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.)