Story of Saiunkoku Vol. #2 (of 5) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Friday, September 28, 2007
Release Date: Tuesday, October 16, 2007



What They Say
Ryuki finally begins acting like a respectable ruler but for Shurei this heralds the end of her time as a consort. However, she has little time to be sad about this when she becomes the victim of a kidnapping and a poisoning plot! After much contemplation, Ryuki decides to carry out his wish to make the National Exam open to women, which causes a great uproar in the Imperial Court. Meanwhile, Shurei who has left the Royal Harem is once again called upon by Koyu to aid the department of Finance. But to do so she must pretend to be a boy?!


The Review!
As Ryuki finds his place in the kingdom, Shurei returns to her life but still finds strong ties to her time in the palace.

Audio:
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.

Video:
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.

Packaging:
Probably too girly for most people, the front cover is an attractive character piece that features Seiran and Shurei together in their standard outfits. Set against a green hued background with a simple bit of framing to it with flowers, it stands out quite a bit and has a good amount of detail and solid coloring to it. The back cover continues with the green 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 good illustration of Shurei and Ryuki together set against a part of the palace while the reverse side lists the release months for the remaining volumes of the series through September 2008.

Menu:
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 greens and blues 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.

Extras:
The only extra included on this volume is a clean version of the ending sequence.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The opening volume of the Story of Saiunkoku turned out to be something of a surprise. While it has the visuals that are very striking of Fushigi Yugi and a few elements that were similar, it was more relaxed and laid back as it focused on character strengths and political intrigue. The second volume solidifies that aspect while moving away from seeming like a romantic comedy. It retains some similarities to Fushigi Yugi as mentioned but it's now progressing more towards a Twelve Kingdoms feel with a touch more humor and interpersonal warmth.

As Ryuki becomes more involved in the day to day operations of the kingdom and handling his responsibilities better, the need for Shurei to be there grows less and less. Though it's not quite time for her to leave yet, it's getting closer to happening and Ryuki must be in the right frame of mind first. Shurei hasn't been free from issues while being there but things get ratcheted up a few notches this time around as people behind the scenes begin to orchestrate things. A competition has grown throughout the years between two of the advisors to the king and Advisor Sa is intent on outdoing Advisor Sho. With there being only so many years left for his life, his chances are running out and he sees the opportunity. Shurei provides that by being something through which he can manipulate the situation.

The laid back pacing of all of this means that it takes awhile to come to fruition. When it does however, the cast springs into action in order to rescue Shurei. Ryuki's feelings become clearer when he's put in the position of having to rescue her but it doesn't shift into something silly and overly romantic. It does allow Ryuki to really show what he's made of however, something that he's kept hidden for quite some time. That comes as quite a surprise to the kidnappers who are operating under Sa's understanding of who Ryuki really is. Through all of this, the path that Sho has been putting Ryuki on is revealed and that's where things become the most fascinating.

Story of Saiunkoku has been relatively clean when it comes to being a realistic show. Nothing has been out of the ordinary for a series like this and it fits in with most standard story tales. That takes a turn as Advisor Sho reveals something about himself that paints a far different picture of what this world is like. It's like rubbing your eyes and seeing something clearer than you could before and gaining the understanding from it. How this fits into the storyline overall is entirely unclear, but the game that Sho is playing is something that really expands this into a much larger framing. With the timescale not yet revealed as well, there is potentially a great deal of history that can be brought into play as well as countless manipulations and tweaks to achieve whatever his goal really is.

With this being so early in the series so far, it's little surprise that the revelations aren't given all that much time. They're presented as small moments of simplicity that talk of something larger before shifting back to the more intimate storylines. That focus continues to be around Shurei though this is a fairly well done ensemble cast overall. With Shurei back at home with Seiran, they're trying to get back into their lives and moving forward. Ryuki is working towards his own goals of finding a way of getting Shurei back but also helping her as he manages the kingdom. These little moments provide a good view of the kingdom in general and how some of the politics and character interactions work.

There are some new characters introduced as well that expand nicely upon the cast and add some pleasing new angles. The finance minister, Kou, is the most unusual character introduced so far as he wears masks in public all the time but is considered a key member of the kingdom as he handles an immense amount of work in a timely and reputable fashion. Shurei ends up working with him and they tease us with who he might really be. The finance ministers office adds a few new wrinkles as we get to see how Ryuki must work properly with everyone to get what he needs. Another new character is Ensei, a traveler that collapses in front of Shurei's house. It turns out that he actually knows Seiran and a good deal about his past but also has a rather varied past of his own. He ends up working closely with Shurei over time and brings some tension into the household while also being someone who can speak more freely as he's not as closely connected.

What makes up a good deal of these episodes are the small revelations that turn your view of the characters askew. Ryuki isn't strong in this, but he does show his swordplay once more which impresses and surprises others. His intelligence and adeptness at running the kingdom matches that. Seiran's past is known to the viewer now but it's making a few more inroads within the show and skewing perceptions there. The two main advisors are some of the more surprising revelations as their roles aren't anywhere near as clear now, nor are their real goals. Adding in someone like Ensei and particularly Shoka and you have some surprising moments that make you want to go back to the first volume already and reexamine numerous scenes.

In Summary:
The Story of Saiunkoku is shaping up into a different show than you'd expect from the first volume, the animation style and the way it's being marketed. While it may draw in viewers due to its Fushigi Yugi like elements, it is far more likely to appeal to the audience that is longing for something to fill the void left by the Twelve Kingdoms series. It's certainly not at that level yet, but with two seasons that run thirty-nine episodes each and pacing that isn't action oriented, it has plenty of room to grow into something just as strong. These first ten episodes begin to set the stage just right and have completely enticed me with what's come so far.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Clean Ending

Review Equipment
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: 12 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Geneon Entertainment (USA), Inc.
MSRP: 29.98
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Story of Saiunkoku