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Saiunkoku Monogatari (TV Series) Season 1

When I was a kid, I used to really love watching Chinese period soaps. Watching TVB period dramas at 6PM every weekday on Malaysian TV was just one of those childhood experiences I can't help but think of fondly. While my real love was for Cantonese wuxia dramas, I would watch anything set in the Qing and under, particularly if the story involved courtly intrigue. I loved the costumes, adored the standard TVB sets (once you saw a few of these shows, you'd have seen all the movie sets in their arsenal) and did my damndest best to keep up with the archaic Cantonese/Mandarin, even with the Malay subtitles. I still grab at any period drama I can get my paws on, even though that's become increasingly fewer and far between.

So when I heard about Saiunkoku Monogatari (Tale of the Land of Many-Coloured Clouds), a fantastical animated drama set in almost-Sung Dynasty China, I couldn't just pass it by. I must say the prognosis wasn't great at the start. Only one group, We Suck Fansubs, was doing this show at all. The indefatigable ShadowDreams translated parts of the novels. People were largely describing it as a kind of Fushigi Yuugi, which frankly is one of the most disturbing ways you could describe a show I can think of (also see: Ayashi no Ceres). I went ahead and downloaded the first couple of eps anyway. This is everything I remembered about TVB dramas on a stick, albeit in an anime format. The costumes, the cheap choreography (more on that later), the pretty but reusable sets (more on that too) and the requisite romance story wrapped around court politics were all comfortingly familiar.

Saiunkoku is the story of a Kou Shuurei, a girl aspiring to be a court official in the ancient land of Saiunkoku. Her problem is simple: Saiunkoku does not allow women to participate in politics. The series follows her quest to petition the Emperor to participate in the national exams. It sounds all very feminist. In fact, it kind of is. Shuurei is a somewhat typical shoujo heroine -- loud, a bit spunky, woefully innocent, smarter than the average bear and guaranteed to make every male member of the cast become very fond of her. This works, and yet it doesn't, in a few ways. One of my pet peeves about shoujo heroines is that they can be rocket scientists and heroes, but they're still meant to be the epitome of 'feminine' ideals, like a kind of time warp to an era where women had to be chivalrously upheld. Shuurei suffers the same thing: she's the second smartest person in Saiunkoku and not without considerable influence, but she can also cook, clean, embroider and wear make up. Before I rock the boat further, let me say, it's all well and good if a person wants to be multi-skilled on their own, but suggesting and encouraging the super woman ideal of career woman + good wife as a virtuous goal for young women is the sort of thing that sets basic human rights back a few decades. I am never going to stop being disturbed that virtually a whole genre of the mass media is built to support this ideal, and this mind you, is why I usually avoid shoujo like the plague.

On the other hand, Shuurei is a character in a period setting, when women were expected to fulfill the role of good wives. The show sets her up very early on for her homemaking skills to develop because of unfortunate circumstances. Furthermore, her main argument for her own cause is that she is very much a normal girl (capable of behaving like normal girls of her time) who would like equal opportunities to serve and protect her country. The fact that I have to remind myself of this every time I hear lines like, "Make up is the war paint of a woman," and that women of that era were supposed to do the cooking and washing notwithstanding, it works.

To the good stuff! The romantic element of Saiunkoku is definitely one of the highlights of the show. Shuurei places a premium on her studies and her career, deliberately pushing away suitors because she has a life to lead first. This creates a nice twist on the usual round of boys staring longingly at the lead girl -- it is nice to have a series where the menfolk genuinely respect the idea of space. No strained cries of "Miyaka!" and "Tamahome!" here. Stolen kisses get slaps. Overbearing lovestricken boys get stomped. The evil conniving bastard type really messes the girl up. Not even pretend mess up to be bandaged by the most suitable suitor. This is one of the first romantic anime shows I've watched where an evil character truly manages to be so merciless, and in that fashion, completely tragic. By the end of the last arc, I was really rooting for the dude, even though I knew it was going to end up in flames.

... so we see that my idea of the ideal romantic show may not be the average dating sim, yes...

Now's a good time to say I have a severe liking for any show with poisoning games. Blame it on too many Jin Yong TVB adaptations, but I like my dishonourable poisoning games. My real incentive for watching Saiunkoku Monogatari is the sheer political intrigue of the imperial court, as people engage in social murdering and entire clans gut themselves out for power. The intrigue is completely meshed with the drama, providing a riveting watch. There's lost imperial offspring (no courtly series worth its salt can live without that), power-mad viziers, secret assassins, disguised officials, blackmail and entrapment, catfighting concubines, the occasional demi-god and semi-devil -- every kind of corruption you'd probably find in The Empress Dowager or Qin Shih Huang type shows. To supplement this, the series employs a cast of hundreds, introducing new folks at a clip, although many are ultimately specific to their arcs. The writing is predominantly good. Characters are memorable, threads easily traceable and the dialogue fairly sharp. Each episode title is a proverb reflecting the theme of the episodes in question. At least one character can usually be heard reciting the proverb to explain their situation within the episode. It sounds a bit corny, but regular Chinese speech, and particularly for period dramas, often use globs of ancient wisdom. I thought it added a nice touch.

Voice acting and the musical soundtrack for the series is top notch. Characters sound their age, class and educational level (it may seem odd to say this, but any story involving the hiring and firing of court officials needs to sound like someone read the stat sheets). The music is just amazing. Shuurei plays the erhu (the Chinese violin), and the strains of its singular heartbreak is the kind of thing that works better than any orchestra. There are hints of an orchestra in this too. Regular flushes of violins and the dramatic dance of Spanish guitars are tastefully worked behind all the right scenes. The opening song is suitably hopeful set to a soaring mix of Chinese and Western instruments, with a mildly husky and very pleasant Hirahara Ayaka to sing the tale...and a pop beat. The ending theme is the thoughtful mirror to the opening theme -- just a little too sappy for my tastes, but it is still pleasant to listen to before the episode previews.

