Saiunkoku Monogatari: a review

So I watch a lot of anime, I’ve mentioned, though not as much as some people. I found this anime, which originally aired through 2006 to 2008, while looking for something that would feed my insatiable hunger for more Akatsuki no Yona (which is still up there on my top three along with Ouran High School Host Club and Serei no Moribito). The anime ran for two separate seasons, each 39 episodes. It’s near impossible to find anywhere now except for online streaming sites. Trust me, I looked, mostly because the last ten episodes or so on the streaming site I use were incorrectly labeled and out of order. At least one or two were missing entirely. There is no frustration like watching 60+ episodes of anime only to have the ending rendered incomprehensible by disorder. I was going to buy the last few episodes if I could find them anywhere, but they are exorbitantly expensive.

Anyway there may be some mild spoilers but I am trying to keep this review short so hopefully nothing that will destroy your enjoyment.

Saiunkoku Monogatari translates as “Tales of Saiunkoku” loosely. In this case Saiunkoku is a country with a pseudo-Chinese/Japanese imperial regime. I won’t go too much into the world-building, except to say that you should remember that cultural rules apply: great families rule, supporting the emperor; the emperor himself is from one of those great families; a family can disown you if you have dishonored it in some fashion (or just pissed off the wrong person); women can also carry their family names, and do if their family is more powerful.

All of that cultural baggage is what is simultaneously greatly interesting about this anime, and also its Achilles heel.

Saiunkoku Monogatari is an example of an anime that is trying to do too many things at once. I enjoyed it immensely and still feel that the writing was not 100% solid. You can see this very clearly early on in the first season. The main character, Kou Shuurei, is from an impoverished noble family – or at least so it appears at first. She lives alone with her father in what is essentially a crumbling urban estate. The action begins when she is approached by a pair of upper echelon court officials with a proposition – they will pay her a huge sum of money if she becomes the consort of the emperor. She is made to understand that the emperor actually has no carnal interest in women, so she agrees to the exchange.

This looks like it is setting us up for a love comedy and I was okay with that. Indeed, the first several episodes take that track. At some point, however, the story transitions pretty drastically. Shuurei somehow leaves the emperor’s household (the how of this is not really explained, but the inference is that no one knew it was her??) and decides to become an imperial official. Problem is that women aren’t allowed to take the exams to become officials.

In an abrupt about-face, suddenly the story becomes about women shattering the glass ceiling while surrounded by numerous attractive men. Say what? I am here for this type of story, so I was excited! If this had been the story from the beginning I would have enjoyed it immensely more, actually. That said, the emperor is still in love with Shuurei, which at times gets annoying, honestly.

Through Shuurei’s dramas and efforts, we come to learn a lot about the political system of Saiunkoku. One thing becomes pretty clear in the first season: Shuurei’s political situation is a lot more complicated than it seemed at first. Though it’s variously acknowledged, it seems that Shuurei is the princess of the Kou family, a very prestigious family. Her father was dishonored (I won’t spoil why, or how complicated that dishonor was) but her uncles fully intend her to be married to the next heir of the Kou family (or to become that heir). The Kou family rivals the emperor in influence. So remember that cultural baggage I mentioned earlier? Kou Shuurei, princess of the Kou family, cannot marry the emperor – it would leave her family without issue. At no point does either Shuurei or the emperor she serves/maybe loves acknowledge this particular complication. One must assume one or both of them, being intelligent and powerful young things, would realize this is a problem, but it never comes up. Instead the barrier to their love is shown to be Shuurei’s career aspirations. In fact, those aspirations are several times framed as the barrier to Shuurei’s happiness, especially in the second season.

I am, of course, highly annoyed with this.

So to recap, we have: an anime that is set in a world whose rules are not consistently followed; a love comedy that turns into a political drama with almost no warning and not a lot of reason; and a story that should be about women breaking the glass ceiling, and is, except when it’s about shaming women for those same actions, over and over, and threatening them with sexual assault (which happens several times towards the end of both seasons). Shuurei is the cute little housewife who happens to have ambition, and she is punished for it as often as she is rewarded.

I loved Saiunkoku Monogatari‘s emphasis on a woman’s competency, on thoughtful and ethical governing, and the parts of the world-building that were solid. I disliked the pandering to male characters who were consistently jerks, the narrowly avoided sexual assaults, and the general emotional pounding that Shuurei receives for literally everything she does. So I guess the parts that paralleled real life. I would have enjoyed better world-building. My favorite parts were the interactions she had with other powerful women who were kicking ass and taking names, one way or another, and the lessons that Shuurei learned from them.

