This month Don’t Fear the Adaptation brings you a summer one-two combo of series that span the anime/manga/light novel trifecta: The Story of Saiunkoku and Shiki!
The Story of Saiunkoku is a classic shoujo series if there ever was one. Its heroine, Shurei Hong, is a strong, hardworking girl determined to overcome the position she was squashed into, both with regard to her socioeconomic problems and her gender. She’s intelligent, insightful, caring, civic-minded, and just sassy enough to get her way. Its main male character, the Emperor Ryuki Shi, comes from a tortuous family history and is in need of exactly the qualities Shurei has to offer. Though he truly appreciates, even loves, Shurei, there’s an obstacle or three that keeps him from expressing those feelings. Not to mention, he has other things to worry about — like how to keep the country running. Add in a childhood friend with a mysterious background who rounds out the love triangle, some kibbitzing side characters, the glorious half-fantasy rendition of ancient China that is the country of Saiunkoku, and you have a formula for a successful shoujo story that’s been perfected since Rose of Versailles.
I don’t use that comparison lightly. As much as Rose of Versailles romanticized revolutionary France, The Story of Saiunkoku romanticizes ancient China in a way that is deeply familiar to anybody who grew up watching Chinese TV dramas. This isn’t a bad thing. The Story of Saiunkoku‘s aesthetic fits the story perfectly — flowing layered robes in brilliant colors, intricate hairstyles for the women and long luxurious hair for the men, patterned window lattices, pagodas a plenty, and enough flower petals to drown in. It’s vibrant and feminine without exaggeration. Madhouse’s animation, like Kairi Yura’s artwork, is solid but uninspiring, almost to the point of being dull. But Saiunkoku‘s strength is the political intrigue and the character dynamics which, together with a hint of the fantastical and the core of a romantic drama, make for an entertaining story.
David, Kate, MJ, and Michelle have all written about The Story of Saiunkoku‘s charm. The anime does justice to their compliments. The Story of Saiunkoku does what it’s supposed to, and does it well: a cast of likeable characters develop interesting relationships with each other which are then pitted against a meandering but straightforward plot. Shurei is a classic spunky anime heroine, all the way down to her relationship with her father (like so many anime and manga heroines, her mother is absent and she’s had to take care of the family). But The Story of Saiunkoku is a great example of why tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Shurei is loveable because she embodies all the right traits. She’s a strong young woman, someone with her own troubles but is always sensitive to the troubles of others, someone who isn’t above getting angry when her pride is hurt but also genuinely supports the people she loves. She never glamorizes herself as a martyr, even when she’s bullied to the point of exhaustion. She’s the kind of Mary Sue that you want to aspire to, instead of snarking, and she’s definitely one of the strongest anime heroines I’ve seen in years.
What I found most intriguing about Ryuki was his multi-faceted personality. In front of his older brother, he’s vulnerable and adoring; in front of Shurei, he’s a lovesick fool. But when it comes to beating down kidnappers or running an imperial inquiry into corruption, he’s every bit the model emperor, with only his country’s wellbeing in mind. It’s not that he’s manipulative. Rather, you can tell he’s only survived so long by being calculating. As the series progresses, his inability to win over Shurei with tricks and ploys (and hard-boiled eggs) exposes him for the 19 year old he is inside, enthusiastic and well-meaning and more than a little clumsy. Is it just that we like to see a man with so much power reduced to putty in the hands of a mere girl? I know that’s certainly part of my amusement. Here Shurei is never just a damsel in distress depending on Ryuki. She even gives up a life of luxury as Ryuki’s consort in order to pursue her dreams. Shoujo heroines often pay lip service to a life framed around something other than romance, but Shurei actually lives that life. She never wanted Ryuki to fall in love with her; she’d always wanted to serve her country in any way she could. It’s just that love happened along the way.
The other characters are hit or miss, but mostly hits. Split three ways between his fondness for Ryuki, his dedication to Shouka and Shurei as an adopted son, and the torch he carries for Shurei’s affections, Seiran is just as calculating as Ryuki and, without Ryuki’s natural bubbliness, is far scarier. Koyu Li, the assistant secretary of Civil Affairs, is tragic, hotheaded, and heart-meltingly endearing in turns, and in another series could have managed to be the main character. Here, he and his good friend Shuei Ran, whose ladykiller air hides a competent general, are the mocking peanut gallery, almost always on screen as a pair, whether it be as a pair of the Emperor’s confidants or a pair of troublemakers. The Story of Saiunkoku does at times come off as a reverse harem. Don’t get me wrong, I like reverse harems just as much as the next person, but none of the female characters in the first season even come close to matching up to Shurei. While I adored meeting characters like Reishin, the sneaky but overly doting Minister of Civil Affairs who doubles as both Koyu’s adoptive father and Shurei’s uncle, and Kijin Kou, the eccentric masked Minister of Finance, Sakujun — the second oldest of Enjun Sa’s grandsons– is basically a less nuanced version of Ryuki, even in appearance, and Kuro is the least interesting of the three Hong brothers for sure. With a cast this large, there were bound to be a couple of duds, but I just wish there had been more female characters like Kouchou, the courtesan who, with equal equanimity, teaches Shurei how to wear makeup and runs Kiyou’s entire red light district.
Like all the best shoujo stories, The Story of Saiunkoku throws in plenty of humor, and the anime manages to slip in a few extra jokes. One of my favorite episodes is when Shurei falls ill and all the characters come out of the woodwork to wish her well, including an extra silly Reishin who sulks over the implication that one day his beloved niece will get married. I’m especially impressed with the anime’s restraint — there’s not a single super-deformed face for all thirty-nine episodes.
I’ve only read the first two volumes of the manga, but from what I can tell, the anime and manga do have differences, even from episode one. Some characters are introduced early in the anime, and scenes have been both added and rearranged. For instance, while in the manga, Shurei is relatively unaware that she is in danger of being poisoned, in the anime Ryuki is forced to explain the danger to her after she’s almost poisoned at a banquet. As a result, Shurei in the anime learns both about Ryuki’s troubled past and Ryuki pretending to be stupid much sooner than the manga Shurei. It’s hard to compare the entire first season of the anime to just two volumes of the manga, but if I have to make some comparison, I’d say there just seems to be more stuff happening, and at a quicker pace, in the anime. Despite this, the anime does start dragging, in particular during the period after the imperial exams. While there are never any straight-out filler episodes, the series often picks the slowest, most tortuous methods to advance the plot, like episode 21, which is almost entirely superfluous except for an eleventh hour hint at a plot twist.
The Story of Saiunkoku is like Fushigi Yugi meets Dream of Red Chambers, as envisioned by CLAMP. This, actually, is a good thing. If you’re just the slightest fan of shoujo manga, and if you come across a box set of the first season for a reasonable price, I cannot stress how quickly you should snap up that deal. As it is, you can still get the early DVD sets relatively easy, but the later DVD volumes are nigh impossible to get your hands on. Thank goodness Viz is putting out the manga, or else we’d all be missing out. Now if only we could convince them to license the light novels as well!
(Note: I’ve used the Funimation names for this review. Shuurei’s family name is actually Kou, not Hong, but I’m guessing Funimation was worried we’d get her family mixed up with the other Kou family.)
Watch online at Funimation
I feel bad that I’ve been recommending stuff that you can’t buy or watch, or can only buy at ridiculous prices. So I thought I’d throw in a bonus review and recommend something you can watch easily. Shiki has vampires, “werewolves”, and a fascinating ensemble cast that will hook you faster than you can say “Twilight.” Plus, you can watch it for free on Funimation’s site now, and next year it’ll be released as DVD box set. What more could you want? (Well, other than for someone to license the corresponding manga and light novel as well, of course.)
Summer is the season for horror stories, and Shiki delivers in spades. The story is set in the small rural village of Sotoba, a place isolated from the rest of the world by mountains and forests. Sotoba is famous for burying their dead, and as a result the local folklore has plenty of stories featuring the undead, though no one takes that myth seriously. That is, until one summer, the villagers begin to die off an unprecedented rate, only to be seen walking the streets at night. Is it an epidemic? Is it a curse brought in by the mysterious Kirishikis, the eccentric family that builds a castle in the mountains and moved in during the dead of night? Or could there be some truth in the undead legend after all?
The closest Shiki has to main characters are Natsuno Yuuki, the surly teenaged son whose family moves from Tokyo to Sotoba in the beginning of the story, and Toshio Ozaki, the young head doctor of the Ozaki Clinic whose family has always served as Sotoba’s doctors. Ozaki, first frustrated by his inability to identify what the illness killing his villagers is, tries his best to convince the other adults that there are vampires — known as “shiki”, or corpse demons, in the series — walking amongst their midst. As a representative of the adult residents of Sotoba, his is a powerful story of how the rational can brainwash people just as much as the irrational. None of the adult villagers seem able to accept that something unusual is happening in Sotoba, much less that the cause is supernatural. As much as Ozaki tries to save the village, the village unconsciously repels his attempts, and it’s only a drastic eleventh hour sleight of hand by Ozaki that gets Sotoba to listen.
