Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Jan 31st 2012
The Story of Saiunkoku
GNs 5 and 6
After a tumble in the river, Shurei comes down with a cold. Shouka and Seiran try their best to take care of her, but they need a little extra help from the palace. Once recovered, Shurei sets off to finish up her part time jobs before the Civil Exam. On her route she picks up mysterious young man Eigetsu, who may be hiding a secret...personality? Later, the Blue Scarf Gang attacks the brothel Kogaro, and even though the non-fighters have been told to stay out of the way, Koyu, Shurei, and Eigetsu choose to join the fight while Ryuki more firmly establishes imperial authority. Soon thereafter, the results of the Civil Service Exam are published, and Shurei and Eigetsu take their first steps towards their goals. But some of the other examinees and more established courtiers are not pleased that a female and a child are numbered among them. Will Shurei be able to handle the hazing when her friends cannot stand up for her?
There is, it has been said, a dearth of strong female role models of late, along with some alarming backsliding in terms of equality and feminism. True or not, it is more likely that the heroine of your average shoujo manga will be sweet and cute and looking for love, no matter what other talents she may have. That is what makes The Story of Saiunkoku a standout in the genre. Shurei is a determined young woman who won't let herself be beaten down, and if you didn't realize it before, you will now. While volume five is the humorous, more romantic book, volume six is all about showing how strong Shurei is.
The “bumbling men try to take care of sick woman” plotline may be a bit of cliché these days, but that doesn't mean that it can't be done well. Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura open volume 5 of The Story of Saiunkoku with Shurei ill in bed. Seiran is taking care of her, and doing quite a good job, thank you very much, when her father Shouka bursts in in full hysteria mode. Seiran, who was completely calm beforehand, begins to panic...at which point Koyu and Ran appear at the door, concerned for Shurei's well-being. Seiran once again exhibits his inner overbearing older brother and conscripts the two to derail Shouka's efforts. But because one method of comedy writing is to simply keep piling on the ridiculous, while the group is in the kitchen Shouka's brother Reishin and Minister Ko arrive to secretly watch over the sleeping Shurei, and no sooner are they brought inside than Ryuki wanders in. The sheer number of vaguely incompetent would-be caregivers elevates this above the generic plot device that it is and even generates some full-out laughter. (The faces made by Shouka, Reishin, and Seiran when they discover Ryuki in Shurei's bedroom are particularly good, as is Ryuki's reaction.)
In point of fact, most of volume five is more humorous than not. This may be from a higher incidence of Ryuki and Reishin than in the two books directly preceding this one – or at least, Reishin acting the slightly-too-overprotective uncle – but it could also simply be due to the situational humor. Shurei, we learn, has a part time job as an accountant for one of the city's top brothels. When an incident involving new character Eigetsu leads to a meeting with Ryuki there, his innocent foolishness digs him into an ever deeper hole with amusing results. It is very much worth mentioning that at no time does Shurei react to his inadvertent admissions with violence; she is angry, yes, but she never acts as if smacking Ryuki will straighten things out. Granted, the violent girl is more a staple of shonen than shoujo, but it is a pervasive enough trope that its exclusion here is noteworthy. It seems possible that Yukino and Yura are aware of this, as they both artistically and verbally poke fun at other traditional aspects of romance manga. One of the better moments is when Santa, Shurei's childhood friend and would-be suitor, notices what a strangely large number of beautiful men she is surrounded by. Yura whips out the appropriately over-sparkled screen tones and indolent expressions to add a visual chuckle to Santa's observation.
This volume is not all laughs, however. Ryuki's inner monologue and verbal exclamations showcase the depths of his feelings for Shurei and give him a more self-aware quality. At one point he realizes that by permitting Shurei to take the Civil Exams he is essentially stymieing his own efforts to woo her. A short story in the back also allows us to see the real Ryuki as it details his past and his first meeting with Shurei from his perspective. The brothel sequence also gives Ryuki his first hint that he may have rivals for Shurei's heart, and by the end of this book some readers may be suspecting that Seiran is one of them, although nothing is concretely stated.
It is volume six that is the more impressive in terms of plot and character development. At the end of the battle with the Blue Scarves, brothel madam Kocho takes Shurei aside and gives her a gift – a make-up box. At first Shurei isn't certain she wants it, but Kocho tells her that make-up is her armor and that she must wear it whenever she goes into battle. While at first this sounds like something out of an old issue of “Secrets of Young Brides,” Kocho goes on to tell her to always be proud that she is a woman. “Go out there as a woman and do the things that a man cannot,” she says. “Even if you stand upon the same stage as men, it doesn't mean you have to become one.” This is sound advice to readers of the book as well, and while some of Kocho's words are dated, there is still a fair amount of truth to be had, no matter how distasteful the implications may be.
Shurei most certainly needs the comfort that Kocho's words provide, because the majority of this volume details how the men at court haze her. (Eigetsu also gets poor treatment, but it is far less menial than the tasks Shurei is assigned.) The men that she has befriended in earlier books are powerless to help her – a fact that Koyu warned her about after she passed the exam. They are high ranking officials, one the highest of all, and the difference in their stations would make any help she received look suspicious to her detractors. Naturally Ryuki has the hardest time with this, although Seiran's attempts to distance himself in a physical sense from her day-to-day presence bespeaks a similar level of frustration. The treatment that Shurei receives is in many cases grossly unfair and downright cruel, and readers can feel those sentiments right along with the characters. It is a testament to the strength of Shurei's character that she perseveres.
Both the panel layouts and the translation have been cleaned up this time around, with a near total disappearance of anachronistic slang and an overall more old-fashioned, formal feel to the dialogue. Yura's layouts are roughly on par with volume four, with a better flow than the first three books and a slight improvement over the fourth one. Her art overall looks very nice, although Shurei lacks her forehead adornment in two panels of the first short story in volume 5. Eigetsu's design is fairly unremarkable for a main character, but there may be a reason for the simplicity of his look.
The Story of Saiunkoku is a nice change of pace from a lot of other translated shoujo with its heroine who has bigger ambitions than earning her M.R.S. Shurei may not do a whole lot in the fifth volume, but her interactions with the other characters are enjoyable and endearing, and with the Civil Exam storyline just getting started, it looks like things will continue to be interesting for a while longer.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Very funny in places, sweetly romantic in others and with character development for some major players. Admirable heroine and a hero who respects her. Easy to overlook the fact that...
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