Now collected together into a single set is the complete first season of The Story of Saiunkoku. Intrigue, romance, danger, and action all await those who wish to enter this faraway land.
What They Say Saiunkoku is a country with eight powerful houses governed by one emperor. However, the new leader Ryuki cares not for his new role and is rumored to spend his days chasing after noblemen in his court. Enter Shurei, 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.
Contains episodes 1-39.
For our primary reviewing session, we listened to the English audio track. Both audio tracks are 2.0 stereo encoded at 192 kbps. The show is overwhelmingly dialogue-driven, so the center speaker does most of the work, with very little directionality in general, except on a couple occasions. Overall the mixing is good, though towards the end, there were a couple episodes where the center speaker volume seemed to drop off at times, making dialogue slightly harder to hear, though these were only for short spans of time, not entire episodes.
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. The nine discs in this collection have either 5 or 4 episodes on them, the larger count volumes being at the beginning of the series. These are the same exact discs as in all previous releases, so the comments in reviews of previous editions hold true here. 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 more noticeable on larger screens. In a couple of fast-paced action scenes, there are clear interlacing artifacts (ghosting, scan lines, etc.), but as there are very few of these types of scenes, it should not be a major detraction from what is otherwise a very clean and clear video presentation. Colors and textures (not film grain, but the actual textures meant to be seen on background art, such as walls and furniture) are sharp and crisp.
The entire series is packed into a single thin paper box, which holds five thinpak cases. The first four are double-thinpaks, while the ninth and final volume is in its own single thinpak case. The front of the box shows two of the main characters, Ryuki Shi and Shurei Hong, the former in his usual court ceremonial outfit (not quite full dress, but not his casual clothes) while the latter is in her "consort" attire which plays an important role in the first major story arc of the season. They are standing in front of a flowering tree, with a building in the background, and the series English logo beneath them. The back of the box is extremely plain, with just the cherry blossoms, the series logo, description, and a blurb from the original review of the first release by Chris Beveridge. The thinpaks themselves employ the covers from the singles release (as this was originally meant to be released as nine single volumes, but that plan was halted by Geneon's collapse in 2007—the covers were eventually used in the three set releases), with two of the original singles covers, plus a tenth extra cover, very likely from the Japanese release, forming a wraparound cover for each individual thinpak case. The cases are clear and printed on the inside of each cover is the list of episodes for each disc.
The menus are static, with no background music and no animation. The same basic picture, focusing on Shurei and few of the other characters, is used for all of the volumes, though the background color does on occasion change. The navigation is straightforward and simple with four standard selections (Play All, Setup, Scenes, Extras). Access times are quick and the disc properly read our player's language presets and played accordingly.
The only extras provided are Geneon trailers (the original ones, so for shows that may already be out of print or difficult to find) and clean versions of the opening and ending animation on a couple of the discs.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
If one were to judge this work solely by its cover artwork, one would be doing it quite a disservice. On first appearance, with so many handsome men and only one main female character in sight, it would seem that this should be nothing more than a "reverse" harem, where one female is chased after by a group of handsome males. The heavy use of pinks and other traditionally feminine colors in the packaging would also seem to point in this direction, and no doubt there are many female fans of the original light novel series by Sai Yukino, which made its debut back in 2003. You could not really blame male anime fans for wishing to run away from all of the pastel colors and flowers and "bishies" (bishounen, "pretty boys," in Japanese).
As I said, however, that would be to do the show, and the story it tells, quite a disservice. For instead of a brainless "reverse" harem (by the way, this is not a trait limited to "reverse" harems; the great majority of "standard" harems, with one male surrounded by a gaggle of horny females, are about as brain dead as is humanly possible), what the Story of Saiukoku offers is a very intricately plotted and highly complex tale of ambition, greed, corruption, intrigue, and courage centered upon the royal court of the mysterious land of Saiunkoku, which translates roughly as the Land (koku) of the Colored Clouds (saiun). The country and setting created by Sai Yukino is modeled very closely on ancient China, though without really being tied to one particular period, but that does not matter, since this is fantasy, not history.
