Shurei Hong dreams of becoming a government official in the land of Saiunkoku, but is prevented from taking the national exams because she is female. But her brains and drive can still be used to help her country. The new king, Ryuki Shi, is reluctant to rule and unprepared for the burden of power. So his advisors come up with a bold plan: Shurei, who is the daughter of a prominent—though poor—family, will become Ryuki’s consort and will teach him what he needs to know in order to rule. Driven by her determination to prevent hardship from ever again affecting the people of Saiunkoku, Shurei agrees to the plan. What she doesn’t realize is that her simple role as consort will lead to great changes in Saiunkoku, changes which will change Shurei forever.
The anime The Story of Saiunkoku is based on a series light novels written by Sai Yukino. Because of the length of the novel series—sixteen volumes as of 2010—there are almost too many characters to keep track of, most of them very handsome young men. What will probably draw most viewers in at first are the attractive male characters, the hints of boys’ love (Ryuki is believed to prefer male consorts over female ones), the romantic teases, and the lavish costumes and faux historical setting. But these elements are not enough to stand up to a story that cannot decide if it is going to be one of romance or one of political intrigue. There is a lot of intrigue going on and the plot is nicely tied together by the end of the first series, but that intrigue never gets the weight and seriousness it needs to make it compelling. The characters sound like they are nervous or excited and their faces seem somewhat nervous or excited, but it all feels flat, like weak actors only poking at the true heart of the story. The American dub does not help. None of the voice actors seem to be truly engaged in their characters, so their performances come across as lifeless. The Japanese voice actors are more connected, but the writing still holds them back from true emotion.
Viewers looking for deep romance will be disappointed as well. Shurei is surrounded by beautiful men, but none of them, with two exceptions, seem at all interested in her. And the story only rarely focuses on the romance, preferring to spend more time on the day-to-day business of government officials. This is hardly the fodder for an emotionally charged romance. Even with two possible suitors, romance viewers will probably be disappointed as there is no resolution at the end of the first season. That makes sense considering the length of the novel series, but as season two of the anime has not yet been released in the United States, that means that fans will be left unsatisfied.
What The Story of Saiunkoku gets right, though, is girl power. This is not a magical girl anime (though there are a few fantasy elements inexplicably thrown into the mix). Instead this is a tale about how the brains and hard work of women are crucial to the success of a country. Many of the male characters are impressed and humbled by the work that Shurei and the other women do. They repeatedly comment on how women are stronger than men in many ways. As female characters can easily get sidelined in comics, even in shojo, this is a nice sentiment which is well-worth repeating.
The animation is solid, though not inspired. The pretty costumes and attractive settings are effective at conveying the historical feel, but they never move past blandly attractive. Nothing will leap out at the eyes as a visual treat. But there are not any content issues which would keep The Story of Saiunkoku from being appropriate for a middle school aged audience. There are discussions about the value of noble women’s virtue as a bargaining chip, but they are subtly handled, in both the subtitles and the dubbing. And any violence is subtle as well. Young romance or historical fans looking for anime that features more talking than fighting will probably enjoy this tame, but dry offering.
The Story of Saiunkoku: The Complete Season One
by Jun Shishido
936 min., Number of Discs: 9, Season set
Company Age Rating: 13+
Related to: The Story of Saiunkoku by Sai Yukino, Kairi Yura