From the stack: The Story of Saiunkoku vol. 1

It’s been a while since I felt that a comic was actively flirting with me. There are certainly plenty that I’ve liked, but most of them have stopped somewhere short of actively… well… luring me with just about every quality they possess.

I admit that I initially judged The Story of Saiunkoku (Viz), adapted by Kairi Yura from Sai Yukino’s novels, on a surface level. The cover is bland, and I’m drawn more by weird compositions than pretty faces of people in elaborate costumes. But when Kate Dacey noted that the book “makes [her] feel thirteen years old again” in a good way, I had to reconsider.

While reading the first volume of The Story of Saiunkoku, it bought me drinks from across the bar. It sent me funny and thoughtful text messages. It put its best foot forward, and it became more and more attractive as the encounter progressed. We’re dating now, and I hope you can be happy for us.

I should state up front that there’s almost no way I could resist a comic that features a smart, spirited heroine, a hot, gay emperor, lavish costumes and appointments, and grumpy old men scheming in the background. That comic would have to be actively awful for me not to be at least a little drawn to it, even if I knew the relationship would be… well… conflicted. But The Story of Saiunkoku is miles and miles from actively awful. To channel my thirteen-year-old self, it’s really dreamy.

The Story of Saiunkoku is a period piece about the imperial court of Saiunkoku. It follows a penniless but diligent young noblewoman named Shurei Hong, who enters into the service of the nation’s unmotivated, mildly scandalous young emperor as his consort. Up to this point, Shurei had been scrambling to keep body and soul together, teaching and taking odd jobs to put food on the table of her crumbling family manor. She’d always hoped to enter civil service to help her struggling country, but the men-only strictures of that career blocked her ambition. Now, she can use her considerable intelligence and work ethic to better the country right from the top.

Shurei isn’t just a goody-two-shoes optimist. Yura and Yukino make it clear from the outset that their heroine has a temper and a sharp tongue. In spite of her high status, she isn’t a delicate, sheltered lady. She’s known real deprivation and anxiety, and, when she talks about poverty, she’s not talking about the genteel, abstract variety. Immersion into the rarefied air of the imperial court doesn’t eliminate her instinct to scrimp, the constant rattle of the abacus in her head that tallies how much things cost and what they’re worth. But she isn’t judgmental about it; she isn’t averse to comfort or elegance, just more cognizant of its price tag than those around her.

The emperor she’s meant to serve, Ryuki, is agreed to be a disappointment on every level. He has no interest in governance, and he’d rather bed men, so there isn’t even a chance of him creating a more malleable, promising heir. He won’t even interact with Shurei or his other advisors initially, and it’s only Shurei’s unassuming charm (slyly applied) that leads him to engage with his responsibilities.

This is the point where The Story of Saiunkoku really kicks in, when we see what kind of person the emperor seems to be and glimpses of what kind of person he may actually become. As one would assume, there’s more than meets the eye to him, but the ambiguity remains, and his motivations and ambitions are still deliciously unclear. And Ryuki’s façade is a treat – handsome, lazy, dim, selfish, and more than a little weird. While the glimpses of his inner depths that the creators provide are welcome, his public face is quirky and intriguing in its own right. One of the smartest things a storyteller can do is to create natural, temperamental conflict between protagonists, and the similarities and differences between Shurei and Ryuki are promising in the ways they may evolve and comfortingly familiar in their initial highs and lows.

Also comforting are Yura’s illustrations. Her detailed renderings of court life are appropriately sumptuous, and her page compositions are often very lovely. I also like her knack for facial expressions; she conveys a fine range of emotions in close-up, and her faces can be very funny without seeming rubbery. Yura does lapse into a fairly common failing found in stories that feature a number of attractive men; some of the character designs can be a little repetitive, which can lead to some confusing moments. Overall, though, her drawings are heartfelt eye candy.

It may seem weird, but I find myself comparing The Story of Saiunkoku to Hiroshi Hitara’s Satsuma Gishiden (Dark Horse). That gorgeously violent drama also frames its primary narrative aims in a clearly defined social context that’s concerned with issues of governance, justice, and class. While Yura and Yukino obviously have gentler priorities, the cultural context elevates those intentions in the same way they do for Hitara’s muscular hack-and-slash. Absorbing characters and a well-crafted plot are important, but placing those elements in a world that lives and breathes on its own is a tremendous asset.

And Saiunkoku’s royal court does live and breathe, with its factions and fashions and secrets. Most of all, it breathes thanks to its cast of passionate, distinct characters and the ways they hope to better their lives and their world. I’m hopelessly smitten. I admit it.

(The manga adaptation of The Story of Saiunkoku is running in Kadokawa Shoten’s Monthly Asuka. I’m not sure how many light novels are in Yukino’s series, and they haven’t been published in English, to my knowledge. The first season of the anime adaptation is available from Funimation.)

Comments

  1. This is the most charming review EVER.

    • David Welsh says:

      Thank you! I thought about including snapshots of myself doodling versions of my name after marriage to various characters on a notebook, but that seemed like too much. Plus, those notebooks are PRIVATE.

  2. I was totally smitten by it, too. I ADORE it.
    I’ve got the first anime series (I hadn’t realized there was another; I hope it’s licensed, too, though I don’t think the first sold well, so I won’t get my hopes up). I haven’t watched it yet. For a while, I thought, I didn’t want to ruin the joy of the manga for myself. Then I woke up and realized I’d have to wait YEARS to watch the anime if that’s really how I wanted to do it. Which is dumb. So I think I will be sitting down with it soon.

    I’m so happy everyone else loves this series, too, so I can read delightful reviews like this and get all giddy about it again.

    • David Welsh says:

      It always worries me when I get too excited based on a single volume, as things can obviously always go wrong, but I really can’t muster any hesitance with this one. So pretty, so smart, so sweet.

  3. danielle leigh says:

    oh this review makes my heart go “pitty-pat”! I’m very fond of the anime and becoming fond of the manga (I found the first volume really reads like a novel with some illustrations, but because I love the characters and story so much I didn’t really mind).

    For once, it is such a relief to like both the male and female leads in a manga (often one is given a wackadoo personality we’re supposed to find charming — usually at the expense of the other) and I love your description of Ryuki as “a little weird.” I also find both him and Shurei incredibly adorable without being cloying. That’s some damn fine character work.

    • David Welsh says:

      That’s an excellent point about the leads. One of the great, great things about this series (so far) is how evenly matched Shurei and Ryuki, which is rare enough of a phenomenon to always be extraordinarily welcome. Shurei may not have been raised in this environment, but she’s smart and resourceful enough to adapt. Ryuki may not have any personal experience with the world outside his walls, but he’s smart and resourceful enough to try and understand it.

  4. “some of the character designs can be a little repetitive, ”

    just you watch the 2nd season, by then so many males I couldn’t keep up. I’d ‘have to do a review to get back into it but so far, Shurei and other females show up and they all have some strong wills, pride in what ever roll they’re in

    • David Welsh says:

      Hee! I tend to be an either-or type with manga and anime, picking one or the other (generally always the manga), so I won’t face this extra level of confusion.

      I must get to work on my Hunk Tracker Reading Goggles, designed to help distinguish excessively similar male characters from one another.

  5. When I was done reading volume one my first words where “please tell me we get more.” it’s a really good sereis.

    • David Welsh says:

      It’s one of those books that I wish would come out in thick, omnibus editions so I could read more of it at once.


Trackbacks

  1. [...] itself a place on my list of Best Manga of 2010. Don’t believe me? Check out David’s recent review, fully as delightful a read as the book itself. A strong opening volume can be a tough act to [...]

  2. [...] and repeatedly mispronounced the title as I asked if it had arrived yet. Such was the force of my reaction to the first volume. But does the second hold up? Yes, it certainly does. While not the same kind of revelation, I [...]

  3. [...] Story of Saiunkoku, Vol. 3 | By Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino | Viz Media – This is my favorite shôjo series currently in release. It’s got complex, sympathetic characters living in a [...]

  4. [...] David, Kate, Melinda, and Michelle have all written about The Story of Saiunkoku‘s charm. The anime does justice to their compliments. The Story of Saiunkoku does what it’s supposed to, and does it well: a cast of likeable characters develop interesting relationships with each other which are then pitted against a meandering but straightforward plot. Shurei is a classic spunky anime heroine, all the way down to her relationship with her father (like so many anime and manga heroines, her mother is absent and she’s had to take care of the family). But The Story of Saiunkoku is a great example of why tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Shurei is loveable because she embodies all the right traits. She’s a strong young woman, someone with her own troubles but is always sensitive to the troubles of others, someone who isn’t above getting angry when her pride is hurt but also genuinely supports the people she loves. She never glamorizes herself as a martyr, even when she’s bullied to the point of exhaustion. She’s the kind of Mary Sue that you want to aspire to, instead of snarking, and she’s definitely one of the strongest anime heroines I’ve seen in years. [...]

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