Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Oct 9th 2011
The Story of Saiunkoku
As Shurei “Shu” Hong's time as an assistant to the treasury draws to a close, Ryuki gets more and more determined to pass his law allowing women to take the civil servant exams. Not that he knows about her cross-dressing stint under his very nose – as the days since he's seen her grow longer, Ryuki becomes increasingly bent on seeing her to press his suit in person. Meanwhile the mysterious masked Minister of the Treasury and the bearded Ensei Ro reveal that there is more to them than meets the eye.
While the first three volumes of the manga adaptation of Sai Yukino's novel series felt a bit shaky in comparison to the Geneon released anime variant, with this book, the manga hits its stride. Now that the pesky character introductions and world building are taken care of, the plot is able to delve into the stories behind the people. While there is still a heavy political element, it feels more integrated with the character development and relationships than in the previous volumes, making this book a much more satisfying read.
Although the story opens at the palace, most of the book takes place away from it. In preparation for both her day off and the anniversary of her mother's death, Shurei takes Ensei with her to clean her mother's grave. Once there, Ensei wheedles the story of the elder Lady Hong's death out of her daughter, forcing Shurei to confront her ghosts. This chapter not only allows Shurei to deal with her long-repressed grief, it also clues us in to the fact that she is not all sunshine and rainbows, and that there is perhaps more to her than determination. The exchange also humanizes Ensei in preparation for his bigger reveal later in the volume. By forcing Shurei to face what she's been ignoring, or willfully allowing to fester, as the case may be, Ensei exhibits a maturity that he has not previously shown.
Although Ensei and Shurei receive the greatest amount of development this time around, they are not the only two to be given the chance. Seiran in particular is another standout this volume, though not so much in terms of serious or motivational work. No, what this book does for our stoic bodyguard/foster brother is to give him a lighter side: his interactions with both Ensei and Ryuki have him making faces, showing pique, and even playing the overbearing older brother. Where previously he could have very simply fit the reverse harem trope of “the manly/stoic one,” he now becomes a real person. With this transformation comes a chance for Kairi Yura to show off some of her skills as an artist. Up to this point characters have maintained a contained elegance, even when behaving in a silly way. This time around both Ryuki and Seiran have more mobile expressions, and with the expansion of Ministers Ko and Hong's roles, there is greater opportunity for varied character designs. The panel layout has also solidified, making for smoother reading than in previous volumes. While there are still a few sections that are confusing in terms of order, it is an easy read overall.
For the curious, Minister Ko's face is in fact revealed in this volume. It is difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that the story does a fine job with both his face and his reasons for hiding it. Ko's interactions with Minister Hong, whom readers may correctly suspect to be related to Shurei, are entertaining and also serve to give Ko a more rounded character. Minister Hong's familial feelings may seem borderline disturbing to some readers, but given the way things have been progressing, it feels safe to assume that they will be explained satisfactorily.
On the family front, Shurei's father Reishin gets some more page time than he had at the series' start. While his true governmental role (and that of lady in waiting Shusui) was revealed previously, this volume continues to build on that past, carefully weaving in tidbits about why it is his younger brother who heads the family. More of Shurei's dead mother is also revealed, although this feels less integral to the plot. Reishin's gentle, supportive parenting style makes for some amusing moments involving Ryuki and his intentions towards Shurei – he is an attentive but not intrusive presence in his daughter's life. As has been said before, in a medium where parental figures are largely absent, this is worth noting.
Viz's translation is worthy of mention on a couple of fronts. The first is the continued use of the “royal we” by Ryuki, and his lapses from it. Viz could easily have gone the Ooku route with this translation, and really Ryuki's speech is their only concession to the apparent formality of Saiunkoku's court. Most of the language is similarly old-fashioned, with terms like “midnight tryst” bandied about. This makes the occasional appearance of slang words like “yeah” and “okay” seem anachronistic and odd. It isn't enough to remove you from the story, but it is startling.
All in all, this is the first real stand-out volume of the series. It has humor, romance, and intrigue, both political and otherwise, and with some interesting character development and blossoming plot, the stage is set for it to continue on in this vein. While Shuei Ran and Koyu Ri remain pretty one note characters, and the governing of a fictional pseudo-China is still a central conceit that will not work for everyone, the team of author and artist have created a world worth visiting.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Good character development for most of the case present in the volume, a story that's starting to move, more varied art.
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