Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Jun 30th 2011
The Story of Saiunkoku
A long time ago in the land of Saiunkoku, a young emperor was the reluctant heir to the throne. Because he refused to rule and showed no interest or inclination for government, his advisers sought a teacher to make him face forward. They discovered Shurei Hong, an impoverished noblewoman. Despite the fact that Shurei's true desire was to be a court official, she agreed to teach the emperor, as it looked as close as a woman could get to governance. But things rarely go precisely as planned and no one at court was exactly as they seemed...
Simply put, this is a story about politics. Saiunkoku has been through a rough patch in the recent past, forcing Ryuki to the throne. Bitter about the disappearance of his older brother Seien, Ryuki refuses to rule. He fosters rumors of his homosexuality and generally does his best to be a total disappointment. Shurei is hired to turn him into an emperor. Her job is to teach him the ways of the government, something she delights in. When Ryuki learns that her gender prevents her from becoming an official, he begins to take steps to change the way the government functions. This is not high-action stuff.
It is not surprising that this story has a preponderance of males. Shurei, the heroine, longs to become a court official. The world of the story doesn't allow that, but she is, like any good heroine, undeterred. The result is that much of the action takes place at court, which naturally precludes many more female characters. This is not a harem story, however. Only one man has clear romantic interest in the heroine, and while intrepid readers can certainly uncover hints that others find Shurei attractive, most of the action is political rather than romantic.
Artistically, these three volumes are full of gorgeous men and attractive women. And that's not necessarily a bad thing – Yura's art is very easy on the eyes, full of sweeping lines and flowing hair and robes. The characters are the focus of it, with minimal-to-nonexistent backgrounds. Flowers surrounding whoever is the focus of the panel often take the place of rooms or other pesky background elements. For the most part it is easy to tell characters apart, partially because they very rarely change clothes. When they do, as happens in volume 3, it becomes a bit more difficult to tell one from the other. Regretfully the same cannot be said of the old men, who are nigh on indistinguishable.
Volumes 1 and 2 cover Shurei's arrival at court and her time as Ryuki's concubine/teacher. There is more romance in these two volumes than in three,with some very cute moments, but politics remain the plot-moving factor and the impetus for the few action scenes. Volume 3 starts a new arc, where Shurei cross-dresses in order to help out at court during a personnel shortage. It is clear that we've got two separate stories going on here, something that Viz has made visually apparent by making both of the first volumes yellow and the third blue. It's an interesting technique, whether they or the original Japanese publisher came up with it.
Probably the best thing about this series are the characters. Shurei is a truly admirable heroine, determined to do her best no matter what the situation. She is still grieving for her mother, but she competently takes care of her crumbling house, space-cadet librarian father, and foster-brother Seiran. She throws herself into reforming Ryuki and into her work in volume 3 with an admirable strength of purpose. She contrasts nicely with the emperor, who comes off as much less mature. Her strength forces him to seek his own and overcome the past events that influenced his behavior, making them a couple worth cheering for. Theirs is an equal relationship. Granted, Ryuki has very little understanding of the world – after Shurei departs the palace he sends her meaningless notes and ridiculous gifts. “With this, we're sure our feelings of passion will finally reach Shurei!” he chirps after sending her a particularly stupid present. These are the things that make him endearing. His speech patterns also tell us a lot about his character – most often he refers to himself using the royal “we,” only lapsing into the singular “I” when his emotions are truly engaged.
Shurei's foster-brother Seiran makes up the third of the main trio of characters. Seiran fulfills the “dark and brooding” requirement; a skilled warrior with a mysterious past, Seiran is loyal to the Hong family for saving him as a young teen. His relationship with Shurei can be interpreted two ways, and it really is at this point a matter of opinion as to whether they have a sibling relationship or a potentially romantic one. He is the least developed of the main three at this point, though whether that remains true has yet to be seen.
Ultimately, whether you like this series hinges on how interested you are in the politics of a fictional pseudo-China. The characters may be wonderful, but they are playing in a political drama, and as viewers of the anime know, the politics only get deeper from here. If you were to chose between reading this manga or watching the anime, the latter might be more accessible to the masses with its stellar Japanese voice cast to soothe the politically bored. But the manga series is good in its own right, and worth a browse in the library to determine whether Saiunkoku's is a story that you want to read.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Likeable characters, lovely art, and a heroine who can really hold her own. Ryuki is adorable.
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