The Story of Saiunkoku, Vol 9.

The Story of Saiunkoku, Vol. 9 by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura

It is rare for a manga series to end leaving me wishing that it was twice as long, but that is exactly what happened as I was reading the final ninth volume of Story of Saiunkoku. The eighth volume was a natural stopping point, and this volume has some side stories that help shed some light on the histories of selected members of the supporting cast. This volume might not be totally necessary to round out Shurei’s main story, but fans of the series will enjoy visiting with the extended Hong clan and the amazingly eccentric Ryuren.

The first story, “So Began the Fairy Tale” focuses on Shurei’s father, giving greater background into the more ruthless personality behind his smiling exterior. While he’s an amazingly gentle and wonderful father, his past as an assassin gives a bit of an edge to all of his actions in the manga. Here we see the beginnings of his ability to plot as he takes action to make sure that the Hong clan isn’t endangered. “Hurricane Ryuren Strikes the Capital” flashes back to the examination period, where we see Shurei and Eigetsu start to cement their friendship with the eccentric Ryuren despite his crazy clothes, horrible flute playing, and tendency to make odd pronouncements. This story ends up serving as a meditation on the nature of friendship, even as Shurei and Egitsu’s overtures to Ryuren wind up taking them on a detour through the gambling underworld. The final story focuses on the Hong family again, with “Someday I Will Come to You (Though I Love You, How Far You Are From Me)” focusing on Shurei’s uncle Reishin Hong’s bizarre psychological hang-ups. This volume featured plenty of humor, as a series of masks duplicating the expressions of Shurei’s father are put to an unorthodox use, and the reactions Ryuren accidentally provokes from the people surrounding him are always funny.

It does make me a little sad knowing that there’s a very long light novel series containing more adventures of The Story of Saiunkoku that we’ll never see translated here, but the manga adaptation of the story was certainly fun to read. This is going to be a “keeper” series for me, as I can see myself wanting to reread this every few years. It is so unusual to find a shoujo ending where the happy ending for the heroine is a life of civil service as opposed to everything wrapping up nicely with a romantic interest. Many things combined to make this an entertaining manga – the clear art, fun supporting cast, and the blend of humor and drama made this manga very enjoyable.

Story of Saiunkoku, Vol 8. by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino

Story of Saiunkoku, Vol 8. by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino

I enjoy the meditative pace of Story of Saiunkoku. By the end of this volume plucky heroine and trailblazing civil servant Shurei Hong is finally launched at another stage of her life, and the fact that it took eight volumes for her to experience a new adventure doesn’t bother me at all. The main reason why I enjoy this series so much is the fact that the manga features such a rich variety of characters, all of whom are sympathetic and interesting in different ways. As the first and only woman to pass the civil servant exam, Shurei has been accused of cheating and must clear her name. It is always a bit heartwarming how all the people that surround Shurei come together to support her. She’s a very capable young woman, but the path that she’s chosen is so incredibly difficult that it is a good thing that she has so many friends and relatives who work behind the scenes to make sure that she can succeed on her own terms.

It turns out that the burdensome paperwork that Shurei and Eigetsu were processing also not so coincidentally included the clues to major financial irregularities in the Ministry of Rites whose head was determined to prevent Shurei from becoming a civil servant. Shurei and Eigetsu’s hazing resulted in their peers becoming more sympathetic to them, and the duo was also able to research and create a report that contained very damning evidence about an enemy that they didn’t even know they had. Supporting cast members that come to the forefront in this volume include Shurei’s uncle Renshin Hong and Minister Ko, whose devastating beauty ends up being a weapon for Shurei when he actually takes off his mask in court to force a confession from the Minister of Rites. There’s plenty of humor in this scene, as the onlookers are warned that if they look at Minister Ko’s face they will lose their ability to concentrate on work for years, their home life will collapse, and “in the worst case, you may lose your mind.”

There’s a great scene between Shurei and Ryuki towards the end of the volume where he demonstrates his trust in her by appointing her as a civil servant even though he would prefer that she stay as his bride. Shurei and Eigetsu embark on a new phase of their lives as civil servants together, but life can’t be boring when they are about to be sent to govern the most rebellious province in the land, aided mainly by the roguish Ensei. This volume also features a very lighthearted story about a cross-dressing contest that Shurei tries to make her male friends participate in because she’s so enthusiastic about the grand prize of many bales of rice. I think we’re catching up to the Japanese releases of this manga and the next volume is the final one. I’ll be a bit disappointed since I believe the light novel version of the story covers much more than the manga. Still, I’ll be happy with whatever I can read from this series.

