Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 24th 2009
The Story of Saiunkoku
DVD - Season 1 Part 2
Shurei and Eigetsu continue to endure harsh duties and prejudiced treatment as they struggle through their duties as Initiates, all the while under the watchful eye of those who care about them. Both remain initially unaware that plots and counter-plots circulate around and behind them, ultimately catching them up in an intricate push to weed out corruption. When they finally complete their training period and receive their first post, they find themselves traveling to Sa Province under the protection of Seiran and Enshi and in the company of Korin, who had returned to the capital to report personally on the situation there. As Shurei soon discovers, getting to Sa Province's capital to be installed in her post is an adventure unto itself, as the powerful but fractured Sa clan has reason to want her companions eliminated and her brought under their control. But just who is this devilishly handsome merchant's son that Shurei falls in with in a time of need? Is he friend, foe, or possibly something more?
As a shojo fantasy series, The Story of Sauinkoku was arguably the least likely of Funimation's rescues of former Geneon titles, and thus its continuing release is the most satisfying of the titles originally in that fix. Not having finished this wonderful story about Shurei's quest to succeed despite the gender-based expectations going against her would have been criminal.
This three-disk thinpacked boxed set, which covers episodes 16-27, offers a lot to like, and what exactly each viewer will get out of it will depend on the individual viewer. It is unquestionably a dedicated shojo series with a vague reverse-harem feel; Shurei may not be cohabitating with numerous potential love interests, but the bevy of bishonen guys who always seem to be hanging around and looking out for her gives that distinct impression, and as this volume makes clear, no less than three of them have romantic designs on her. Thus those that like their bishonen dudes will have an awful lot to sigh or squeal over, as will those primarily interested in the potential romantic aspects.
But this series is far more than that, and the “far more” part is the reason why even those not normally interested in shojo series may find this one compelling enough to watch. Earlier volumes showed a taste for intricate scheming, politicking, and power plays, and these episodes enthusiastically carry on that tradition. The scheming ratchets up to an entirely new level with the introduction of Sakajun Sa and his seductive behavior towards Shurei; rarely before has such an effort been so frighteningly enticing, even against such a strong-willed character as Shurei, and rarely before has such an effort been so muddled on actual intent. How much of Sakujun's play towards Shurei is scheming, and how much is him actually becoming genuinely infatuated with her, is unclear, and the story is more interesting for it.
An involving cast certainly doesn't hurt. Shurei is an ideal role model for teenage girls: disciplined, strong-willed, sharp-witted, appropriately respectful or aggressive as the situation demands, and above all, driven by a goal in life that will not let her get discouraged. This is a girl who will not even let an offer to become the permanent Consort of the Emperor deter her from her dreams, one who attracts support and interest for reasons far beyond her physical attractiveness. Surrounding her are a bevy of characters who are often sharper of mind and wit than what they initially appear, a group enhanced by occasional appearances from the fruitcake Ryuren Ran, the return of Enshi, and introduction of the dangerously appealing Sakujun. More surprising (but not unwelcome) is the return and prominent role played in the set's later episodes by Korin, who has shrugged off her poisoning ways and shows impressive and unexpected bursts of tenacity. The only real disappointment is Eigetsu To, who is a little too bland in base personality and whose dual-personality shtick wears old fast. These episodes do provide some additional insight into the background of Seiran, though, including what, exactly, happened to him between being exiled and winding up at the Hong household.
Though most of the content through this stretch of episodes is serious, the odd playful moment does come up, and some of those are among the best moments in this stretch. (The scene where Secretary Sho reveals his face to another character, and the reaction it gets, is particularly amusing.) Less functional are the equally infrequent action scenes, whose weak choreography and minimal animation clearly show that the series' priorities do not lie there. The animation elsewhere takes typical shortcuts but otherwise provides a satisfying level and smoothness of movement.
The artistry is more a strength of the series than the animation, however. Shurei looks good however she dresses but is arguably most attractive in scenes where she lets her hair down (or it is let down for her) and Korin invariably gives off the impression of being a delicate doll. Female viewers will have plenty of handsome, long-haired guys to ogle, and the richly-detailed costuming of featured characters offsets the more subdued and generic appearance of minor characters and crowd figures. Background artistry, while not the finest out there, nonetheless does an excellent job of convincingly establishing setting.
A musical score heavy on traditional Japanese music complements the events on screen superbly well, especially in some heavily dramatic scenes late in the set. Most prominent are the erhu numbers, which are used both to illustrate Shurei's own performances and as additional accompaniment, though the score mixes up themes quite a bit. The closer remains consistent throughout these episodes, and while the strong opening tune continues throughout, some of its visuals update with episode 27.
As has been the case in previous volumes, the Ocean Productions dub offers a reasonably tight English script (except for changing Shurei's family's surname to Hong from Kou) and uneven quality in individual performances. Kelly Sheridan capably anchors the cast as Shurei, Jason Simpson sounds conversationally natural as Enshi, and John Murphy gives Sakujun an even more convincingly seductive sound than the original Japanese performance. Much weaker performances in the prominent roles of Seiran and Eigetsu weigh the dub down, as does faltering performances in a couple of minor roles, but the balance of the dub is on the positive side.
As is typical of rescued Genon titles, this set includes no on-disc Extras beyond outdated company previews. Each thinpack does have a double-sided insert picture card, however.
The Story of Saiunkoku will probably never escape comparisons to The Twelve Kingdoms, but while the latter does more with world-building, the former offers a richer degree of intrigue and an exceptionally strong and respectable heroine in Shurei. These episodes do have some stretches where they get a little too mundane, and quality control in the writing is sometimes suspect, but on the whole this set delivers twelve more episodes of delightful entertainment. Despite its heavy shojo trappings, this series deserves a broader audience than it will probably ever get.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Exceptionally strong lead heroine, plenty of scheming and intrigue, pretty artistry.
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