Happy New Year, manga fans! A few notes before we kick off another year of great manga. First, I want to apologize for the lack of reviews over the holiday. I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis which kept me in bed for nearly two weeks, doing little besides sleeping and watching cartoons on Netflix. I’m still recovering, so I’ll be taking it easy, but things will be going back to normal soon. I didn’t get a chance to do a year end wrap up, and I won’t be doing one, but if you want to know what I thought the best titles of 2011 were, the Gift Guide I put together does that pretty well, really only leaving out some of the better yaoi titles I read this year, as well as the excellent Wandering Son. I’m also still trying to get rid of some manga, so check out that list here.
Title: The Story of Saiunkoku
Author: Sai Yukino, with art by Kairi Yura
Publisher: Viz Media (Shojo Beat)
Volume: Volume 5 (ongoing), $9.99
Vintage: 2010 by Kadokawa Shoten in Japan, November 2011 by Viz Media
Genre: Historical romance, drama
Having finished her time working in the Ministry of Finance, Shurei Hong returned to her every day life filled with odd jobs and studying. Quite suddenly, Emperor Ryuki Shi announced that women would be able to take the Imperial Civil Exam, effective immediately. Her dream now in sight, Shurei began an intense study regimen under the guidance of Koyu Ri. On a cold winter day, Shurei found herself chasing after a misbehaving boy in her class, and ended up falling into a freezing lake, leaving her with a severe cold. Now bedridden, Shurei is doing her best to get well so she can return to her studies. As Seiran cares for his beloved mistress, he is reminded of a time when Shurei fell ill as a child. His reminiscing is cut short when Shurei’s father rushes into the room in a panic, and insists on making a broth for his daughter. As Seiran tries to keep the kitchen casualties to a minimum, they are soon joined by General Ran and Master Koyu, who have come to check on Shurei. Desperate to keep Shoka out of the kitchen, Seiran ropes Ran and Koyu into helping him, but the chaos is quickly increased when Reishin Hong and Minister Ko also arrive to inquire after Shurei’s health. As things finally begin to settle down, the father of the aforementioned child (Ryushin) arrives to apologize for his son, and to report that the boy is missing. Seiran, Ran, and Koyu head into the mountains to find Ryushin, leaving the Hong brothers to have a heart-to-heart talk. Meanwhile, one final visitor arrives to see Shurei, and Emperor Ryuki, who is simply trying to tend to Shurei, is discovered in a rather suspicious position. Once Shurei recovers, it’s back to studying for the exams. However, she has other obligations to attend to, as well, like wrapping up her part time jobs, including an accounting job at a high class brothel. Unfortunately, she finds it hard to get her work done while being pestered by a young man who wants to marry her. Of course, Shurei being Shurei, she is entirely oblivious, and she’s rescued from Keicho’s bumbling advances by the luscious madam of the brothel, Kocho. Kocho announces that a rather strange guest arrived the previous night, and we are introduced to the young Eigetsu Toh. The hapless boy remembers little about the night before, and finds himself with little money, so Shurei suggests he work at the brothel with her and stay at her house. Eigetsu soon finds that he is missing something very important, and Seiran expects he may have been robbed by the Blue Scarf Gang, a group of thugs that has been recently growing in power by taking advantage of the flood of people coming into the capital for the upcoming Civil Exam. Their actions suggest they are outsiders, as the underworld of Kiyo is kept in strict check by the Syndicate, which is made up of the heads of the major underworld organizations. When Eigetsu is once again accosted by Blue Scarf members, Kocho sends her men out to bring him and Shurei to the brothel for safety. They’re soon joined by Ran, Koyu, and even Ryuki. As the group puts the pieces together, they realize the Blue Scarf Gang has been stealing the tablets given out to exam candidates, including Eigetsu’s. The upstart gang decides to make a move on the brothel, but it’s a mistake that will cost them everything. The volume wraps up with a side story that shows the day Ryuki and Shurei first met from Ryuki’s point of view, followed by another short story about the Hong brothers when Shurei was just a baby.
Another excellent volume of fun with one of my favorite shoujo heroines. There’s a lot of family dynamics on display this volume while Shurei is sick. Papa Hong’s ineptitude in the kitchen results in quite a bit of humor, as the idea of eating her father’s cooking terrifies the bedridden Shurei into a sudden burst of energy as she attempts to dissuade him. She fails, of course, and the kitchen turns into a complete disaster area in a matter of moments, leaving poor Seiran to deal with the mess. When Koyu and Ran arrives, Seiran quickly ropes them into kitchen duty to save his sanity…and the kitchen itself. Shoka’s intentions are loving, but dangerous, and everyone but him seems to know this. Then of course his high strung brother, Reishin arrives, along with a surprisingly unmasked and concerned Minister Ko. Reishin, with his brother complex and abounding love for his niece, is just as much trouble as Shoka, especially as he is still refusing to reveal himself to Shurei as her uncle. His presence does lead to a rather touching brotherly moment, as we see how concerned Reishin has been for the well being and happiness of his brother, in particular that he is able to lead a peaceful life after his dangerous time as a royal assassin. Shoka gently assures his brother that he has led a happy life. The three Hong brothers (with Kuro, who is rarely seen), though outwardly estranged, really do care a lot for each other, and with the extra story about them that’s included in the last few pages, this volume shows their true relationship quite well. Ryuki isn’t in this volume much, but he does get into a couple of humorous misunderstandings that draw the wrath of Shurei’s family, and later Shurei herself. The relationship between him and Shurei is still far from what he wants, of course, but for Shurei’s part, she’s thrilled that Ryuki has made her dream come true by allowing women to take the civil exam. Unfortunately for Ryuki, Shurei’s idea of “returning” to his side means that she will return to the palace and aid his rule as a civil servant. Ryuki seems to know this, but he loves her enough that he wants to see her happy making her own dreams come true, which is just what I love to see in a romance story like this. And, of course, Shurei is still Shurei, working hard, staying frugal, ignoring what society expects for a girl of her age in order to follow her dreams, kicking guys in the nuts…. In a delightful display of girl power, Shurei knocks some thugs over the head with her abacus and kicks them between the legs for good measure, proving that she is not only intelligent, but also capable of protecting herself and keeping her cool in a dicey situation. The girl power doesn’t stop with Shurei, though, as Kocho proves that extreme beauty can hide extreme power and ruthlessness underneath. We’re also introduced to the rather interesting Eigetsu in this volume, who reverts to an extremely violent persona when drunk. Fans of the anime are more familiar with him and his role in the story, as Eigetsu becomes a main character and shares Shurei’s journey. There’s a lot to look forward to as Shurei prepares to take the civil exam, but the result may drive Shurei even farther away from Ryuki’s side.
Review copy provided by Viz Media.