Story of Saiunkoku Vol. #1 (also w/box) (of 5) (Mania.com)
Review Date: Friday, August 10, 2007
Release Date: Tuesday, August 28, 2007
What They Say
Saiunkoku is a country with eight powerful houses governed by one emperor. However, the new leader Ryuki Shi doesn't care for his new role and is rumored to spend his days chasing after noblemen in his court. Enter Shurei Hong, a princess whose family has fallen upon hard times. Her dreams of becoming a government official are unattainable since she is a woman, but a twist of fate gives her the chance of a lifetime. If she agrees to become the emperor's consort and turn him into a respectable ruler, she will be greatly rewarded...
Tricked into taking up a temporary residence in the palace, Shurei finds herself in a completely different world she can actually make a difference.
The bilingual presentation for this series is done with a basic stereo mix for each track that's encoded at a simple 192 kbps. The show is pretty much all dialogue outside of the opening and closing sequences so it isn't exactly hampered by this level. The bulk of dialogue is done with a centered feeling to it and there is very little to note in terms of directionality in general, though there are a few good moments of noticeable placement. Both language tracks are clean and clear however and we had no problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2006, the transfer for this series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. With five episodes across a dual layered disc, Geneon has again produced a great looking release that's helped by relatively minimal animation. The show is certainly bright and pretty but with no real action scenes and mostly dialogue, it doesn't have to expend a lot of its bandwidth to look as intended. With a bitrate in the steady eights, the end results are crisp and vibrant looking colors with solid backgrounds. There is some edge cross coloration showing up in a few areas and the numerous pans and zooms early on cause some aliasing, but it's fairly minimal overall and is likely to detract only on large displays.
Probably too girly for most people, the front cover is an attractive character piece that features Ryuki and Shurei together in their standard outfits. Set against a pink hued background with a simple bit of framing to it with flowers, it stands out quite a bit and has a good bit of detail and solid coloring to it. The back cover continues with the pink flowery feel as it mixes in some artwork of the palace buildings. The text is a mixture of whites and purples along with some black to thankfully make the summary easier to read. The layout is fairly standard with a few shots from the show and a clean layout of the episode numbers and titles as well as the discs basic features and extras. The bottom portion is rounded out by the production credits in white against pink and a simple technical listing but no full on proper grid as we've seen on some of their other releases. Geneon's designs continue to lack any sort of uniformity between series. The included insert has a nice cast shot of some of the leads from the first few episodes set against a blue sky while the reverse side lists the release months for the remaining volumes of the series through September 2008.
Part of a growing trend for the anime industry in general, Geneon has once again for the oversimplified approach with its menus. The static menu has similar traits to the cover in that it uses light colors such as pinks and yellows for the backgrounds while the foreground is made up of character artwork and various pink flowers. Similar to several other shows they have out at the moment, there is no music associated with the menu at all which feels very out of place. The navigation is straightforward and simple with standard four selections. Access times are quick and the disc properly read our players' language presets and played accordingly.
The only extra included on this first volume is a clean version of the opening sequence.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on a novel by Sai Yukino, the Story of Saiunkoku is a thirty-nine episode series for its first season run. The nine volume series is somewhat unusual for a release at this time since it's both a shoujo series and a romance series set in a Chinese based setting. With a lot of trappings that are highly reminiscent of the Twelve Kingdoms and Fushigi Yugi, the first volume of five episodes has a lot to offer if you're interested in a lackadaisical series that looks to tie things together slowly but surely.
The series is very much an ensemble cast but there is a core trio of leads that are revealed over it. Initially we're introduced to a young woman named Shurei Hong who is the daughter of the chief archivist of the palace. She and her father have lived decently for their lives though they're still fairly poor even with the position he has. What's made it more difficult is that a number of years ago, her father took in a young man named Seiran to live with them. Seiran has repaid that kindness over the years and intends to do so for all his life. There isn't exactly romantic tension between Seiran and Shurei but there are undercurrents of potential that are plainly obvious in their friendship.
The country has seen a number of years worth of turmoil as the previous King has died as well as several of his sons during a fight for the throne. One of them was exiled years ago and is unknown now which has left Ryuki, the youngest brother, to inherit the throne. Ryuki hasn't done well since taking on the mantle of King however as he's been generally disinterested and aloof, not participating in anything related to the policies and just letting his subordinates handle it. This has left the elders on his council trying to figure out a way to make things work and interest him in his position and responsibilities. What better way to do that than with the attention of an attractive young lady?
The elders decide that Shurei is the best one to handle this and knowing how tight her finances are they take advantage of her nature and sense of responsibility to the country by getting her to take the job for six months. The problem is that she essentially has to take on a role of a consort for Ryuki in order to live and work there full time. Seiran is brought in to participate as a bodyguard for Ryuki as well which brings in that whole arena of a triangle into the picture. Naturally, Ryuki isn't the stupid uninterested person that he portrays and once the setup is out of the way the real interesting things start to come about. Ryuki for instance is cited as being into men, which turns a few heads, and there are numerous secondary characters in the palace that bring into play a lot of story potential as well.
The character interactions are what makes this show work as well as it does. There are certainly enough familiar things to find in the initial setup of the series as it's playing into traditional territory. The fun comes in the way the characters handle it, from Shurei's attempts at getting Ryuki interested in things while pretending he's someone else to the kind of relationship that Koyu and Shuei have as advisors to Ryuki. They tend to provide a bit more of the lighter entertainment but also play the role of seasoned (if incredibly young) advisors who have been pulled in from other areas of the country to help out. The banter and interplay among all of them is fun to watch and with the relaxed pacing it all feels rather natural. In fact, other than a rather brief martial arts tournament in the fourth episode, there is no action at all to be found in this series yet. It's all character and dialogue driven without any real crutches for big action sequences.
Whether that can be pulled off for a full season is another story but for the first volume it presents something unlike most other shows currently being released. The laid back nature of it is comfortable and natural but at the same time you can see how certain paths will eventually lead to confrontations of some sort. The comfortable atmosphere is also strongly in place because of the visuals of the series, which are light and colorful in nature and free from violent imagery. The palace, of which the bulk of these episode take place in, has intrigue and danger to it but it's all done in the trappings of simplicity an opulence at the same time. It also helps, particularly since it's considered a shoujo series, that it's filled with attractive men who certainly know how to pose. Thankfully the male viewers make out well with this too as Shurei has a good deal of spunk and femininity to her that keeps her from being a whiny shallow character.
The Story of Saiunkoku is something that truly shows its origins in novel form with these first episodes as it's spending a great deal of time on establishing the setting and characters. Not overbearing in how it doles out the view of the world or its political make-up, it instead takes us through it fairly slowly and in context of the story that doesn't feel forced. As the characters are introduced and the relationships become established, it starts to grow into something much more interesting. There are obvious revelations to be made but the less obvious ones start to paint a more interesting picture for future episodes. Due to its slow but engrossing nature, this is a hard sell to be sure but overall presentation with solid episode counts makes this something worth checking out for a couple of volumes at least.
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Clean Opening
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.
Mania Grade: B
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: B-
Extras Rating: C+
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Geneon Entertainment (USA), Inc.
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Story of Saiunkoku