without grating on my nerves. At this point, the story only scratched the surface of the political intrigue I knew to expect in later volumes.
The Story of Saiunkoku (manga, vol. 2) – The hints of betrayal from the previous volume culminate in Shurei's kidnapping. Ryuki rushes to save her, while Seiran faces another foe. Shurei learns that Ryuki really does love her, but she plans to leave anyway. Seiran and Ryuki have a private last talk as brothers and Ryuki agrees to finally be emperor in truth. There's also a short extra story: Shurei and her mother making steamed buns and her father sharing them with young Ryuki. Then, Shurei's mother's death.
Again, the manga was a little wordy for my tastes. While I enjoyed the action in this volume, loved that Ryuki got a chance to show that he's a more capable person than he at first appears to be, and sighed over the brotherly love stuff, certain events were a little hard to follow. I had trouble keeping straight who was betraying whom and why. Also, the fantasy elements were jarring and seemed to appear out-of-the-blue.
As far as the short extra at the end went, I admit it, I cried a little.
The Story of Saiunkoku (manga, vol. 3) – As the weather gets hot, the court officials start dropping like flies. Shurei agrees to pretend to be a boy and work as a temporary official in the treasury. Meanwhile, Ryuki has no idea she's around. He's hard at work drafting a bill to allow women to take the imperial civil exam. There's also an extra story about the reason Shurei is afraid of storms – her mother died during the season of summer storms.
If I hadn't seen and loved the first season of the anime, I might have quit reading the series after this volume. It was a tad slow.
This volume introduced several characters I enjoyed: Minister Ko, the mysterious, mask-wearing guy who possesses hidden kindness; Reishin, the minister who insists that Shurei call him “uncle”; and grisly, bearded Ensei. I also enjoyed getting to see Shurei excel at being a temporary civil servant.
The Story of Saiunkoku (manga, vol. 4) – The time is coming for the end of Shurei's stint as a pretend civil servant. What she doesn't realize is that her boss always knew she was a woman (he was one of the people still against women being allowed to take the exam). She also didn't know that her uncle really was watching over her. A couple boys steal the treasury key, causing a bit of havoc. Everyone meets up, and Ryuki gets to see Shurei again. And Ryuki gets his bill passed and has to consider what this will mean in terms of him and Shurei.
Again, the series is still very wordy and slow. Even though the overall story is interesting and I like the characters, I might have quit several volumes ago if 1) I'd been buying the series instead of checking it out from the library and 2) I hadn't seen the anime and known about several events and characters I was looking forward to seeing in the manga.
Shurei and Ryuki's relationship is very unusual. Shurei is, so far, uninterested in romance, and Ryuki is smart enough to know he can't force her to be with him without her coming to hate him. One thing the anime did not show me was whether these two would end up together in the end, or if their duties would force them to remain separate.
A couple great moments in this volume: getting to see the treasurer's face for the first time, and the passing of Ryuki's bill to allow women to take the civil servant exam. Although the bill is only provisional and comes with lots of restrictions, I still cheered.
The Story of Saiunkoku (manga, vol. 5) – First, Shurei is sick and everyone scrambles to take care of her. Then, the overall story progresses. Shurei meets a mysterious boy named Eigetsu. She gives him a place to stay, but he still needs a tablet that was stolen from him back. Kocho, the courtesan who also happens to be an underground boss, helps, because this touches on her territory. There are also a couple short stories. In one, Ryuki remembers meeting Shurei. In the other, we see Shoka (Shurei's father) and his younger brothers caring for baby Shurei.
For some reason, I've finally become hooked on the manga version of this series. This volume had just the right mix of action, humor, and lovely character interaction. Shurei made extra money by doing the books for a brothel, and I laughed when it was revealed that both her dad and Seiran knew. Shurei had thought it was her little secret.
The beginning of the volume was basically just fluff, but it was wonderfully fun fluff. I enjoyed watching everyone fret over Shurei. The two shorts at the end of the volume were also good. I particularly liked the one with a younger Shoka and his brothers. Reishin's over-the-top love for Shurei is kind of adorable.
The Story of Saiunkoku (manga, vol. 6) – Eigetsu gets his tablet back – it's his admission to the civil servant exam. He and Shurei take the exam and pass – Eigetsu in first place, and Shurei in third. Their trials are not over, however, as both face subtle and obvious bullying. They're give way too much work and too little rest. They're muttered about and have things thrown at them. Ryuki and the rest can't do much to help them, but they persevere.
I can't help it, I love stories in which the underdog main character perseveres against bullying in order to prove their strength. I can't wait for the triumphant moment when those characters succeed even in the face of all of that.
Eigetsu is bullied because he's young and came from a poor village. Shurei is bullied even more because she's the first woman ever to take and pass the civil servant exam. Ryuki and the others are limited in what they can do to help, because their aid might make the situation worse and might cause others to doubt that Shurei excelled on the basis of her own efforts. Still, there were little moments when they could help, and I enjoyed those moments.
The whole Ryuki/Shurei thing makes me sigh. Shurei is now physically closer to Ryuki, but, in a lot of ways, much farther away. The difference between their positions is so great. Shurei adjusts to this fairly well (being a civil servant is more important to her than romance has ever been), but it really drives home to Ryuki how impossible his love for Shurei might be. He thought about some of this in previous volumes, and I'm glad he chose to support Shurei's happiness anyway. But wow, that's some painful one-sided love.
A couple other things I liked: Ryuki's hair (so pretty...), and the whole “make-up is war paint” thing.