Alright, we have a double feature of review goodness! We try not to but there isn’t much news to talk about as of late and besides we sped through Saiunkoku. This was mostly my fault as I basically refused to stop watching for most of Sundayand there by forced Hisu to continue as well. But it was totally worth it!
I battled being sick and being sleepy just to finish the last six episodes Saiunkoku but it was well worth it. A delightful fusion of comedy, drama, intrigue, and romance made up for a killer headache and a generally woozy feeling. The Story of Saiunkoku starts with Nabiki … I mean Shurei Ko who is a rather unusual princess. She has taken to doing odd jobs such as playing the erhu and teaching at the local temple to keep her family afloat. A recent civil war has devastated the land and left a great many people in dire straits. Her family has fallen on hard times partially due to the fact that during the civil war they spent much of their money and resources taking care of the needy people in the neighborhood. One day one of the chief advisers of the Emperor offers to pay Shurei as small fortune to tutor the young Emperor into a man worthy of the throne. It seems that since the new Emperor has taken power he has completely withdrawn from interacting with the court. Shurei has to turn the seemingly naive slacker into a proper and strong ruler of a troubled kingdom.
She accepts the offer before even hearing the request fully! But Shurei greatly cares about the well-being of her country and people and is there by very disappointed the Emperor is not taking it more seriously. As she dreams of being a government official (which she eventually succeeds at) she vows to do her best to help and support the Emperor so that he has the good of the people at heart. This stories focus is Shurei but also the kingdom itself with its politics, families, nobles, troubles, triumphs, and romances. If it wasn’t set in a fictional place I would call it historical fiction. I see this series as shojo but also a family-type show, it airs on Saturday mornings. I imagine that is why it is already two season of 39 episodes each. There is a bit of everything thrown into the mix: romance, drama, action, comedy and tragedy. It is one big play with one huge cast of characters.
I remember we were trying to figure out what age group this show was targeted at and we had an amusing conversation about whores. As it turns out, there is a brothel with a rather interesting madame that is the focal point of several stories in the “second arc.” The fan-subs we saw constantly referred to the women who worked at the brothel as whores which seemed rather harsh and vulgar with what is otherwise handled rather delicately in the rest of the series. It’s never implied that the brothel is anywhere but a place where men pay to have sex but it is clearly a high class brothel with a distinct air of class. It was therefore an odd choice for the fan-subber to pick one of the harshest terms for a prostitute in the subtitles. I’m curious if this is just a poor word choice or just a straight but odd translation from the original.
All the episodes titles come from famous Chinese proverbs. The proverbs always are critical to some plot point in the series and are often uttered by someone in the cast. I suppose that also shows that this was meant to be a show for the whole family. Often times family shows go out of there way to teach some little lesson or moral while also being entertaining. It just shows that as long as you are classy in your storytelling you can incorporate brothels into your family programming in Japan.
I mentioned this series having a lot of focus on the kingdom and therefore there are a lot of big players in this. Off the top of my head I counted 20 important people (not including Shurei and the Emperor) to the story and that was just thinking about it without looking at a character listing so I know I’m forgetting some. You have the royalty, the nobles, all the government officials, and various other players. I think the cast is really amazing though, almost as if I’m watching a play, I think of them as real people. Their interactions are dead on. And there is every type of person you can imagine all the way from a madame to head of the finance department who wears a mask at all times. The way the characters are folded into the story is done very organically and you know once you see someone they will eventually pop up again.
And it is all those wonderful characters that make the show come to life. If these characters were not so well made, I don’t think the story would be the masterpiece that it is. There are some rather mundane and standard plots in the series. But the realistic characters breath life into them. I was going into the characters individually but it seems a waste for two reasons. The first reason is that all the characters are slowly and skilfully brought into the show. Each new set of characters are added with just enough time for you to learn who they are, but never enough for them to ware out their welcome or reveal all of their layers. The second reason is that talking too much about the characters will spoil their little secrets and quirks. There is a certain charm in learning who everyone is and what their story is. Many of the characters are shown in a light that leads you to believe they are one type of character but later actions or interactions will reveal that they have more going on or different motivations than they would originally seemed to.
Of course there is one character we have to look at in depth, Shurei. She is the pillar of the series in which the show is either supported by or falls apart around. Being the most important character means that your enjoyment of her personality is one of the biggest factors in determining weather or not you will enjoy this show. That being said, Shurei is definitely a character I can get behind. She is a strong female character who can take care of herself. She is both willing and able to support and protect herself but not unwilling or unable to accept help when she needs it. She displays the kindness and softness that many a female character does, while also avoiding being a wilting flower. She is smart partially because she is naturally smart but also backs that up with the willingness to put hard work into study. She is definitely frugal but always in a realistic and often times charming manner. She is the type of woman you would want to marry. She is the type of woman I would want to marry.
