Welcome everyone to my blogging of season 1 of Saiunkoku Monogatari, one of my two all-time favourite anime! I’ve previously covered this title in a manga review, but the anime is really something special so I wanted to show it some love. It’s a little dated by today’s standards, given that both seasons aired between 2006-2008, but as someone who as always preferred “traditional” animation it will always remain beloved to me.
Saiunkoku is also unique in that this first season is 39 FREAKING EPISODES LONG. Yes you read that right! This ONE season has as many episodes as 3 seasons of today’s standard anime. And the second season has just as many! X__x
Also, although I am watching the DVDs to do this blogathon, I’m ignoring their subtitles because they are GARBAGE and instead I will be using the traditional family names from the series and not the alternative ones (ie Shuurei’s last name will be Kou, not Hong). I can’t type kanji so just know that the characters for the red and yellow family clan names have different characters, though they are written the same in English. The subtitles also get the spelling of some characters’ names wrong, so I’ve used the correct spelling in my reviews.
Let us begin!
The episode opens with a narrator telling the story of how the country of Saiunkoku came to be. The legend begins with a man named Gen Sou fighting against evil creatures spread all across the land. 8 enlightened beings with mysterious powers saw his efforts and came to his aid. Together they helped Gen Sou defeat the evil demons. After the battle was over, Gen Sou became the first ruler of the country he created: Saiunkoku, The Land of Coloured Clouds. When Gen Sou died the 8 mystical beings departed, but rumors persisted that they still lived amongst the people of Saiunkoku, which would make them immortal. (Remember this for later.)
The episode transitions into our protagonist, Shuurei Kou, telling this legend to the schoolchildren she teaches. After the day’s lessons are over, the Kou family retainer, Seiran Shi, picks Shuurei up to accompany her to her next job. They are interrupted en route however and must return home as their family has an important guest and tradition dictates that Shuurei must be home to be the proper hostess for their guest. In this scene between Shuurei and Seiran we learn that despite being one of the most distinguished families in Saiunkoku, their family is actually dirt poor. Both Seiran and Shuurei work side jobs, and Shuurei’s father Shouka works, but there is still never enough money. They can’t even afford rice and must eat barley instead because it’s cheaper. Shuurei is someone who will do almost anything for money.
My heart really goes out to Shuurei. We learn a lot about her family’s background and current dire circumstances throughout the first few episodes, and her desperation for money is often played off for laughs. However if you really think about it, what must it be like to live in a world where you’re one missed shift away from starving, or no longer having a roof over your head? Poverty exists in our world too of course, and perhaps there’s someone reading this who has experience with it like Shuurei does. Shuurei’s family’s lack of wealth is one more way in which I feel like Saiunkoku Monogatari stands out amongst similar shows.
Upon their return home, we learn that the important guest is none other than Advisor Sho, one of the Imperial Court’s three Elders. But why is he visiting the Kou family?
Advisor Sho quickly bribes Shuurei into agreeing to his plan without first telling her what it is. He will give the Kou family 500 gold coins, an absolute fortune for most commoners and for Shuurei as well. It turns out that Advisor Sho’s plan involves Shuurei traveling to the Imperial Palace to become the King’s consort (wife); Seiran will temporarily join a platoon of personal guard troops, the Urin Army, and be assigned to guard the king. The duration of this contract will be for six months.
This scene is pretty funny and it also highlights one of Shuurei’s faults: running her mouth and/or getting ahead of herself without considering the potential consequences. She makes this mistake a few times during the first season, and during the second season, this fault comes back to bite Shuurei in the butt big time.
Upon arriving at the Imperial Palace and greeting Advisor Sho, Shuurei is given her own personal assistants, a young woman named Shusui and a child named Kourin. Shuurei also has her own grand bedroom, beautifully decorated with all kinds of luxurious fixtures. An awkward situation with Kourin shows off Shuurei’s kind, compassionate personality. After the two leave, Shuurei resolves to beat the king’s lazy and irresponsible attitude out of him if it’s the last thing she does. She’s so determined!