Would I watch this anime again? Probably. I know there were things I missed – a lot, as I mentioned, was going on with this story. I also recommend it. But do be conscious of its shortcomings.

 

 

 

 

 

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MystiCon schedule

Hey everyone! Taking a brief break from cover reveal stuff for a special MystiCon Schedule post!! Check out the panels, readings and signings I will be doing below.

Reading – Friday at 4:30 pm, Room 533

If you want to hear an excerpt from the upcoming Daughter of Madness, check in here! I’ll post the excerpt up on the blog the following weekend for those who can’t make it.

Panel – “It’s the End of the World”, Friday at 6:00pm, Ballroom C

We’re going to talk about apocalypses! I’ve got some fun projects I’m querying in this vein, and I LOVE dystopias, so I am very, very excited.

Signing – Saturday at 11:00 am

I’ll be taking over one of the signing tables at eleven! Come out to get free swag, sign up for the newsletter, buy a book, or chat about your favorite characters!

Panel – “Epic Scale Fiction”, Saturday at 4:00pm, Dogwood 1

I’ll probably mostly talk up the Creation Saga and the epic fantasies I have loved that have inspired it. Maybe there will be some LotR and ASOIAF references!

Panel – “I Must Create a System”, Sunday at 9:00am, Ballroom C

I actually have no clue what this panel is about or how I got on it, since I intentionally was trying not to schedule things for the morning. Wee!

Panel – “The Last Race Benders/Gender Benders”, Sunday at 11:00am, Dogwood 1

I am ridiculously excited to talk about gender/race bending in ANYTHING.

Panel – “Viewer’s Guide to Anime”, Sunday at 2:00pm, Ballroom E

Anime is the best. I will probably talk about my pet peeve of how everyone assumes all anime characters are white and obviously they are Japanese???? Unless otherwise specified??? Otherwise mostly glorious anime goofiness and how I love reverse harems. Yep.

I hope to see you all there! If you need more information, you can check out their website.

 

 

 

Some upcoming dates

Early post this week to update you on some upcoming events! And while we’re here, some discussion of what’s been going on in my life! You’ll get a regular post on Friday about some fun Daughter of Madness inspiration, but stop in with me for a moment to get up to date.

This weekend I will be at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, networking with other local writers. Maybe I’ll come out of it with a new critique group, or a lead on one! MystiCon is also coming up at the end of February, and I’m very excited to be on several panels for that con. I’ll remind you again closer to time. As always, all of my upcoming events are on my events page. Really, this reminder is the reasons for this post! I’ll likely have some books for signing, so if you see me, snag them while I have them!

In other news, things have been busy at the start of the new year, which is perhaps unsurprising. These separations are mostly artificial, after all. I’m happy to say that the house hunting is on the back-burner, for now, leaving me juggling Daughter of Madness (nearly done with a first draft, more on that soon) and wedding stuff mostly, in addition to the day job. This is a welcome state of affairs.

On the wedding front, in fact, we are making great progress. I’ll be getting married end of May in a rather informal affair, but we needed to check some basic boxes for sanity’s sake. A venue for people to gather in, since there wasn’t one big enough in the family that anyone felt up to volunteering, and a caterer to feed folks. Those, happily, are pretty much firmed up. There’s more to do – decorations are a huge thing, rings to order, and just generally coordinating an event like this is a big deal. So there is a lot more to do, but I finally feel like I’m moving instead of just standing still waiting for the train to hit me.

We also had snow at the beginning of the month! Followed by MLK day, it means that I’ve had a lot of time off recently to cook and hang out with folks. It’s been great for my writing productivity, honestly. These are the things that help me make words, after all. Good food, good time with friends, tea and beer and time outside. I even went for a run a few days ago, which was monumental!

 

A picture from one of my snow hikes.

 

In other news, I’ve been reading a lot and watching a lot. I devoured Dusk or Dawn or Dark or Day by Seanan McGuire this month, chewed through Earth Logic, sequel to Fire Logic, by Laurie J. Marks, and have also enjoyed The Hanged Man by P.N. Elrod. I’ve also been chipping away at Upside Downa collection of short stories put out by Apex Books. I promised them a review when I’m finished, but I forgot how slowly I read short story collections. I’ll have to keep that in mind for ARCs I snag in the future, since it’s not nice to keep folks waiting. It’s just hard for me to digest a story and move on to the next one – I can only read about three short stories in a day at most. The completion is the best part, after all.

