As we continue through the last month of my current anime review splurge, we reach the delightful Story of Saiunkoku. This 39 episode tale, based on a series of light (I.E. Young Adult) novels written by Sai Yukino and illustrated by Kairi Yura, introduces us to the indomitable Shurei Hong, a heroine any lover of good anime story and character should appreciate. This introduction to the series seems involved, but Saiunkoku easily flows along at a measured pace, and should hold the interest of anyone who enjoys world building, intrigue and adventure.
Saiunkoku is literally the Land of Colored Clouds, a country where history tells its people that their demon-shrouded home was cleansed by a young warrior named So Gen. For his deed, So Gen became their first emperor. He was assisted in demon destruction by the “Eight Enlightened Sages of Color”. After So Gen’s death, the Eight Sages disappeared – but the people believe that the sages still dwell among them, helping and protecting Saiunkoku from enemies within and without (and the people are right). The sages are still represented by the fact that the eight provinces are named after the colors of the rainbow.
At the time our story begins, Saiunkoku has recently survived one bout of enemies from within, and may be on the verge of flying apart. Eight years before, the ruler of Saiunkoku died. Of his six sons by six different mothers, four killed each other in a fight for the throne, one was exiled for treason when he was only twelve, and the last and youngest, Ryuki Shi, ended up as the one thing the boy didn’t want to be – Emperor. (The English track does use the word ‘king”, but the political structure of the country owes its existence to Chinese and Japanese culture, so we’re talking the power of an emperor.) He’s nineteen when the story opens – newly crowned, apparently uninterested in ruling, and rumored to spend his days chasing young men of the court.
Enter sixteen-year-old impoverished princess Shurei Hong, daughter of disowned Hong prince Shoka (currently palace librarian, a position of respect and little pay) who divides up her days teaching in the temple school, playing the erhu at local taverns and secretly doing the books at the finest brothel in town. She’s the big wage earner in the family – the last retainer of this Hong household, young Seiran Si, is a granary guard who spends his spare time guarding Shurei as she wends her way through a bewildering array of work. Shurei can clean up a storm, mend and do embroidery, and is an excellent cook, talents few noblewomen can claim. She is struggling to hold household, as the family wealth was destroyed by the famine and civil disorder that followed the king’s death eight years before. Shurei is obsessed with two things — money (and its proper use) and knowledge. Her dearest wish would be to take and pass the imperial exams and become a government official, improving the lot of her country. But that is a path forbidden to women, and so she spends her days trying to make sure they can afford rice for dinner instead of barley (which has a slit down the middle and sneers at her those months they can’t afford to buy rice.)
One day Seiran brings her home early from work (to her disgust – they docked her pay!) because her father is entertaining one of the three great advisors of the court. Advisor Sho has come to make her a proposal – if she will accept a six-month commission from him, he will see that she is well rewarded for her efforts. When Shurei discovers that he will pay her not 5 silver, not 50 silver, not 500 silver, but 500 gold (desperately needed for house repairs) Shurei rashly accepts the job without asking what Sho wants done.
What he wants is a consort for the feckless young ruler. Sho and his fellow advisors hope that Shurei’s honesty, integrity, and work ethic, mixed with her sincere desire to better her country, will inspire the young emperor to take an interest in ruling. Seiran is also hired, as a bodyguard for the king – and suddenly Shurei and Seiran are off on a great adventure.
The Story of Saiunkoku combines a nice mix of humor, intrigue, adventure and romance, introducing us to a large cast of characters that settle easily into our minds as distinct individuals with their own stories to be told. We discover that the king is only pretending to be stupid – and is a fine swordsman in his own right. And while naïve about courtship, as he slowly falls in love with the unusual Shurei, he is shrewd in statecraft, and does most of the work smoking out a poisoner gunning for the lone consort. Ryuki Shi learned survival skills during bullying by all but his favorite, exiled brother, and he is not to be underestimated. His lack of interest in ruling and pretending homosexuality (thus explaining the lack of an heir) was actually playing for time – he had hoped that his missing brother, considered by most the best to rule, would return from exile and take over. But Ryuki is surrounded by people who are not what or even who they claim to be, and the fun is just beginning. He doesn’t know it yet, but his brother has already returned.
Shurei’s way of looking at the world both entertains and educates those in the palace who become her friends. By the time Shurei’s six months are up, she is the natural choice to masquerade as a boy and help out in ministry offices during an emergency – and then King Ryuki works hard to craft a proclamation allowing women to take the test. We will follow Shurei along the rocky path to adulthood, where she is appointed a co-governor in the roughest province in the country (along with the youngest top scorer in exam history,) comes up with a 100 year plan for the prosperity and safety of the province, and begins to realize that she may not have to give up everything she has aspired and worked hard for – she may also be able to find love.
The series feels genuine, whether we’re talking about young love, eccentrics and their habits, false personas hiding darker talents and histories, lost princes, magical princesses, fabled assassin kings – Saiunkoku has them all. It does not move swiftly, and makes no apologies for that fact. There are no easy answers in this story – there will be unrequited love, treachery, death and confusion, as well as surprises and good humor. This series rewards the person who brews a cup of tea and settles in for a long and engaging tale.
Saiunkoku is based on a series of books that have now reached fourteen in number, and there is already an entire second anime season yet to be dubbed into English. Jump on board now, for the wonderful ride this anime offers. I’d rate this PG both for implied homosexuality and the constant in-jokes and teasing among the young government officials that will become Ryuki’s advisors and Shurei’s friends and peers. There are also some battles and deaths that while not gory, do have impact on the characters. Real plot! Real, interesting people!