"The Story of Saiunkoku" Season One: The Neverending Story
Buried deep in the annals of ancient China is the kingdom of Saiunkoku, a land ravaged by years of war and civil unrest, hungering for a competent new king. Unfortunately, the next in line to the kingship is a spoiled teenager with no real sense of how to lead, and who is caught up in webs of palace intrigue far too numerous to count. From his conniving family to the multitude of other houses vying for power to the houses in exile to random street thugs, everyone wants a piece of the King in Waiting, Ryukki Shi.
Thrust into the mess is Shurei Hong, daughter of the castle librarian/man of intrigue/clan leader of great importance, though she doesn’t know that. Tasked with turning the ill-formed layabout king into a ruler competent enough to take command of the nation, Shurei takes on her new position with gusto, as it is the key to her life-long dream: becoming a government official in a position secure enough to pay off her family’s debts and fix up her crumbling home.
Sounds interesting, right? Yeah … ummm … not so much.
The Story of Saiunkoku Season One runs for 39 episodes. That’s at least 10 episodes too many. The plot is stuffed with way, way, WAY too many extraneous characters that don’t add anything to the actual story but do make for wonderful padding. The first 20 episodes are spent wandering around the capital city of the Imperial City, Kiyo, and inside the grounds of the imperial palace, going through various plot-padding shenanigans and expository speeches. Thankfully, by the time Shurei has survived her imperial welcome, the show has introduced a couple of new characters of actual importance, so the time isn’t a total waste, but it is still a slog to get though all of the mostly meaningless “the plot demands that I say this thing of no actual importance other than because of exposition”.
After the seemingly interminable wait, Shurei does finally leave the palace, having grown wiser and stronger and yadda yadda yadda, and having gained a few traveling companions, and we get something resembling a real plot. The far-off Sa Province has become increasingly resistant to imperial control during the recent uncertainty, falling under the influence of the Sa clan, a group that is more Mafia than Government. So the king dispatches Shurei and her merry band to try reining in the wayward province before it goes completely rogue and spreads the instability to the capital. Unfortunately, while the plot actually becomes engaging at this point, the show’s writers make a fairly hideous misstep with Shurei’s character.
Up to this point Shurei has been a very strong-willed, independent young woman whose head was almost impossible to turn. As soon as Shurei sets out for the restive province, though, she meets a new character of Great Importance who apparently has the magical ability to make her completely lose her senses and self-control. I guess the writers thought it might be interesting if the main character suffered a sudden loss of emotional cohesion, but it ends up being a total betrayal of what little made her actually interesting. It really is an unfortunate turn of events, as the story itself finally gets interesting at this point, with kidnappings, the threat of a revolt and several surprisingly suspenseful chases given how lame most of the earlier attempts at drama and action are. Shurei has also been aided the whole way by friend-of-the-family Seiran Shi, who is addled with his own very fraught history with both an outlaw clan and the royal family, giving him the requisite angsty, tragic past to occasionally brood over while looking way too bishounen for his own good.
Now one bad, or just plain lame, plot can be reasonably alleviated by well-done visuals and action. Sadly, the visuals here are even more of a letdown than the story. The shame of it is that The Story of Saiunkoku comes from the usually steady and spectacular hands of Studio Madhouse. Not this time. It’s seems that the show’s budget was spent on the vocal talent, including among others heavy hitter Sekki “Amuro Ray” Tomokazu, rather than the animation. Multiple uses of badly rendered digital pans, obvious bits of low-rez CGI, and very poorly choreographed “action” scenes that consist mostly of a character standing with a sword, speed lines and then some vaguely human body shaped lumps on the ground covered in what looks like ketchup. Animation this poor would be a knock against anyone, but coming from a studio held in as high esteem as Madhouse, it’s like insult to injury. This being the North American release there is an English language vocal track, but I can’t recommend listening to it. As lame as the animation is, the English language track is even worse.
So there you have it: lame story, lame characters, lame animation. It all adds up to a just plain lame show. Maybe this is why Pioneer/Geneon went under, being that Saiunkoku is one of the last things they announced before they imploded.