Other story consumption has included watching Mushi-Shi with the S.O. He has really enjoyed it. The animation style is very clean, and the stories are eerie and whimsical and sometimes tragic. Some of it has unfortunately gotten stuck in my head – I’ve had a couple of Mushi-Shi inspired nightmares, actually. That said, it’s solid storytelling, and refreshingly original – or, at least, based so thoroughly in another culture that it feels original, which is just as good for a devourer of stories like me. We’ve also been watching Cowboy Bebop still, which is a very different anime of course.

For Christmas I got The Cat Returns, which is one of the few Studio Ghibli films I haven’t seen yet, so that is on our to-watch list. We’ve also got Grave of the Fireflies now, though that’s going to have to wait for the right time to watch since I know we’re both going to cry through it. That movie is so gut-wrenching, but it’s definitely worth watching. It gives great context to the effect of WWII on the Japanese, and it is beautifully done. So those are in the pipeline on the anime front. I’m excited to see what the S.O. thinks of them.

I’m also hoping to read March soon, since I got it for the S.O. for Christmas as well. He says its really good so far.

What have you been reading lately?

 

The fierce optimism of anime 

Recently, I’ve been getting back into anime, and it’s been remarkably nostalgic. My tastes in anime are eclectic, ranging from shoujo romances to action packed horror stories. I’ve been watching anime off and on for a long time, starting as many in my generation did with an early induction via Adult Swim. Anime such as Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Wolf’s Rain, and InuYasha were early influences, though, being a child in the early 90s, I also caught the dubbed Sailor Moon when I was only five or six. So me and anime have a long history.

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Recent anime that I have watched and loved include Princess JellyfishSeirei no Moribitoand Your Lie in April, among many others. I’m also watching Bloodivores, which is honestly a terrible title but so far a really interesting premise. There’s a surprisingly aware critique of predatory institutional systems within the world-building of this anime, even if the primary emphasis is the action. I’ve also been following Watashi ga Motete Dousunda, which, while engaging in a fair bit of bodyshaming, also manages to embrace some pretty intense nerd-culture. You take the good with the bad with anime, unfortunately, but not without being mindful of what is good and bad. There are anime I will recommend with little reservation, and then there are anime I will watch, love, and critique thoroughly if you ask me. Though to be fair I probably grant more leeway with anime than with any other medium, because it holds such a special place in my heart.

Despite the fact that some of these anime were and are incredibly problematic in their representations of race, gender, and sexuality, their fierce optimism never fails to lift me up. There is a clarity and beauty to their portrayal of the world, even if it is only the beauty of a first kiss. It seems innocent. It’s not – anime often deals with profoundly deep and dark concepts, underneath the glitter and sparkle. Take Ouran High School Host Club for example. I usually watch this one every spring, when the cherry blossoms are blooming. It just seems an appropriate time to watch an anime whose core themes are about young love and becoming the adult you will be. But Ouran also delves into dark things beautifully – bullying, classism, sexism to some extent, and, most importantly, the darknesses we each carry in all of us. That is, perhaps, the greatest lesson to take from the stories told in shoujo. Our darknesses define us, but we need not become them. We can own them, but not be lost to them.

Some of my favorite anime of all time include this theme. Movies from Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon remind me of the beauty and absurdity of life respectively. One of my favorite animes of all time, Akatsuki no Yona, walks this line like a tightrope. The main character, Yona, is a spoiled princess at first, who quickly falls into a nightmare when she sees her father murdered by the man she planned to marry. Saved from the same fate, she escapes with her childhood friend and protector and finds herself caught up in a dramatic quest to save her country and fulfill an age-old prophecy. Yona loses everything, and she is very conscious of that loss. She never lets go of it or seeks to erase or forget it. It doesn’t hold her down, either. She is strong enough to carry it with her and allow herself to be forged into something new by its weight. Still, the creators of the manga and associated anime adaptation never forget humor – amidst all the darkness, there are numerous cheeky interactions between Yona and her traveling companions which warm the heart. Those moments of levity make the tragedies all the more poignant, for me.

