Story of Saiunkoku Volume 1 by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura
I’ve been looking forward to reading this manga series. Story of Saiunkoku is a light novel series in Japan which has spinoffs like an anime version and this manga version. I’ve watched a few episodes of the first season of the anime and enjoyed it very much, but I think that the manga stands on its own. You don’t need to be familiar with the anime to enjoy the manga, you’d just need to have an appreciation for strong female heroines and Chinese-like fantasy world settings, and who doesn’t like those things?
Shurei Hong is a young noblewoman whose family has fallen on hard times. Her mother is dead and she lives in a dilapidated mansion. Her father’s salary as court archivist doesn’t provide enough money to fix up the house or even afford a daily ration of rice. Shurei spends her time teaching the village children. Her ambition when she was young was to become a civil servant, and her father encouraged her in her studies even though as a woman she wouldn’t be permitted to take the exam. Shurei is helped by Seiran, who came to the house originally a a servant but functions like an adopted older brother. Shurei’s life changes when an adviser to the court comes to her with a proposition: Shurei will enter the court as the royal consort and try to push the emperor Ruyki into stepping up and leading his country. Ryuki appears on the surface to be a dissolute noble but it soon becomes clear that he has reasons for acting the way he does. He grew up as the youngest son in an abusive household, and his indifference functions like a kind of armor. Shurei has seen the way the people of the country suffer, and she won’t stand for an emperor who will do nothing to help them.
One of my favorite things about Story of Saiunkoku was Shurei. Having a heroine in manga who places such a high value on education is rare, and she genuinely cares about her students and the people who don’t have all the advantages of nobility. She’s not stuck-up, and is quite capable of indulging in a bit of whining to Seiran about being forced to eat barley instead of the glorious rice that she craves, but she soon stops feeling sorry for herself and focuses on other people. Her main motivation for entering the court is the fee that she’s promised if she manages to prod Ryuki into action. When she gets there she’s astounded by the amount of waste as the nobles surround themselves with expensive trinkets while the common people go hungry.
If Ryuki was just sulking because he’s a poor little rich boy, he wouldn’t be an appealing character. But Shurei’s arrival causes him to start opening up to other people. He notices that Shurei’s hands don’t look like they belong to a noble lady, and she explains about how hard she’s had to work to build a home for her father and Seiran. He shifts from being closed off to expressing enthusiasm when Shurei gives him a present because no one had ever given him anything before. Seiran thinks that he’s “An emperor as pure as a blank page…He seems almost unnaturally untainted and has no affectations. I’m sure he’ll be able to change himself immensely from here on.” The first volume of the manga was mostly concerned with Shurei and Ryuki getting to know each other, but I’m hoping that more attention gets paid to the supporting cast in future volumes. Seiran is a self-contained martial artist of great skill who just happens to share a name with Ryuki’s exiled older brother. Ryuki is helped by the advisers Koyu and Shuei, and the archives that Seiran’s father runs serve as a convenient place to escape all the court intrigue that surrounds the emperor.
Yura does a good job portraying the Chinese-influenced setting of Saiunkoku. The streets and wagons of the world outside the palace contrast with the overly manicured gardens of the court. One thing I liked about the adaptation of this manga is the way Ryuki’s overly formal speech is presented in contrast with the more natural way that everyone else talks. It serves as a reminder of the way he’s held apart from everybody else by his status. Ryuki asks Shurei to call him by name by saying “It’s unfair that only we don’t get to be called by name. Our name is so neglected – don’t you feel sorry for it?” Story of Saiunkoku has plenty of humor to contrast with the more touching moments portrayed in the manga. Seiran hugs Shurei when she breaks down thinking about the way she’s teaching students to become good civil servants instead of taking the exam herself, saying “My Lady, you’ve really worked hard, haven’t you?” The directionally-impaired scholar Koyu is only able to meet the emperor and start tutoring him after Shurei intervenes, and he yells “From here on I shall no longer hold back. Please do prepare yourself” while throwing down stacks of books.
I think this series will appeal to anyone who enjoys fantasy shoujo. The heroine surrounded by a group of handsome men might appeal to fans of Fushigi Yugi. The emphasis on geopolitics and learning to rule a country would also appeal to anyone who’s read the novels or seen the anime Twelve Kingdoms. I’m happy to find a new fantasy shoujo series to follow just when some of my current favorites might be ending in the next year.
Review copy provided by the publisher.