The next scene shows off two more members of our main cast: Ryuuki’s personal bodyguard, Shuuei Ran, and the king’s advisor Kouyuu Li, who is from the Department of Civil Affairs. However Shuuei often sits around doing nothing because the king wanders off on his own every day, avoiding his responsibilities like a pro, resulting in Shuuei feeling like he has nothing to do. This leaves Kouyuu stressed out over the king never being present to do his job, and having to deal with Shuuei’s aggravating personality (he’s very laid back while Kouyuu is high strung).
Of the entire Saiunkoku cast, I’d say the friendship between Kouyuu and Shuuei is the series’ biggest comedic relief. Shuuei is usually poking at Kouyuu for one reason or another, whether it be his habit of getting lost or his dislike of women. Kouyuu naturally freaks out each time, giving Shuuei the reaction he’s looking for. It almost seems like Shuuei is bullying Kouyuu, except it’s usually made clear that Shuuei’s just teasing. There is another character who will show up in a few episodes who is also meant to be a source of comedy but he’s not around much.
Out in the garden Shuurei tries to reach for a cherry blossom branch; she wants some petals for her tea. Suddenly from behind her a long-haired man appears. He accidentally breaks off a branch of the tree because a strong gust of wind startled him just as he was reaching for the branch on Shuurei’s behalf. After a moment of shared laughter the two sit down to enjoy some of Shuurei’s tea and buns.
One of the plot elements I’ve always found really neat is that really, everyone at the palace technically already knows Shuurei. How? Through her manjuu (sweet bean buns). Her father Shouka works at the Imperial Palace and often shares the buns Shuurei makes for his lunch with people from around the palace including Kouyuu and, as we’ll soon see, the king Ryuuki. Throughout the series, and especially in this first episode, we have several scenes where characters try one of Shuurei’s manjuu and are able to immediately guess that she is Shouka’s daughter. It’s not really a huge deal but I’ve always thought it was a clever tool to help tie the characters’ relationships together.
Back to the garden lunch. The king initially lies to Shuurei about his identity, pretending to be Shuuei. Of course he doesn’t know that Shuurei has already met Shuuei, but this lie is a dead giveaway as to his real identity. Shuurei plays him for a fool as she pretends to not know who he is. “Shuuei” offers to relay a message to the king from Shuurei, and she tells him that she wants to help the king. Shuurei then cleans up her dishes and departs from the garden, with both “Shuuei” and the three Imperial Elders watching her go.
Apologies for this section because it’s really just me fangirling about how much I love this series. >>;
First off, the soundtrack. This music! I own at least one soundtrack for this series, and re-watching Saiunkoku after having listened to the soundtrack for so many years just makes this show that much more special to me. The opening and ending themes are beautiful, and if you pay attention to the lyrics it’s almost as if the lyrics in each song are Ryuuki and Shuurei speaking to each other, respectively. Also I used to -hate- the opening theme, “Hajimari no Kaze” by Ayaka Hirahara, which blows my mind thinking back on it now because it’s one of my favourite anime songs ever.
Secondly, I also think it’s neat that the title of each episode is a saying which gives clues as to the theme or “moral” of the episode. For example episode 1’s title, “Every Good Deed Has a Catch” refers to Shuurei offering to help Advisor Sho in regards to getting Ryuuki to become a proper ruler, but then learning that the king is an idiot and she’s now stuck dealing with him everyday for the next 6 months. That being said, sometimes the episode titles are literally dialogue for a character and the metaphor can be a little heavy-handed.
If you’re watching or experiencing Saiunkoku Monogatari for the first time through my blog posts, I encourage you to watch for the parallels and differences between the main characters, especially between Shuurei and Ryuuki. How are their lives similar and how are they different? What connects them to the rest of the cast? I don’t want to say too much because we’ll learn more about Ryuuki’s family within the next few episodes, so I’ll leave my hints there.
hajimari no kaze yo todoke MESSE-JI
“itsu demo anata wo shinjite iru kara”
Wind of beginnings, deliver this message
“Because I will always believe in you”