Shurei at first glance seems to be a too perfect I-wish-I-was-that-girl type but that quickly dissolves as you get into the meat of the story. She is extremely intelligent, on par with her male peers, and shows little intimidation in the many political situations. In fact, she is much more confident when it comes to facts and figures than her own heart. I think this is a popular theme for strong females but shojo usually sticks with the average girl and so Shurei seems to be a departure from that.
The only cliche thing about her is that she has a fear of thunder. Having seen several shojo series and a lesser number of shonen series where they pick a phobia to give a character vulnerability. It’s not unexplained phobia and when when learn the story of why she is afraid of thunder it gives it you insight into her and several other characters. It definitely was not just added to be added so it’s not a bad mark on the show itself. It did on the other hand come to the revelation that giving a female character some phobia is a common and easy method of fleshing them out. It might be common knowledge to everyone else but it only just clicked in my head. It might also stick out because another character I just read about had the same phobia.
Well, you can’t have a good protagonist that doesn’t have fears and flaws (unless you’re seinen). If Shurei was never afraid of anything she would be completely unrelateable and unrealistic. And I think that is what’s so great about this show. While it lives in the storybook realm all the characters’ personalities are like people you know, it gives a nice kick to the fairytale angle of the whole series.
Her relationship with the Emperor is interesting because it a unusual mix of storybook romance with realistic angles. They both seem to be able to often see right through each other but at the same time have a good deal of uncertainty about what the other one is thinking. I also really like they they both support the other one’s dreams and ambitions. All too often we have the wish fulfillment fantasy of the provider who asks for and needs nothing in return. They also play well off each other. They have an amusing chemistry that makes you want to root for them. I know that it does not hurt that the Emperor is definitely the type of character that Narutaki loves.
If you looked at my Top 5 couples list, you will see these two on it. They make me all jumpy inside! This series does a fantastic job of creating a fairytale romance that isn’t a fairytale but almost practical. I never feel they are a forced coupling where nothing is explained it just is. All of their feelings and emotions come from a part of their past or personality. But you still have the fairytale because he is the Emperor and she is a princess. Ryuki is in love with her but he never hinders her path. No matter how much he may want her to stay in the palace, he recognizes and wants her dreams for her as much as she wants them herself. He recognizes her strengths and helps her, without doing things for her, even when those things take her further from his side rather than closer. Okay, so I’m totally in love with Ryuki myself. Sue me. He isn’t perfect, even though my description was glowing. But you do see a lot of growth in the first season. He becomes committed and serious about his job, but doesn’t lose all of his silly and sometimes naive thinking. Their relationship is really the driving force of the series for the first ten episodes or so but then it starts to take a backseat to the politics of the country. It is really there to show growth, change, and also to set up a love story that takes place over years and distance.
The director always keeps the pace of the story moving. All too often stories with political intrigue can get bogged down in their own weight of there story but Jun Shishido avoids that trap. That being said, I sort of wish we could have stayed a more focused on the Emperor but the story naturally drifts away from him being the most important character in Shurei’s life. The anime makes it clear that this is Shurei’s story and Ryuki is one of the most important people in her life, but he is not the be all and end all. Love is an important and generally fascinating part of her life but it’s only one aspect of it.
Friendships also play a big role (as do rivalries). They help to give depth to the series and also create a meaningful and rich history. I especially enjoy watching this relationship grow between Ryuki (the Emperor), Ran (a General of the Shaorin army), and Koyu (Vice-Secretary of the Civil Affairs). They have a familial feel to them. They work together but they also poke fun at each other, fight foes, and talk. So as the story moves away from them I was visibly disappointed. However, all the other characters pick up the slack. Such as the bond between Seiran and Ensei which is both mysterious (you find out more as the story goes along) and wonderful because there is trust.
I also liked Seiran’s relationship with Ryuki. It was unexpected and interested me. I would like to talk about it but it is a major spoiler. It really makes me think we should add a spoiler thread to the forums so we can discuss certain things after people have watched the series. In fact, after we post this I going to do just that. I know there is one character that you really want to talk about because you super love him and want to have his babies. Babies of super love.
