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Saiunkoku Monogatari 1-10

I have good memories of being a child and the long rounds of TVB period dramas that used to fill my evenings at home. Many of these period dramas were kungfu epics, and quite a number still were romantic courtly dramas. I was fascinated with the costumes of the different dynasties, the weapons, the way the sets were designed. I loved the really lavish productions of Gengis Khan, the Dowager Empress and Qin Shih Huang. I could never hate the choreography of Legend of the Condor Heroes (CCTV ver.) or Proud Smiling Warrior. Filling the gaps between these big-budget series, however, were the cheap comedy-dramas that, while a little un-nutritious, still helped make everyone smile.

Saiunkoku Monogatari is that sort of understated gem. The setting is fictionalized Tang-dynasty Saiunkoku (Country of Coloured-Clouds). A wise young lady from a poor family is selected as the new consort to the country's feckless Emperor, in the hopes her intelligence and loyalty would influence the Emperor into assuming more responsibility. It's a dream job in theory: the Prime Minister has promised 500 gold pieces in exchange for her aid, and she won't even have to do anything really wifely -- the Emperor likes boys. Problems start when the aforementioned Emperor isn't quite the fool everyone's made him out to be, or in fact quite so uninterested. Add to it a whole gauntlet of court intrigue and attempted assassinations, and it all sounds awfully familiar.

Saiunkoku's forte are the Machiavellian court dramas that it puts out, replete with some genuinely unexpected twists. While there are definite elements many of those either familiar with the aforementioned TVB drama style or Fushigi Yuugi would recognise, the bad crack portion of the shoujo genre, it does what it needs to with definite style. Care has gone into production of this show. Featuring experienced seiyuu for most of the major characters in its epic cast, characters are well-thought out and expertly voiced.

Characterization moves at a brisk pace, with fresh politics bringing out the feel of the shark tank court. Watercolour backgrounds offer lush scenery for the heavy ancient Chinese influence. I do miss watercolour backgrounds, which work so well in period dramas. Many times, the backgrounds manage to steal the show for me, even if it's a frog or a snail on a leaf, it's clear someone genuinely loves their craft. Character design features excruciatingly detailed costumes that bring out the worst in my period drama-geek.

The characters themselves can be rather generic pointy-chins (it's a harem anime, no doubt about that), but the costumes win for the level of attention they receive in each frame. I do have one problem with the art, and that does revolve around the generic pointy-chins. I'm not too sold on the pointy genre in general, though it is well done here. Nonetheless, the blocky upper bodies of virtually all the male characters, including a particularly muscle-bound, naked-from-the-waist-up shot in Episode 4, have a way of reminding me of H-titles. In a bad way, H-titles. But there are other times, and this is most of the time, where the faces work. Emperor Ryuuki gets credit for being done up like a lazy-eyed cat, rather in keeping with his character (and peculiarly in keeping with the seiyuu -- Tomokazu Seki is also responsible for the voice of cat boy Kyo from Fruits Basket). Interestingly, the best faces are on the oldest characters, where age lines are used with great effect to depict expressions on Prime Minister Shou Taishi, Sou Taifu (unfortunate victim of the blocky semi-nude male body art) and Sa Taiho.

The most loveable trait of this series for me is its use of Chinese proverbs and parables in order to exemplify its stories. Every title of every episode is a proverb, with the story revolving around it. As many of the lead characters are educated court officials, the decisions and discussions presented are reasonably authentic for their rank. Kou Shuurei, the girl who becomes the focus of this story, makes her mark as an unusual heroine by outwitting her contemporaries as well as showing genuine thought behind her decisions. She is ambitious, wanting to pursue a career as an official by taking part in the National Exams, and studious, as well as being traditionally virtuous in the historical sense. Wishful thinking? Yes, but considering we're looking at a historical drama, and rather like my other major shoujo watch this season, Ouran Kouko Host Club, I do appreciate the less we have a girl who calls out for the local pretty boy every time there's a scrap.

Music throughout the show has been dramatic and lovely. Shuurei plays an erhu, and the score features strings and Chinese orchestra-influences (maybe the 12 Girls Band really did work their magic on Japan). The OP and ED are both power ballads. The OP, "Hajimari no Kaze" (Oncoming Wind - lit. Wind of the Beginning) is pretty addictive, featuring an erhu and smoky vocals by Hirahara Ayaka.

I'm told Saiunkoku Monogatari is based on an ongoing series of 8 novels and 2 short story collections of the same name. This has definitely left its mark on the convoluted and careful plotting, quite necessary for a series like this. Not unexpectedly, it has been pointed out to me as well that a number of side stories and nuances that might be significant have been left out or shuffled, though the main body of the plot has remained faithful to the books. The pace is brisk though, again, very reminiscent of TVB dramas that resolved arcs within spans of 2-3 episodes, rather than wrapping around long pieces of plot across the series. This hardly means there aren't any larger pictures at work (clues point to an increasing number of them), but it is nice to be able to watch a show where the plot does not cause me to think ahead by tens, for a change. Given that the first 10 episodes have covered the first two volumes of novels, I wonder if this won't leave room for continuing OVAs post-TV series, as has happened with Fushigi Yuugi. 39 episodes are currently planned, another interesting similarity with TVB dramas.

For those of us dependent on subtitles, watching this series may prove to be difficult. There are currently two fansubbers covering this show, We Suck Fansubs (no, they don't) and Ayu. Both are excellent groups, providing essential notes (trust me, they're necessary) and solid dialogue. Both are in a race to see who can finish the show slower. So unless you're proficient at reading Chinese, the best means of watching Saiunkoku Monogatari is to grab raws from l33t-raws, and follow kagedreams's wonderfully detailed translations of the episodes. kagedreams is also responsible for Kagesai no Yume, the definitive Saiunkoku Monogatari (and Fruits Basket) fansite, as she also translates the Drama CD and most importantly, key scenes from the novels that didn't make it to the show.

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