There are few things in this job better than starting a series you know nothing about, and quickly realizing it’s a winner. So it went with The Story of Saiunkoku’s first set, and so it has gone with the full nine-disc coffer of the first season, courtesy of the good folks at FUNimation. What might seem from the ad copy and the design work to be pure romantic fluff is anything but. It has the depth and complexity of an epic novel: it keeps you absorbed all the way through, and when it’s done you want more. (Anime: Drugs Would Be Cheaper.)
Set in a fictitious country patterned mainly after Imperial China at its most colorful and turbulent, Saiunkoku’s main character isn’t a warrior or a king — rather, it’s the daughter of a once-great family that has since fallen on hard times and disfavor. Her name is Shurei Hong, and she’s been put into the difficult position of having to keep the domestic wheels turning in lieu of her hapless father. Money is tight, opportunities scarce, and options limited — especially for a woman in a society largely dominated and steered by men. Small wonder that when she’s offered a chance to better herself, she leaps for it, and ends up vaulting clear over the rooftops.
Said opportunity is far removed from what she might have expected, though: it involves being paid piles of money to be the Emperor’s concubine. The Emperor, by the way, is a shiftless layabout named Ryuki Shi who’d not only rather let everyone else do the work but who would rather have another man in his bed than any woman. Mission: impossible. That said, Shurei has spent her entire life dealing with worse odds. Playing concubine to an indolent royal playboy for a little bit isn’t such a bad plan. It means she goes home with her pockets bulging, and everyone gets to eat for the rest of the year.
Then a curious thing happens: Shurei and Ryuki begin to like each other. Not the scripted love-hate tempests that pass for mutual attraction in bad romances, but a real and palpable empathy. They’ve gone through similar wringers in life, despite their radically different stations. They’re both fascinated by the other’s resilience and cleverness. Ryuki, as it turns out, is nowhere nearly as dumb as he’s allowed others to believe. And the more time Shurei spends around him and the other people on his level, the more she realizes she has the chance to do something genuinely ambitious with her life. She wants to be the first woman to take the auspicious civil service exams and go to work for the kingdom as a bureaucrat — in short, to get out of the kitchen and into the world at large.
To most everyone else, this is only slightly crazier than crossbreeding a heifer and a housefly. But Ryuki believes in her. He has every reason to, now that he’s seen firsthand how resourceful and capable and downright smart she is. He enacts legislation to allow her to take the exam — and not only is it ratified, but Shurei passes with flying colors and finds herself walking corridors where no woman has trod before. What Ryuki cannot do is protect her from the jealousy and narrow-mindedness of her new colleagues and supervisors, which she faces up to with even more aplomb and determination. Insults and mud mean little when you’ve teetered on the brink of starvation for years at a time. (She also finds that people talk way too freely about state secrets when they’re out getting their shoes shined.)
What’s best about Saiunkoku is how it never cheats or takes the easy way out. Every single victory won by the protagonists comes at great cost and effort. Nothing comes free. When Shurei finally secures a long-deserved governor’s post, it’s not a cushy paper-pusher’s job: she’s assigned to a province that’s a long way off, that has suffered terrible hardship and turmoil, and where things have been so profoundly broken for so long that most people have given up on anything good ever happening. She says yes to all this — not because she’s stupid, but because she has spent her entire life thinking about things from the outside, as an outsider, and the same old answers won’t work anymore. The mere act of her getting to the province in question and taking power there (without various usurpers and conspirators acting against her) takes up a bit more than a third of the series. Not because the show’s marking time, but because it’s determined to show us just how difficult all of this is really going to be.
I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning that Saiunkoku is nominally a romance. It is, but only in the sense that something like Nana or is a “romance”: there’s a running subplot about competing love interests but it’s the commentary track, so to speak, not the main audio. As things unfold, the whole question of who will win her heart becomes secondary to the much larger question of what kind of person she’ll be when all the dust settles. By the end, love’s not even the most important question. We don’t mind. The show aims higher and shoots farther than just “romance”, anyway. Much of that is a function of the characters. Shurei is not an idiot when it comes to love, just unskilled and unschooled, and so inclined to keep away from it for the same reason a clumsy person avoids building model ships. This makes it all the more difficult when she has three very clear competitors for her affection, with two of them being entirely deserving of it.
The first is, obviously, Ryuki. The closer he draws to Shurei (and vice versa), the more space is put between them by circumstance. The second is Shurei’s retainer, Seiran, once an army officer but now dedicated to protecting the well-being of Shurei and all of her people. At first Seiran and the king would seem to be in competition for Shurei. Then Seiran finds he has a great deal to teach the other man about how to protect one’s self in a dangerous world, and the two of them become more like brothers than rivals. With Shurei out of the picture — which happens for a fair stretch of the show — they’re forced to think about what they have in common instead of what they could be competing over.
Shurei, too, takes on the role of protective sibling when she’s paired with another social servant-in-training, Eigetsu. He and Shurei end up sharing crucial responsibilities, as an end-run around existing tradition and as a way to make sure each oversees the other. It’s a toss-up who needs the oversight more, as Eigetsu has a way of turning into a deadly brawler when he gets drunk — although that little trick does get them out of more than one tight spot.
Third, and the most morally problematic, is Sakujun — the middle grandson of the Sa clan. Indolent and spoiled, his evil is not simply in that he destroys the lives of others; he has also done a great deal to destroy his own life. He plots to have Shurei married to him and thus take control of a great many things he does not already have. Thing is, Shurei is the only person he’s met in a long time, possibly ever, who evokes from him more than mild boredom. He’s fascinated by her and her stubbornness, so much so that he deigns to call his fascination love. Shurei is only marginally more aware of what love might be, but she’s fairly sure it doesn’t just consist of being someone’s bird in a gilt cage.
The emotional fencing match between Shurei and Sakujun takes up a good part of the last stretch of the season. By the time the two of them are embroiled in it, the show’s already shown us it’s not going to turn into one of those dumb romantic autopilot plots where her resistance to his charms is worn down over time. She, and the show, are smarter than that. She’d rather he grow up and turn into a decent person than simply set her free or get out of her hair. What he has in mind, though, amounts to emotional blackmail of an order she has never encountered before. Then again, see it for yourself and ask if what he’s doing is best described as blackmail, or a kind of self-punishment for not being able to live up to her example. It’s unexpected, to say the least.
The set does not end on a note of universal redemption, but rather on one of a world of things yet to be accomplished. This is as it should be. Shurei’s work has just started. It’s one measure of how successful this show is that we want to see more of her doing it. And yet we are also happy to see how far Shurei has come — and how she has come this far without becoming the kind of person she’d hate. She did it her way.
The hardest part about recommending Saiunkoku is finding the right words to persuade people who would never see something like this. Maybe all I can say is: I would never have picked this up myself. I was happy to be proven wrong about what kind of show it was, or how addictive it would be, or how satisfying it was to follow it through to the end. My favorite kinds of surprises.