Story of Saiunkoku Volume 7

Story of Saiunkoku Volume 7 by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura

One of the things that struck me while reading this latest volume of Story of Saiunkoku is how skilled the creators of this manga are at ratcheting up the dramatic tension. A long storyline centered on the travails and hazing of new bureaucrats in a historic fantasy country resembling China doesn’t seem like it would be a great setting for swashbuckling action and extremes of emotion, but that’s one of the things that Story of Saiunkoku does so well. Shurei and Eigetsu continue to suffer a workload that goes way beyond the norm for new civil servants in their positions, as they are singled out for being female and young respectively. Their uncomplaining attitude towards their unfair situation is beginning to win them allies, as some of their colleagues admit that having female civil servants around might be a good thing, and one of their fellow rookies even takes time out of his own schedule to help them out. I knew that something crazy was going to happen by the end of the volume when I saw that Shurei’s surrogate mother/brothel owner/crimeboss Kocho acting docile and subservient to an official that had targeted Shurei. I knew that Kocho was going to act in Shurei’s best interests and force a confrontation, and that’s what ended up happening.

One of the nice things about Story of Saiunkoku is that each volume seems to be able to cram in an incredible amount of intrigue and personal development in each volume. With such a large cast, it is impossible for every character to be featured in each volume, but the manga does take the time to focus on character development. I was happy to see that uptight directionally challenged Koyu got his chance in the spotlight in this volume, as he wonders exactly what his place is in his adopted family of the Hong clan. He struggles a bit to understand the attitude of his adopted father (Shurei’s uncle) but then realizes exactly how much he is valued and cared for.

There were plenty of great moments in this volume. Kocho was heroic as only a crime boss/madam can be. Eigetsu’s drunken violent alter ego Yogetsu came out to smack down his and Shurei’s enemies. Shurei and the Emperor Ryuki had a great scene towards the end of the volume where she commented to him that he used her as bait to draw out some hidden plots and said “Thank you for treating me as an official in your government.” Sometimes after a series gets past the five volume mark, I start to experience a bit of fatigue if the story isn’t truly engaging. That’s never a problem with Story of Saiunkoku, which always seems to balance just the right amounts of humor, excitement, and character growth in each volume.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Story of Saiunkoku Volume 6

I’m always happy to see a new volume of this series, which features one of the most sympathetic heroines of shoujo manga. Here we see that while Shurei might pass her civil service exams, her troubles are just beginning. This volume picks up in the middle of a gang fight in a brothel, as Shurei and the young scholar Eigetsu fight the Blue Scarf Gang that has been running around stealing and ransoming examination tokens. Eigetsu turns out to be an unwitting master at drunken boxing, because when he gets splashed by alcohol he turns into the deranged fighter Yogetsu, making him a desirable recruit for anyone in the underworld needing a strong ally.

Ryuki shows his strong promise as a leader when he turns up to extract his future civil servants from gang fighting, striking an amiable deal with the underworld syndicates that control the black market in his city. Now Shurei and Eigetsu are ready to tackle their exams, and they pass while setting records. Eigetsu is the youngest student ever to pass first, Shurei passes in third place, and the eccentric Ryuren Ran passes in second place. Egitsu and Shurei are singled out for the type of harsh hazing that only lifetime bureaucrats would be fiendish enough to survive. While being able to take the exams as a woman was Shurei’s ambition for so long, now she has new tasks to endure if she’s going to fulfill her dream of being a civil servant. One of the things that makes Shurei such a pleasant heroine to root for is that even though she’s suffering, she isn’t held up as a model of saintly behavior. She has a temper and she rants about the horrible treatment she has to endure plenty of times before deciding to stick it out just a bit longer. Ryuki continues to do what he can to protect her, although his role is limited to just watching over Shurei without intervening. Seeing him watch Shurei work out her own problems shows how much he’s evolved as a character since the start of the series, when his previous impulsive tendencies would probably have botched Shurei’s attempts at carving her own path. He’s happy for her success, but ambivalent about her eventual role in government because it will naturally set her at a greater distance from him. Seeing these paradoxical feelings develop as Shurei and Ryuki grow as adults is part of what makes Story of Saiunkoku so entertaining.