Natsuno’s problems are likewise complicated. He has no love for Sotoba, and in fact only has one friend in the entire village, a cheerful guy named Toru Mutou, but he isn’t willing to stand by and let the shiki kill off the village either. Still, how do you kill the undead, especially when the only allies you have are two middle schoolers who are just as clueless as you are? To make matters more complicated, one of the first victims, a teenaged girl named Megumi Shimizu, has an obsessive crush on Natsuno, and after she’s turned into a shiki, she’s hellbent on stalking him down and turning him into a shiki as well.
It’s not the kids that are interesting in Shiki, though the complications of the Natsuno/Tooru/Megumi relationship certainly make for one of the most dramatic twists mid-series. It’s really the ambiguities of the adult characters and the incredibly well-executed pacing of the narrative that elevates Shiki from a mere vampire horror story to a very complex and very human drama. Shiki is all about asking what it means to be or want to be alive, and what sacrifices are justified in the pursuit. Take Ozaki, whose obsession with hunting down the shiki is matched only by the shiki’s obsession with hunting down him. He wants to save the village from getting taking over; they want to keep him from killing their own kind. Is one really better than the other? The leader of the shiki, Sunako, was bitten when she was just a little girl, and all she wants is to give the shiki a place where they don’t have to hide, where they can have festivals and live as families and walk down the street just like people. It’s a noble enough dream, but to accomplish it, she needs to wipe out Sotoba’s living residents.
If Sunako is a charismatic villain who tugs at your heartstrings, Ozaki is a terribly unsympathetic protagonist who makes you question whether you should even be cheering for him. He’s callous towards the concerns of others, so one-minded that he thinks nothing of sacrificing his own wife to accomplish his aims. Towards the end of series, you begin to wonder whether he actually cares about the village at all, or if this is just a matter of pride for him. Then there’s Muroi, who as the head priest of Sotoba, should be on the frontlines driving away the shiki. But instead Muroi is entranced by the shiki as a way of escaping his stifling life, and you find yourself upset with Ozaki for not being more understanding, even though Muroi is, in effect, enabling the death of Sotoba. And all of this doesn’t even begin to touch on the feelings of the victims’ families, who are simultaneously repulsed and drawn to their shiki loved ones. Would it be better for someone you love to die and stay dead? Or is it better for them to die and come back as a murderous, blood-thirsty, but very animate shiki?
Shiki packs all this and more in crisscrossing plot lines that weave together to form a narrative about life and death that could be mined forever. You’ll find yourself changing loyalties, reconsidering sides, examining long-held preconceptions about how life should be and what rules should guide human interaction, simply depending on which character the episode focuses on. While the story can get a little heavy-handed, especially during Muroi’s dialogues with Sunako, the grand finale of the last few episodes handle the moral dilemmas of the remaining Sotoba residents so unflinchingly that you’ll wish for some sugar-coating. But if there’s one thing you could say about Shiki, it’s that it forces most of its major characters to look their choices in the face and stand up to them — sometimes with disastrous results.
The art in Shiki can be preposterous at times. Don’t get me started on the crazy hairdos, the physics-defying tears, and the inexplicable fashions; Megumi in the first episode doesn’t even come close to the worst of it. There’s a particular moment where one of the Kirishiki servants goes to visit Natsuno which just emphasizes how ill-suited Shiki was for comedy, no matter how hard the series would try to inject occasional jokes. But you forget that failing when you’re dealing with one of the spookiest soundtracks made for any horror anime. The sound effects– whispering choirs, eerie giggles, and almost fetid sucking sounds– will make you cringe and shrink back into yourself. The music ranges from forgettable melodies plucked out on guitar strings to an unassuming main theme that nevertheless ends up being associated with so many depressing events that you start dreading its appearance. The end product gives off the impression of being a demented music box — harmless during the day, but deeply unsettling in the dark.
Shiki is a feast for the fan of vampires or the supernatural. There’s something vaguely Stephen King-ish about its plot and premise, but the execution is something much closer to an HBO miniseries: you know it has a plan, you know it’s going somewhere, and the ending is satisfying and satisfyingly unexpected. The characters span the whole spectrum of unselfish, neutral, and reprehensible. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve watched a series that handled that spectrum as well as Shiki. Watch it now while it’s free, then grab a copy for those hot, terrible summer evenings where you need a little chill that only the undead can inspire.
Either Natsume Yujincho or Chi’s Sweet Home will be next. If you feel strongly one way or another, as always, drop me a line!