I've said it countless times by now, but when Geneon went down they took a lot of great shows with them. Thankfully FUNimation has shouldered the burden of distributing many of their licenses, so even though Geneon can't release them on their own, at least the masses have access to shows that would otherwise slip into obscurity. One such case is The Story of Saiunkoku.
Originally release as a series of novels and a manga, The Story of Saiunkoku is a fascinating show. The first seasons, which we have in our hands right now, consisted of 39 episodes and ran from 2006 to 2007. A sequel was released in the latter part of 2007, and as of yet there's still no announcement regarding whether or not it will be released here in the States. Keep that in mind if you're checking out this first season, because after this you'll undoubtedly want the sequel.
The Story of Saiunkoku is a thought-provoking show with an engaging story, rich characters, and a premise that is unlike any other. Taking place in a fictional country named Saiunkoku which is very similar to ancient China, the anime follows the exploits of some people who find themselves in a royal predicament. This is a series with a magical tone that is quite reminiscence of Fushigi Yugi, though it's slightly less fantastical.
The follows the exploits of a young noblewoman named Shurei Hong who wants nothing more than to help the people of Saiunkoku. Times being what they are, however, that is not possible. You see, at this point in Saiunkoku's history women can't necessarily rise to be a government official in the traditional ways. That being the case Shurei does what she can to scrape by a living and help people out along the way. An opportunity soon presents itself to make a difference, but it's not exactly what she had in mind or hoped for.
A government official comes to the dilapidated Hong residence and proposes an offer to Shurei that she simply can't refuse. She jumps at the chance because the offer is for gold pieces that her family desperately needs. Soon she and her guardian, Seiran, are off to the palace to live and work beside the king. Soon enough Shurei makes a name for herself via her common sense, knowledge of the world, and ability to influence people. She's charged with an even more grievous task: becoming the king's consort.
You see, the current king, Ryuki, is portrayed as something of a village idiot at the start. He's unfit to rule the kingdom and is only in the position because four of his brothers are dead and the other was exiled (a nice surprise and twist for another character's background comes up with regards to this). Being the idiot-king that he is, Ryuki is in need to education on the ways of governing. That's where Shurei comes in. She becomes not only his consort, but his tutor and teaches him how to be a successful, fair, and compassionate ruler. There's more to the king than meets the eye, however, and watching as their relationship unfolds is one of the driving forces of this series.
Not only is The Story of Saiunkoku a deep political drama, but it also turns into a romance between Shurei and Ryuki along the way. A love-triangle is also in the works to complicate matters, and you'll constantly be wondering how that's going to resolve itself. This is one of those shows that develops its characters and world to an extensive degree and you'll feel drawn in with each dramatic moment.
With all that being said it's an incredibly slow burn from start to finish. The show comes at you in arcs and getting to the climax of each takes forever. This holds especially true as you move towards the end of the first season. So many things are left up in the air it's ridiculous and the fact that the second season hasn't been announced for release here makes it even more frustrating.
Despite the slow pacing and lack of a conclusion, The Story of Saiunkoku is something to behold. It's wholly unique in the world of anime and stands out due to the imagination of its creators and impressive scripting. This is a lively, thriving show that has a rich history, incredible character development, and it's something fans of political dramas or romances will fall in love with. You may want to hold off until the second season comes out lest you feel incomplete, however, that still doesn't detract from the quality of this first season. Strongly Recommended.
The Story of Saiunkoku originally aired in 2006 and is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio that has been enhanced for anamorphic widescreen playback. The technical quality of the set withstands scrutiny and there are only a few areas where the look of the show falters. Here and there you'll notice some grain and sparse compression artifacts if you look hard enough, but otherwise there is absolutely nothing else to mar this release. Geneon did a solid job with the transfer and the artistic style of the show compliments the bold colors and flawless presentation quite nicely.
English and Japanese 2.0 stereo tracks are the available audio outputs for the first volume of The Story of Saiunkoku. Both tracks offer dubs of decent quality though I think the edge goes to the original Japanese track in that regard. Technically speaking both tracks offer crystal clear audio with no flaw. Their range on the soundstage is limited due to the 2.0 limitations but otherwise the presence on the front channel speakers is solid.
The only things you're going to find in the extras menu are some previews and clean animations.
The Story of Saiunkoku was a very intriguing and engaging show. The political and romantic elements work well with each other and neither is handled in such a manner that it is unbelievable. Everything from the world to the characters has been handled with care and the show will draw you in and make you care about what's going on. From start to finish this first season is rich, deep, and well-developed, but it does leave you wanting more. The slow pacing and the lack of a resolution at the end are sources of frustration, but despite that I'm giving it a strong recommendation!
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