Saiunkoku Monogatari – Review

Saiunkoku Monogatari (aka SaiMono to its fandom) literally translates to Tale of Kingdom of Iridescent Clouds.

SaiMono started as a series of light novels by writer Yukino Sai (illustrated by Yura Kairi). It was turned into manga and anime in 2006/2007. My first encounter with SaiMono was through the anime.

SaiMono is a fantasy josei (adult ladies) anime, set in a fictional kingdom called Saiunkoku that was loosely based on Imperial Chinese empire. The story opens with the introduction of Kou Shuurei, daughter of the Royal Archivist in the capital city Kiyou. Shuurei was approached by the Emperor’s advisor to enter the palace as the Emperor’s concubine for three months. Her mission was to reform the truant and layabout Emperor into a competent and capable monarch. In her quest, she and the viewers, were introduced to the denizens of the palace and the world of Saiunkoku in general.

The first story arc of SaiMono, at first glance, is typical shoujo (girl) kind of plot. A girl, picked specially for an important mission, surrounded by many very bishie men who are eager to help her in any way. Naturally, the top bishie, the Emperor Ryuuki, himself, fell in love with Shuurei. However, once Shuurei had accomplished her mission, and Yukino-sensei had introduced the major characters, the tone of the plot started to change. The romance between Ryuuki and Shuurei is relegated to the background while politics and court intrigues were slowly introduced. And this is where SaiMono truly shines.

In normal shoujo story, and just about every Hollywood fairytale, the story would end with the heroine and hero living happily ever after. That would be naive and boring and all too predictable and very true to shoujo anime. The reason this is not a shoujo anime (aimed at younger girls), but a josei anime, aimed at older teens and adult women, is that the story does not revolve around an idealistic and sickeningly sweet romance. Rather, Shuurei was happy to complete her stint, get paid, leave the fineries behind, and go home. It was refreshing to see Shuurei feeling relieved and ‘betting’ on Ryuuki’s preference for male bedfellows to get her out of the sticky issue of being a concubine for real, should the Emperor demands it. In fact, she was almost cold-blooded and callous in her eagerness to leave the royal harem. While Shuurei is fond of Ryuuki, her feelings towards him remains uncertain. She told Ryuuki that her one wish was to become a court official, even though it was impossible.

The next story arc sees Ryuuki, trying to be a good hard-working Emperor, even for the wrong reasons (he wanted to impress Shuurei) and trying to change the law to allow women to take the National Examination, and consequently, opening political and official posts to women. Or simply put, let Shuurei’s dream of becoming a court official come true.

The anime runs for two seasons, totalling 78 episodes. It covers Shuurei’s adventures from passing the Exams, her first position as co-Governer of Sa province, her fall from grace, to her rebirth as an officer in the Censorate department which oversees anti-corruption and misconduct among government officials and how she matures and faces the challenges as the first female official.

What I liked about SaiMono is its humour. It was not above poking fun at stereotypes and clinched plot devices while adding new twists to the old and tired plot lines. Among the many very wise and competent male characters, were wiser, courageous and amazing female characters. A beautiful courtesan who is also the most respected boss of the underworld. A genius female inventor who was acknowledged as a gentlemen’s gentleman among her male peers. There is no female character that is a bimbo whinny melodramatic crybaby or a damsel in distress. Yukino-sensei creates believable and balanced female characters in SaiMono. Shuurei may be a woman trying to break into men’s domain, but she is still undoubtedly and proudly a woman. She is no warrior princess, nor a shy pretty flower. She faces the world with her wit and plain hard work.

Each character in SaiMono is carefully introduced and fleshed out with intersecting backgrounds. As the story delves deeper into politics, governance, economics, environment and supernatural, it builds layer upon layers of complexity, yet each one interconnected to various characters and events. SaiMono has something for everyone; humour, conspiracy, loyalty, duty, respect, kick-ass adventure, friendship, family, betrayal, murder, mystery, science, art, music and magic.

The light novels (currently at Book 16) run further along than the anime, but is still on-going. I must say that after reading the novels, I found that the story covered by the anime was merely the tip of the iceberg. A prologue to the deeper darker story as each novel reveals just a little more, but leaves more questions than answers. It is well planned and I’m amazed at how well Yukino-sensei shows each generation of characters and the depth of their maturity and wisdom. In terms of complexity of plot and characters, the story can generally be divided into three stages. The beginning, where the youngest generation, including Shuurei, were central with simple, straight forward manoeuvrings. The middle, involving the second generation such as Shuurei’s father, Shouka, and his peers. This group were shown to be more perceptive with hidden agenda and clever plotting. The  third generation, with Shou Taishi heading the pack of manipulative cunning old dogs. Their conspiracies and plans are just barely visible and mostly hinted at by the more perceptive members of the second generation, but spanning decades and far-reaching. It was only after reading the later novels that I began to see how beautifully Yukino-sensei layered her work and how she upped the ante with every new book.

