So, last time we looked at a reverse harem that pretended at a strong lead and subversive humor but failed at both. This time, we look at a reverse harem that works partially because of its strong lead and partially because it only looks like a reverse harem.
THE STORY OF SAIUNKOKU (Saiunkoku Monogatari), adapted from the light novel by Sai Yukino & art by Kairi Yuki. First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010.
Saiunkoku is a far-off land, ruled by an emperor and guided by eight noble families. Shurei Hong is the only daughter of one of these noble families, but you wouldn't know it to look at her. Her father works as the court librarian at a mere pittance. Her estate is broken down and barren, staffed by their only servant Seiran. Shurei has to work various part time jobs just to support her family, but she can't hold the job she truly wants: civil servant. So, when a royal advisor offers her 500 pieces of gold to serve as an imperial consort to turn the emperor into a proper leader, Shurei can't resist.
Once installed at court, Shurei discovers that the emperor, Ryuki, is not what he seems. He has a reputation for shirking his duties and sleeping with men, but he is in truth smarter and craftier than he lets on, as well as haunted by past. Can Shurei turn Ryuki into a worthy emperor, and can Ryuki resist Shurei's charms?
Saiunkoku looks like yet another reverse harem on the surface, but it doesn't take much effort to discover that those trappings conceal a genuinely good story supported by a strong, independent lead.
Shurei is by and large the best thing about this series. She is clever, hardworking, and focused on her goals. While she knows there is no possibility of a woman becoming a civil servant, she studies nonetheless and sees the consort position as not only a good way to make some money, but to get as close as possible to her dream. Unlike the vast majority of shoujo heroines, she has no interest in romance. Ryuki falls for her quickly, but while she does become fond of him she rejects all his advances.
Of course, it's pretty easy to like Ryuki as well, as the reader learns along with Shurei that Ryuki isn't some dissolute bum, but instead an earnest puppy-dog of a young man, albeit one who has been scarred by the powermongering and abuse of his family along with the disappearance of his only sympathetic brother. Most of all, you get a very palpable sense of his growing admiration of Shurei, as he grows under guidance and comes to respect both her intelligence and good heart.
This in turn leads into yet another subplot, where another well-bred bishonen and his follower observe the changes under Shurei. For most of the volume, they serve mostly as a Greek chorus, but they too chose to align themselves to the emperor, setting into motion the ascent of Ryuki from a childish man to a respectable emperor. Best of all, while they too respect and admire Shurei, their interest isn't romantic either.
This is what I meant when I said that Saiunkoku only appeared to look like a reverse harem. There may be a bunch of pretty guys around, but they and the prospect of romance with them is not the main attraction here. Instead, the attraction is Shurei, her story, and the subtle but important changes she instills in her land, one person at a time.
Saiunkoku's artwork is solid, if not remarkable. The character designs are pretty average, and sadly this is yet another case where the artist can only draw one kind of bishonen face and has to keep dressing it up in different costumes and hair to fill out the cast. Also, this series is adapted from a light novel series and it shows - this is a very talkative manga, and as such the pages tend to be full of a lot of' talking heads. Panels tend to be small and the backgrounds are rather plain. There's not much to say about the art otherwise, but I can only wish that it was as remarkable as the story.
There are a few color pages in the front, along with a 4-koma omake from the artist in the back.
The Story of Saiunkoku is an underrated gem. Its average looking artwork and pandering premise conceal a solid story supported by a clever, interesting lead.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in 9 volumes, and all are currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!