Good characterization and an intriguing storyline does come at a price. Saiunkoku has some of the cheapest looking animation for a modern anime I've seen yet. It's comparable to Fushigi Yuugi, or heaven forbid, Ayashi no Ceres, and both of these shows are much older. The action choreography is so bad as to be able to make a Hamstery heart *break*. People run around like they were advertising a Baywatch beach-running scene for a supermarket perfume. I'm even willing to concede Gakuen Heaven might have better animation.* Then, as if to completely destroy any hope of a better next week, the fighting choreography largely involves someone swinging a sword once in a threatening manner and five or six opponents at about five feet away falling on their backs in response, with stills. There are a couple of instances where the choreography was worth writing home about -- once in a major fight between the Emperor and assasins at the end of the first arc, and a nice bit of threatening sword foreplay at the end of the best darned poisoning in the whole show at the end of the last arc. That's twice in 39 episodes and long enough. However, a minor consolation in all this does exist. The show uses unmoving or recycled animation so often, it's easy to appreciate the lush costuming before it flies away.

Again, Saiunkoku Monogatari has 39 episodes. The series is based on an ongoing collection of novels (at the time of writing, 12 volumes in all) by Yukino Sai, which have also been turned into a manga series. A second season of Saiunkoku begins in April 2007. It's full of pretty men and more conniving bastards you can swing a cup of poisoned jiu at, so yes I'm watching it.

A list of fansubbers follows:

We Suck Fansubs - The original and the best. They do translate everything though, including the titles and ranks of all the officials. This style can come in handy when used to identify where each character stands on the political strata quickly. I like them because they take pains to explain the proverbs that start each episode, point out where the show engages in kanji word play, give footnotes where the show references other popular (ancient) literature, detail the food appearing on the show (I have to love anyone who leaves me food notes) and even explain that the Japanese apparently boil their char siu rather than roast it. That last bit was definitely interesting to know -- the kanji for char siu refers to a rotisserie, so boiled char siu is a new cultural concept to me. (FYI, 2007 is also the Year of the Char Siu.)

ShadowDreams - Her notes on the novels are second to none. These add a lot of depth to the things the anime didn't cover. I completely dig the extra characterization that wasn't ported over to the screen. Her translations of the Saiunkoku scripts were also invaluable when only raws of the episodes were available. She eventually took to subbing the series on her own, and is at least head to head with WSF at around Episode 34. ShadowDreams tends to retain the original Japanese names for titles and ranks, which may get slightly confusing, but her (extensive) notes on the way the characters address each other are available on her site.

KissSubs - A recent entry into the Saiunkoku game. They're up to around Episode 22 at the moment. Their translation style is a balance between keeping familial ranks and government positions. Each episode usually comes with a long note at the end about one of the subjects raised during the show, like flower tea or the green longjing. One of the benefits of KissSubs is that they also include humorous outtakes from the novels as part of their notes.

* I watched the last 10 minutes of 8 episodes of Gakuen Heaven (Youtube this at your own risk) because I was told the episode previews were done by the cast in hamster suits parodying Hamutaro. The effort was short-lived, even if I found the parodying spot on, because Gakuen Heaven is yaoi most dire, with a girl-with-a-penis hero typical of everything I hate most about yaoi titles. Cruel gods make yaoi Hamutaro parodies and Hamster no Kami-sama in maid anime so I can lose sleep.



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 29th, 2007 06:18 pm (UTC)
Regarding TVB period dramas, I was all about the costumes. (even then, I was such a costume whore!)
Mar. 30th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC)
*GRINS* I have a thing for hairpins. Not like I know how to use them myself or anything.
Mar. 30th, 2007 03:00 am (UTC)
"Gakuen Heaven is yaoi most dire"

Hmm, I just saw the first ep of that and it wasn't really bad at all. *plans to watch a few more*
Mar. 30th, 2007 05:25 am (UTC)
Yes, dear Wolfie, but your resistance to yaoi is probably far, far more dire than -- REALMAYER *SQUEE*!

*coughs* Still, y'know, Mokie lured me over into watching the last 2 minutes of Gakuen for the hamsters...
Mar. 31st, 2007 11:32 am (UTC)
Meh! In general, yaoi sucks because it's usually by women for women. Note the frequent use of slender androgynous characters who end up acting more silly and feminine than most 13 year-old japanese school girls. Makes me cringe.

Yeah, ok, Gakuen Heaven is more than a bit like that but no worse than most harem shows. :o)
Mar. 31st, 2007 12:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Wolfie, for nutshelling my entire distaste with yaoi. Especially because it's you! :)

Seriously, it's the same reason a lot of shoujo gets on my nerves. And if I can barely take it when the heroines are actual girls, I can't very well sit around and watch the same darn concept when the heroines are boys thinly disguised as girls.

Harem shows disturb me. They just do. It's like a small piece of my brain dies when I try to go near them. 8 episodes of Gakuen Heaven, even if it was just the last 10 minutes, with 2 minutes taken out due to the credits and another 2 minutes of Hamutaro parodies was more than I could take.

Therefore! I'm hiding under titles with death gods, swordfighting and mecha until Rukia-like characters dominate the earth. *nodnodnod*
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )