Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Story of Saiunkoku
Ryuki has finally started to act like a sensible ruler, but Shurei has little opportunity to enjoy it. Plots against Ryuki are still afoot, ones which involve Shurei with poisonings, kidnappings, and assassins, and Ryuki is determined to keep Shurei safe as those around him manipulate events to their own ends. When the time comes for Shurei to leave the Royal Court and go home, Ryuki reveals his true interests and initially tries to win Shurei's heart with outlandish gifts, but ultimately he decides to appeal to her by giving her what she wants most: an opportunity to take the National Exams. Changing the laws to allow women to take the National Exams proves a tricky business, however, especially when the influential Finance Minister, who is so renowned as a “weirdo” that he changed his name to reflect that fact, shows his opposition. To try to win him over, Koyu arranges for Shurei, disguised as a boy, to intern in the Finance Ministry for a month during the summer, when oppressive heat has left them short-handed. Meanwhile, a scruffy old “friend” of Seiran's has showed up at the door of the Hong family estate.
If the first ten episodes of Story of Saiunkoku had to be described in one word that wasn't “pink,” it would be “pretty.” Pretty guys, a pretty female lead (particularly with her hair down), pretty background artistry, especially pretty character designs, pretty romantic relationships – just about everything about the series gives a “pretty” vibe.
And yet, as episodes 6 and 7 show quite clearly, the series has far more substance than that. The first volume may have left viewers with the impression that the series is a period romantic comedy, and indeed romantic elements still play a prominent role through these five episodes, and not just concerning Ryuki and Shurei. In this volume, though, the depth and complexity of the political maneuverings in the court begin to take over. The plotting involving the poisonings and attempted assassinations gets so complicated, and so many characters reveal secret identities, affiliations, emotional attachments, and motives, that one may need a score card or repeat viewings just to keep everything straight. (Reviewing the first volume immediately prior to watching this one, so that you have all the similar-sounding character names straight in your head, is highly recommended.) The hoops that even Ryuki, as king, must jump through to get the law changed to allow Shurei to take the National Exams gives insight into the bureaucratic complexity of the government, as does the truth about the situation of Seiran's friend Ensei. Strong ongoing character development plays well into these developments, especially in the relationships shown between Seiran and his brother and between Advisers Sho and Sa, with the quick establishment of Ensei as a likable character being an added bonus.
For all the serious content in these episodes, though, the series never forsakes its sense of humor for long. The comic relief is not as frequent as in the first volume, but the writing does occasionally fire off a good one (the “old bastard” joke at the end of episode 7 and Ryuki's dream in episode 8 particularly stand out) and maintain existing humorous character quirks, such as Koyu's incredibly poor sense of direction, the temperamental nature Shurei hides beneath her outward sensibility, and the occasionally silly behavior of some characters, especially Ryuki. One aspect of what makes the Finance Minister Kirin Kou a “weirdo” is also good for a laugh or two.
The cover art for volume 2 may eschew the pink background that so defined the first volume, but it only reinforces a notion established by the first volume: this series has some of the prettiest character designs in recent memory, as well as great use of period costuming. Though never garish, the colors are so vivid that they breathe a degree of life into the visuals that even well-made anime series do not commonly achieve, and the background art effectively establishes the setting. The animation may not impress as much, but overall Madhouse Studios has turned in another strong visual effort here.
Kunihiko Ro, who was also responsible for the music on Twelve Kingdoms, skillfully guides a highly varied musical score which complements the visuals and storytelling at every turn, whether it be modern numbers influenced by traditional Japanese instrumentation, subtle string bass numbers, or more wistful and playful bits. The grand, sweeping love song “Hajimari no Kaze,” with its blend of modern adult contemporary and time-tested traditional Japanese sounds, offers a great start to each episode, with the solid but less impressive “Saikou no Kataomoi” serving as the closer.
Ocean Group provides the English dub, which for the most part performs competently but not spectacularly. Those who did not like Kelly Sheridan as Inuyasha's Sango probably won't care for her performance as Shurei here, either, but the two roles are similar enough in temperament that it seems like a natural casting choice. Male character casting and performances are strongest in the new roles of Ensei Ro and Kijin Kou, where Jason Simpson and Mark Oliver, respectively, not only perfectly fit the roles but turn in excellent work. The English script stays fairly tight despite causing some occasional pronunciation discrepancies with the subtitles. (“Ri” vs. “Li,” for instance.)
Geneon's production of this volume does offer five episodes but only a textless closer and an art insert for Extras. Their ambitious plan to release future volumes every six weeks has, unfortunately, fallen afoul of their financial woes, but at least this volume did make it out before their November 1st shutdown. Unlike some other September and October Geneon releases, this volume won't leave fans hanging; if the series has to go on hiatus for awhile, after episode 10 is the ideal place to do it.
Story of Saiunkoku is not without its flaws. Its humor does not always smoothly integrate with its more serious content and it never completely shakes its inclination to fall back on typical romantic comedy hijinks, a problem which keeps it from establishing itself as something wholly different from other shojo-leaning fare. These episodes also occasionally get too talky, with lengthy speeches overly relied on to convey information. Great visuals, a respectable female lead, interesting characters, a solid musical score, good use of narration, and no shortage of plot balance out such deficiencies, however, leaving the overall evaluation of this very pretty series strongly on the plus side.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Pretty character designs, interesting story and plot development.
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