The first season of the show (there was a second season produced in Japan, but sadly it seems unlikely that it will be licensed for North America, owing to Geneon's collapse, which has had ripple effects upon many of the titles which they had licensed shortly before their downfall) can be divided up into a series of story arcs: the Consort Arc, the Trainee Official Arc, and the long Sa Province Arc, which itself can be divided into two sub-arcs: the Journey to Sa Province, and the Recovery of Sa Province. The final few episodes form a coda and a bridge to further stories (the second, unlicensed season).
During the Consort Arc, we learn that the country of Saiunkoku has only now begun to recover after a period of internal strife that was made worse by drought and famine. The dying King Senka was powerless to prevent his sons and their supporters from fighting over the throne. In the end, however, the powerful court official Advisor Sho, who had been entrusted with choosing the next king, decides to give the throne to the youngest son Prince Ryuki, who had not been involved in the fighting at all. The rebellious princes were executed and the supporters banished. Order was restored and the land recovered over the course of the nine years that followed.
However, King Ryuki has turned out to be a less than model ruler. He spends much of his time neglecting state affairs, and it is rumored that he has little interest in providing for the succession (it is said that he has other preferences in his bed partners). As this state of affairs is quite dangerous, since it could encourage rebellions or plots to put someone else on the throne, Advisor Sho decides that action must be taken to make the King take his responsibilities seriously.
He decides that the best way to shape up the young man (Ryuki is 19 when the show starts) is to find him a wife. While many a powerful lord or court official would gladly offer their daughter (and already have) to His Majesty, Advisor Sho's thoughts turn to a young girl from a noble family, but one who has led a life of relative poverty. This is Shurei Hong, daughter of Shoka Hong, the eldest, but seemingly hapless, son of the powerful and noble Hong clan (Hong means "Red," and there are Eight Great Colored Clans in the land of Saiunkoku, the Hong clan being one of the most noble and powerful). Shoka, however, has been cast aside by his own family, with his younger brothers taking over the leadership of their powerful clan, while Shoka has opted to become a minor royal functionary, being charged with maintaining the Royal Archives. His daughter Shurei, while she should, from birth, have been a spoiled princess with the world at her feet, has instead grown up to be a dependable and level-headed girl of 16, who not only runs the household largely on her own, but even works several jobs in addition to volunteering as a tutor to the local children in her neighborhood of the great imperial city of Kiyo, the capital of Saiunkoku. Rounding out the family is their one loyal retainer, Seiran Si, a young man in his early twenties whose background is wrapped in mystery, but whom Shoka took in many years ago before his wife, Shurei's mother, died. Seiran has a rather princely bearing to him, which does not fit his modest position of being a mere granary guard, his side job to help contribute to the family's financial survival. They could really use some money.
And so Advisor Sho asks Shurei to become the King's Consort in exchange for the staggering sum of 500 gold coins (more than enough to allow her family to eat well for an entire year and repair their ramshackle mansion). Shurei, seeing the money, rashly accepts, not knowing entirely what she has gotten into. For she is suddenly whisked into the Royal Palace, dressed in fine silks and dolled up like a royal wife, which, well, she is now. But she has not been placed here to simply pleasure the young King or give him an heir. Her task is far more important: to get Ryuki to stop being a wastrel and get him to start fulfilling his proper role as King of Saiunkoku. She is well suited for this task, since she takes government business very seriously, as she has the secret desire of becoming a government official, though that career path is blocked by law, as women are not allowed to be government officials. While she may not be able to fulfill that wish, as Consort, she does have access to the Palace and also has the ability to see first-hand how the government works. Advisor Sho apparently knew all this, and hoped that Shurei's policy-wonk interests might somehow rub off on her new spouse.
While many challenges are presented to her (including a couple assassination plots), Shurei manages to succeed in interesting the King in state affairs, as well as interesting him in herself (it appears the rumors were false). But with Ryuki seemingly on the way to becoming a good king, Shurei decides that her task is done and asks to leave her position of Consort. This is granted, though Ryuki is less than happy, as he seems to really love Shurei. But now, Ryuki, impressed by Shurei's strength of character and intelligence, decides to change the law to allow women to take the national civil service examinations, the first step to becoming a government official. While there is some initial opposition, Ryuki manages to overcome it, and Shurei is allowed to take the exam. Thus we move into the Trainee Official Arc.