Women are sparse in this series which only adds to the setting. It is an ancient time when women were not considered on the same level as men. But throughout the series we meet characters that challenge and break-through these ideas to help push the society forward. We literally get to watch as a new era is being born. All of the women that do appear show stature, intelligence, and courage while not losing their femininity. You have women in roles like: head of family, running their own business, and progressing the country. The series also reminds you of the responsibility of being a lady in waiting and not looking down on such roles for women.
I like that Saiunkoku gives women power but does not do it in ways that are incongruous with the setting. Shurei’s rise to being an official is fraught with hardships and massive resistance. They make it clear that she is very lucky that things have come together in a way that she can break the normal restrictions of society. Had she tried as hard as she did at some other point in the countries history, she probably would not have been able to become an official.
I would not recommend that you watch this show sick as I did because it is a show where the little details are important. Little facts, items, and relationships will come up when you least expect them to. There are some very good uses of Chekhov’s gun. You will often wait with baited breath to learn why something casually brought up in one part of the series with effect people later on. Nothing as bad as Audrey’s letter in Twin Peaks but you might wonder when a certain report is going to come into play.
OMG! Audrey’s letter! You saw me, I was practically pulling my hair out for four episodes. I like that Saiunkoku takes these things into consideration because I get obsessed with the little things. Especially since they sometimes come waaaaaaaay later, to the point you almost forgot (unless you’re me). I like that things come full circle because the writer really thought ahead. I think this somewhat stems from them originally being novels. Which incidentally I desperately wish someone would license.
Or Lothos. Lothos will see it all coming a mile away. (Lothos is a reader of this here blog). I don’t think it’s an impossibility for the novels to get licensed. The manga and book market is far healthier than the anime market. I think the probability is directly linked to how well the Twelve Kingdom novels did. If Twelve Kingdoms sold like gangbusters, then this is a sure license. If it sold poorly it is a long shot. It would have a much greater chance if someone saved the anime license from Geneon but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. Prove me wrong Funimation. Prove me wrong.
If anything gives this series away as being shojo it is certainly the character designs. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a series with more beautiful guys, and the cast is 85% male. Not that I’m complaining or anything. And hey most of the guys can back up their pretty faces with fighting skills or cunning. So, hot and useful totally works in my world.
Also I would say almost all of them are very likable. How many times have you seen the pretty boy who is good at everything but you want to beat some positive personality into them? And I think our minds have been tainted by cute male (a place on 4chan) and it makes me sad. There are quite a few scenes that were clearly fodder for countless doujinshi. When you have likable beautiful male characters in compromising positions you know that the fan-girl mind is sparked like a powder-keg to draw and write smut. Nothing in the show is horribly exploitative but anyone who has seen enough doujinshi will know that certain scenes are going to be used.
Look, I don’t want go into this too much. But if cute male has taught us anything, it is this: characters don’t even have to know each other to have smut made about them! So, a series rife with beautiful men is just asking for stories to be written about it. And unfortunately, Saiunkoku doesn’t show up on cute/male very often. Did I say unfortunate? I totally meant fortunate. Yes, that is what I meant.
I will off handily mention there is the occasionally supernatural element to the series. I would say about 90 of everything that goes on is mundane and normal. There are one or two characters, and they are mostly more minor characters, that have blatantly magical powers. They will usually only pop up ever five or six episodes and their powers are usually subtle. Magic seems to be understood to exist in the world of Saiunkoku but it also seems to be very rare. I wonder how much the supernatural comes into play in the second season. I assume they keep the same balance of mundane to supernatural but there are hints that might not be the case. I suppose the only way to find out is for me to watch.
Oh and watch we shall! Probably have to review the second season as well, that is when it’s done. I want the rest of the DVDs that fit it the awesome little case that Geneon made for it! And it had little postcard posters, which are now hanging in my office. Poor Geneon, you were a service to fans! But we had to hunt for it, found fan-subs of it before it was licensed since there was really no alternative. This series is great. We have babbled on about it long enough you’d think. But no, I could go on and on about all the little things that make this series a winner. Let me just say that this is one of the best shojo series to gace television in a long time. That is my final thought.
I really hope we sell people on this series because it is another series that can easily fall by the wayside if people don’t talk about it. I think it is one of the smartest, most entertaining, older family friendly shojo fantasy series. If you watch the series and you like it tell people about it. I really want someone to pick up the anime again. I think it is the best way to get the rest of the related materials. I think that there are some series that do some things better but not as many do as many things very well as Saiunkoku. It is definitely better than Fushigi Yugi. Zing Fushigi Yugi. Zing.
UPDATE: Funimation has picked up this show along with other Geneon titles!