You're watching a show; your head begins to feel heavy and you can't seem to find a comfortable position. Your eyes begin wandering around the room; you look down, you notice how dusty you've let you desk get. Before you know it, the desk is sparkling clean and entirely reorganized, and meanwhile that show you were watching has become nothing but background noise.
This is an example of what I expect to be a typical viewer's experience while watching The Story of Saiunkoku. Despite my best efforts to pay close attention, I found myself checking my e-mail, chatting on MSN, and watching the latest Zero-Punctuation. Admittedly, I hold a bit of a bias against dramas as history has taught me most are subpar with few redeeming qualities, and this is no exception.
Shurei Hong has a dream of one day becoming a government official so she can better the country of Saiunkoku. The plot takes the audience on a journey across several story arcs as her dream matures. While she comes from one of the most revered and powerful clans in the country, she's lived much of her life impoverished; her father has a highly respected but low-paying job, and any wealth the family did have was used up helping those in need.
The emperor, Ryuki Shi, shows no interest in politics or his country. One of his three advisors, Yosei Sho, believes Shurei is just the person to set him on the right path. Advisor Sho makes an offer to Shurei: 500 gold coins to become the emperor's consort for the purpose of molding him into a good ruler. With her family's financial difficulties in mind, she readily accepts - and this is where The Story of Saiunkoku begins.
This initial story arc proves the high point of the series. The bonds formed between cast members are compelling and unique. Enough comedy is used to break things up, but not so much that it overshadows the drama. The events which transpire along with the information presented to us create a feeling of conflict, conspiracy, and looming threat. It's everything a good drama should be, albeit somewhat quick to come to a conclusion.
Credit where it's due, for a show that has so many story arcs, they are all brilliantly interwoven in a flawless, coherent manner. Unfortunately, after the beginning chapter the storylines become increasingly drawn out and uninteresting: In fact it would be fair to say they are uninteresting because they are drawn out. The relations that were made early on remain mostly stagnant; over the course of 39 episodes you'd expect some change.
While the humor wasn't a focal point in the beginning, later on its absence weighs heavily on the viewer. To make matters worse the drama becomes not so dramatic. The tension and mystery of the first chapter is gone, and what we are left with is some kind of fluffy muck. I'm well aware that conflicts exist throughout the series, however they feel like nothing more than footnotes as the story takes a backseat to the interactions between characters.
Being a light-hearted drama is one thing but The Story of Saiunkoku takes it to another level. Picture if you will the Carebears without Professor Coldheart or the Smurfs without Gargamel, and that would give you a pretty accurate impression of Saiunkoku. For the most part the country's citizens are all good-natured and cheerful despite their lot in life or the things they've done.
Such a large portion of the cast maintains secret identities and alter egos that I couldn't allow it to go unmentioned. It'd be akin to Speed Racer, if Speed Racer had ten masked racers cruising around, all of which were secretly Speed's family members.
Saiunkoku itself is a mixture of medieval Japanese and Chinese stereotypes, culminating in to a setting that has no real style or self-identity. A few supernatural elements are tossed in needlessly, they have no bearing on the course of the story nor do they make this dull "fantasy" world the least bit wondrous.
From a production stand point the visual style is decent enough. The animation on the other hand is - this is a drama, silly! Who needs that 'animation' stuff? A few static images of pretty boys in fancy clothes, a twinkle in the eye here, a smile there, pan across the background for good measure - what more could you ask for?! The Japanese voice acting is as good as any show could possibly have. The dubs are fairly flat, but you'll find them tolerable because the alternative is keeping your eyes glued to the screen to read subs.
Bottom-line: The Story of Saiunkoku starts out with enough promise, however after its initial high point the story arcs grow more and more drawn out, and the rest of the series becomes less than enjoyable. 39 episodes is just too much of this series - this coming from a guy who marathoned Fushigi Yugi in a single sitting.
Recommendation: Young girls who dream of becoming princesses may enjoy this, though truth be told I doubt it would be flashy enough to hold their attention. If you're a hardcore fan of dramas you may enjoy the masterfully spun story arcs, and likely not much else.
Salvan Bonaminio also thinks voodoo dolls make excellent gifts while courting a young lady.