Not only does Shurei pass the national civil service examination, but she comes in third place, a great distinction, though the top place goes to a 13-year-old prodigy named Eigetsu To. The road ahead, however, is harsh, as most of the Palace officials resent both the young prodigy and the woman. They are given the most menial of tasks to perform in the Palace during their probationary training period, with the clear intent being that they should fail. Shurei's powerful friends, which includes the King, after all, cannot provide any help, as a would-be official must show the strength of character to survive this hazing period and claw their way to the top on their own strength. Shurei and Eigetsu manage to do so, capping it all by exposing the misdeeds of a high court official who was one of their fiercest opponents. Greatly impressed by their abilities, the King and his most senior advisors decide that the next assignment for these young officials should be one of great importance—and of equal danger.
Thus begins the long Sa Province part of the story, which takes up the rest of the season, from about episode 19 to practically the end. After the death of Enjun Sa, the leader of the Sa Clan (Sa means Brown, and was another of the powerful Eight Colored Clans, each of which has a province named after them, the province in which their clan is based), Sa Province has fallen into near rebellion, as the various factions of the Sa Clan fight each other over the leadership, rendering the Provincial Government nearly inoperative. As the matter needs urgent attention, King Ryuki decides to send Shurei and Eigetsu To to Sa Province as the new co-governors, with a mandate to restore peace and order. Accompanying them are Ensei Ro, the former acting governor of the province, and Seiran, who has been appointed a royal military official. The journey is one fraught with peril, as the Sa Clan, especially the ambitious Chusho Sa, Enjun Sa's younger brother who desires to become the next clan leader, attempt to capture or assassinate the governors and their party, in order to grasp complete control over Sa Province for themselves.
The journey itself is very eventful, as Shurei is separated from the rest of the group, and is later reunited with them. The "real" villain turns out to be someone unexpected (well, unless you pick up on the suspicious nature of that person from the very start) and the day is saved. Thanks to some quick thinking and hard bargaining, Shurei and Eigetsu manage to put Sa Province back in order, to the delight of the people there, as well as the King and his inner circle back at the capital. The last few episodes of the series present something of a coda, for those Shurei and Eigetsu remain co-governors of Sa Province, Shurei returns to Kiyo in order to attend the King's New Year's celebrations, and we have her reunite with most of the characters who dominated the first two arcs of the season.
Overall, the Story of Saiunkoku manages to be an entertaining story of political intrigue in a universe that is realized in great detail. At its best, it entertains the mind with its complex plotting and surprise revelations. At other times, however, it suffers from two major shortcomings: first, when it moves away from the politics and court intrigue, the material seems far less unique, and far more cliched. Second, the Sa Province arc drags on for far too long. During the time they spent on the journey, another series could have already told two other stories. It was not only too long, it also dragged in the other sense, in that there was not as much action or activity of real interest to hold the viewer's attention. In general, the first two arcs of the season were much better at making one care about the characters and what they were doing.
Sometimes it can be hard not to judge a book by its cover, but one can also be easily fooled by surface appearances. The Story of Saiunkoku might seem like it should be a fluffy, female-friendly "reverse" harem show, but it is actually a quite complex political thriller, filled with court intrigue, shifting alliances and devious plots that would challenge the greatest of tacticians. Navigating the deadly rocks and shoals of these dangerous waters is the resourceful and determined Shurei Hong, a spunky heroine who forges ahead through her own resources, not relying upon the pretty boys who surround her. While there is a measure of romance and certainly a high quantity of eye-candy for females, there is also an intriguing story of political backstabbing, devious machinations, and those who would courageously stand against the forces of official corruption and brutality. The third arc of the season does drag a little bit, but the first two arcs are highly recommended if you enjoy political machinations, court intrigue and seeing people operate in such challenging environments.
Features Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, Clean Opening, Clean Closing
Sony KDL-32S5100 32-Inch 1080p LCD HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Sony Bravia DAV-HDX589W 5.1-Channel Theater System connected via digital optical cable.
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