Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 22nd 2007
The Story of Saiunkoku
Shurei is the plucky, level-headed daughter of an impoverished aristocrat in a Chinese-influenced medieval country called Saiunkoku. Her father, a glorified librarian, works at the royal palace and one day is visited by Advisor Sho, an elderly high mucky-muck with a proposition for Shurei. The scent of gold instantly clouds her poverty-stricken mind, leading her to a privileged position...as the king's consort. Her assignment is to get the no-good layabout young ruler of the nation on his feet and ruling like he should be. She goes at it with gusto, only to find a gentle, rather shy young man instead of a spoiled, debauched autocrat. They hit it off well, and King Ryuki, moved by her strength and passion, soon takes a more active role in governance. That's only the beginning though. It seems everyone—her attractive steward Seiran, her easygoing father, and especially Ryuki himself—has secrets, and the palace isn't nearly so safe a place as it first appears.
If ever an anime series could be described by a single color, it would be The Story of Saiunkoku and the color pink. The relation is visual of course, with a light, well-blended palette of warm pastels infused with pink. Pink palaces, pink interiors, pink clothes, blossoming cherry trees—the show wraps its smooth-skinned cast of bishounen in a veritable blanket of multifarious shades of pink. But the relation is also narrative; the show is an airy, good-natured romantic comedy/drama: bright and cheerful, warm and gentle, and more than a little girly. Pink through and through.
One would be hard pressed to find a more fundamentally decent core of characters anywhere. Practically everyone in the country of Saiunkoku, it seems, is kindly and good-natured at heart...or is at least susceptible to the softening influences of Shurei and a few sweet-bean buns. Luckily the different forms their soft-heartedness takes—under the cover of an irate exterior, anchored in blithe acceptance, or woven into a complex of deceptions—keeps the cast from becoming one homogeneous lump of gooey don't-worry-be-happiness. However, good humor, optimism and tolerance are still the order of the day, with all of these values reaching their epitome in the positively adorable Shurei who leads the cast not with outbursts and antics, but with a smile and a gentle push. The sunny view of politics, with its benevolent tyrant and his loyal retainers and concern for the needs of the people, shows a similarly light, positive touch. As does life in general, even for the poor, who are happy and openhearted despite their financial difficulties. The humor, mostly shounen-ai delusions and gentle comedies of manners, demonstrates that same touch as well—even if it does occasionally devolve into overly-familiar shoujo misunderstandings. The warm fuzzy feeling this volume leaves upon completion is very pink indeed.
Naturally, no matter how soothing such a world may be, it would be dead boring if pink were its only color and frothy fun its only tone. And so threads of other darker, more compelling colors are woven throughout. Ryuki initially has a guileless charm that belies his authority and reputation, but he has unknown depths that give him a sharp edge and make one wonder just how much of that guilelessness is genuine. Shurei may be a gentle romantic naïf, but she's a sharp customer otherwise, driven by a genuine passion springing from a vulnerability that offsets her vitality. And for how well everyone in the government seems to get along (Government officials who like and respect each other? No way.) not all is flower petals and sweet buns in the imperial palace, as at least one continuing and potentially deadly plot is afoot in the king's residence.
Yet another victim of the art robbing from the animation, Saiunkoku's beautiful men, calibrated color schemes, and pleasing settings all come at the expense of clumsy body movements, diminished activity overall, lots of staid or static compositions, and emoting that is done almost solely with shimmery shoujo eyes. It hardly affects the series' entertainment factor though; the charms of Saiunkoku are hardly tied up in its animation.
More attentive viewers will recognize composer Kunihiko Ryo as the fellow responsible for the superb soundtrack in The Twelve Kingdoms. His work here bears some resemblance, especially in the use of older and more traditionally Chinese-sounding instruments. Where it differs is the same place where The Twelve Kingdoms and Saiunkoku differ, replacing the epic power and almost unbearable melancholy of the former with a lighter, happier touch in the latter. Both the opening and closing are slower, quieter tunes than is the norm. Pleasant without being the kind of thing that sells soundtracks.
Geneon's dub is exactly the kind of thing that dub detractors dislike and dub fans find thoroughly tolerable. There isn't any doubt that it's a slight step down from the original. The acting is a little flat, and it lacks the natural ease of a good dub. It is, however, fairly competent; the casting choices are good, the acting at least consistent, and the cringe-factor is pretty much nil. And you have to give them a little slack for going up against a Japanese cast that reads like a who's who of popular male voice talent. The script adaptation makes so few changes that its almost more of a direct translation than an adaptation, news that will be welcome to some and a disappointment to others. Kind of like everything in life.
Don't let the pink fixation or resolutely sunny outlook fool you, Saiunkoku is neither stupid nor vacuous. True, in retrospect there is much that is unrealistic (starting with Shurei's becoming the royal consort). But each episode contains continuous plot elements, and the clues dropped as to the bigger picture are relatively subtle yet clear in their intent. Its relationships, for all their innocence, are complex and quietly affecting; and it has one of the most convincingly constructed 100% nice girls since Fruits Basket. Not bad for a pink show.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Makes you feel good without insulting your intelligence or dampening emotional involvement.
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