As with most world-building stories, SaiMono also has its own founding myth. The story was told as a the legend of Sougen, the first emperor of Saiunkoku, who was such an impressive and righteous ruler that the Eight Coloured Immortals came to serve him. After his death, the Immortals (or Celestials, depending on which translation is used) disappeared. It was said that they will gather and appear once more when a great emperor ascends the throne.

The Eight Coloured Immortals were of such significance to the Kingdom that the 8 provinces and 8 noble families were named after each colour. Shi (purple) became the royal family name and the name of the province where the capital city, Kiyou, was located. The Immortals formed part of the supernatural aspect of SaiMono’s world and to-date remained a mystery. However, several Immortals have been outed recently. The Eight Coloured Immortals seems to be loosely based on the Chinese Eight Immortals. Like the Chinese Eight Immortals, the SaiMono Immortals have supernatural powers and they bring prosperity, wisdom and power to the people they associate with. The Chinese Eight Immortals consist of one woman, 6 men and one ambiguous androgyne (seriously, check out Lan Caihe). The Eight Coloured Immortals so far has one woman, three men and four unknowns.

SaiMono also uses the concept of music or musical instrument as implements of power. Shuurei and Hyou clan uses the erhu (Japanese nikou). Shusui used the erhu to calm the mountain in Lan Province. Kou clan are famous for their biwa. Lan clan for the flute, such as Lan Ryuuren’s iron flute that could affect the weather. Then, there’s the twin magic swords, Kanshou and Bakuya. These are based on the Chinese legend of Gan Jiang the blacksmith and his wife Mo Ye who forged the twin swords that has affinity to each other. Kanshou is the black yang (male) sword and Bakuya is the white yin (female) sword.

SaiMono also contains an element common to eastern classics, the hidden identity/talent. I would say, it was an overused theme in SaiMono. Starting with Shouka himself, who appears a doting father and harmless, mild, kindly, absent-minded librarian. Unknown to Shuurei, he is also the Black Wolf, the legendary assassin who served the previous emperor. Even Ryuuki was said to be ‘a talented hawk who hides his talons’, pretending to be stupid and lazy when he is actually quite sharp and capable. There are many more characters with hidden identities/talent, but I will not mention them to keep the spoilers down.

Since Saiunkoku mirrors Imperial Chinese empire, it can seem confusing to the average person will no knowledge of Chinese history or culture. The Chinese were the first people to invent formal examinations. Yes, you can thank the Chinese for your midterms and finals. It was a novel and radical idea then, as it was in Saiunkoku. In the past, political and governmental positions were filled by members of nobility, which gave more power to the powerful. Formal exams introduced new possibilities into the power play. First, in ensures that the candidate is literate and knowledgeable in History, Literature, Economics and Governance. With nearly 100% literacy in modern world, it is easy to forget that most people were illiterate or semi-literate in those ancient times. An official who could not read and write his own correspondences is vulnerable to manipulations of his clerks and assistants.

Anyone could take the exams, regardless of background and wealth. Passing the exams has great significance, so significant, it could literally change one’s life. Chinese folk-tales, especially Confucian ones, are full such situations, with moral stories about ungrateful and unfilial sons.

In Saiunkoku, a candidate that passes becomes eligible for government position. They are normally given their commission soon after the results were released. Those in the top three positions were ear-marked for important political and financial positions. That can catapult an ordinary, even dirt-poor man into the most eligible bachelor in the Kingdom. This was that happened to Li Kouyuu and Eigatsu.

It also opens up another possibility, that a commoner could rise to hold positions of power, loosening the hold of powerful noble houses. While it sounds really wonderful and peachy, in reality, the exams were tough. One needs time and financial resources to be educated, and at the National level, a court sponsor, just to take the exams. So, naturally, children of noble and wealthy families had the best chances of taking them.

In Saiunkoku’s political landscape, this brought two factions into play. The Noble factions who gain their positions through their family connections and name, and the Exam factions. Some nobles fell into the Exam factions, simply because they prefer to prove themselves through the exams, such as Lan Shuuei, Kou Reishin and Ko Kijin. The second season of the anime touched only the beginnings of this power struggle.

Saiunkoku anime version is very beautifully drawn with a stellar cast of Japanese voice actors. Despite the humongous list of characters, they are well fleshed out with their own uniqueness and eccentricities that made them lovable. I must say, my favourites so far are from the 2nd generation: the three Kou brothers – Shouka, Reishin and Kurou, and the Nightmare Exam Group – Ko Kijin, Reishin and Tei Yuushun. Out of the female characters, my favourite is Sai Rin, a minor character, but sensible and down to earth wife of Tei Yuushun.

Anyway, SaiMono is a great anime, with good plot and good characters. There’s not much fantasy or magic in it. Mostly, it is a historical romance. I would suggest start with the anime or manga, then the novels. The novels would have more details and depth than the anime or manga.

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