Saiunkoku was almost a lost series. Originally set to be released by Geneon, it was one of the many titles that disappeared into limbo when the American arm of that company had its plug pulled in the Big Anime Shake-Out of 2008. Funimation stepped in to pick up many of the licenses that got dropped on the floor during that time, so to speak, and rescued a great many titles that would have left a sizable hole in anyone’s catalog: Samurai Champloo, Black Lagoon, Ergo Proxy, Darker Than Black.
And now Saiunkoku, too. I’d been anticipating this show ever since I caught a snippet of it during one of Geneon’s panels way back when there was a Geneon. What little there was to be seen made it look like a smarter and far less cloying version of Fushigi Yugi (a show I wanted to like but could not due to its shamelessly manipulative construction). Fans of Fushigi Yugi will probably pick up on this one as well, although in my opinion this is the better of the two shows. It lets its characters and their behavior drive the show, instead of just dragging them kicking and screaming into happenstance.
Saiunkoku is the name of the land where the story takes place. It most strongly resembles Imperial China, but is actually a little closer to the pan-Asiatic mix that we saw in Moribito — maybe about 90% China to 10% everything else. Power is split between eight great houses, all with allegiance (in theory, anyway) to the emperor. A few years back there was a savage internal struggle to see who would take the thone, and after the dust settled they were left with the current emperor, Ryuki Shi, a complete dolt who spends most of his time chasing other men (!) and delegating responsibility to anyone who’ll take it. The inner circle of courtiers is desperate to have Ryuki take up his responsibilities, and have burned through one option after another with no luck. 's own bodyguard, Seiran, finds himself at odds with the courtly politics.
At this point I thought had the show figured out — that there would be the usual sexual tension between Shurei and all the handsome men going in and out of her life (and there are plenty of those, no denying that), that she would have to choose one in the manner of a harem comedy in reverse, and so on. But the show has more ambition than that, and instead uses the whole one-woman-and-a-bunch-of-men formula as a starting point for much bigger things. Not all of them are brought to full fruition during the first half of the show, but there’s more than enough accomplished on these three discs to make it clear they’re aiming higher and shooting farther.
The first thing is Shurei’s own ambitions. She has a dream, however improbable it may be: to be the first woman to take the civil service exam, become a bureaucrat and do great honor to her family (and, not coincidentally, do great things for the country). When she does head back home, after giving Emperor Ryuki the boost he needs, he repays her in kind by signing legislation that makes it possible for her to take the test. What he cannot do, even from his throne, is protect her from everyone else who doesn’t see things his way.
There’s a remarkable amount of plot in Saiunkoku — more in this first half-season set than many other shows have across a whole season or more, come to think of it. But the show’s writers have arranged all this material so that it’s character- and not plot-driven. There’s a lot going on, but we’re never confused about who is doing what or (more importantly) why. And when the usual soap-opera elements come into play — like Shurei’s first kiss — they’re more like a natural product of what’s already been going on and not something tacked-on for effect.
What’s best about the show is how it manages to be even-handed without giving the hero(ine)(s) short shrift. Everyone, even the “bad” guys — the manipulators behind the scenes, who know more about Seiran’s past than most people do and who have grave reservations about what Ryuki is doing to/for the country — get a fair shake. Best of all, the one character who’s front and center most of the time, Shurei, is someone who’s worth following. We want to see what she does next. Same with everyone else, come to think of it.