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Anime contains stories of improbable redemption, of clear sight, and of moving forward. We are taught to advance, to not stop laughing, to admire the fleeting beauty of life. To understand that the darkness and flaws of living make it more admirable, not less so. Sometimes I just need those stories to remind me of what matters. They give me the strength to get up and go when my spirit is flagging. I am incredibly hopeful that I might create something, someday, that has the same effect on a reader. I want to speak to someone so deeply that it helps them keep going when they are perhaps not sure why they are trying.

So, do you watch anime? What kinds of anime are your favorites? I’m always looking for recommendations!

 

Hurricane Heels, by Isabel Yap

So Book Smugglers hooked me up with an ARC of Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap, and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

The book will be released on December 5th, which is tomorrow, so this is a special Sunday book post. You may see some more of these as I get more ARCs in the future. The review will be spoiler-free as much as I can manage, so no major plot points given away, and therefore pretty short. So no need to run screaming in fear of spoiling a good book.

The concept behind this book is pretty straightforward at first blush. It is a “magical girl” novel, following tropes of the anime genre that gave rise to such classics as Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica. That said, this is not a fluffy book. There are some serious moral questions raised about the prospect of being a child, as these girls generally are, gifted with powers and expected to fight unnameable evils, risking their lives for the good of humankind and some nebulous promise of victory. There’s also some good delving into PTSD and the psychological pressure associated with a life of endless battles.

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Picture from the first chapter of Hurricane Heels.

The book follows five girls who have all been selected to fight evils called Greystones. Like an RPG, each Greystone releases a glass heart, which contains energy that allows their divine benefactor, the goddess (otherwise unnamed) to gain power. The story takes place primarily in the weeks leading up to the wedding of one of the five, Selena. Simultaneous flashbacks show the group’s history together, building their characters and making you care about them. Yap manages the timelines adeptly in each chapter, building a whole out of fragmented moments. The structure of this book actually reminded me of Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes Seanan McGuire’s work.

In addition, the book references its anime inspiration with some great drawings of the viewpoint characters at the beginning of each chapter. My only wish was for a drawing of all of the girls together at the beginning, since it would have helped me to keep them apart in my head better. I found the earliest chapter hard to follow as I assigned names to personalities and histories, but I don’t know if that was due to me reading it on my phone (quite possible). Maybe the cover will show all of them together – I’m very excited to see it!

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Please have a cover that looks like this.

If you’re into a dark re-imagining of Sailor Moon with great representation of POC and LGBTQ folks, this is the book for you. Prepare yourself for a lot of wedding talk, bachelorette parties, and monster guts.

EDIT: So this is the actual cover for Hurricane Heels! I like it, though I still want to see some fanart of them all arrayed Sailor-Senshi style.

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Anime: love it and hate it

Warning, folks. This is a long one.

There are some things that really exhaust me when it comes to anime.

I’ve been watching anime off and on for pretty much as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was totally hooked on Sailor Moon, and the Japanese live-action import of Power Rangers. I would sing the Sailor Moon theme song (the English version, of course – I was only slightly bilingual at the time, having not moved on to any other language besides Spanish) and do flips on the monkey bars at school. My favorites were Sailor Venus, because she was the strongest, and Sailor Mars, because she was the prettiest.

Anime dropped off the radar for a couple of years after that. A notable exception was when my dad brought home Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke sometime around middle school. That film blew my mind, needless to say, and remains one of my favorite movies. Not long after, my brother and I discovered Toonami, then airing typical shounen animes like Dragonball Z and Inuyasha. We also encountered some heavier stuff. Wolf’s Rain comes to mind as a particularly phenomenal and scarring work in later years. My dad really hated for us to stay up and watch anime, because he didn’t want us up after he had gone to bed. The anime only came on after midnight, so it was a constant battle.

There were no shoujo anime that I remember on Toonami. The stories were all about huge battles and epic quests. This in and of itself is not a bad thing – I’m a fan of huge battles and epic quests. But it’s notable that the only female characters that I really remember from the anime in my teen years are the cast of Outlaw Star, which has remained one of my favorites to this day, and Kagome from Inuyasha. I don’t think I ever remember seeing a woman on the episodes of Dragonball that I watched. The women on screen, with the exception of Aisha and Suzuka, were not expected to do anything particularly. They were pawns to the power they held, dragged into situations far beyond them. At least Kagome and Melfina managed to find themselves eventually, which may be why I remember them so fondly.

As an adult, I have continued to watch anime. I even collect it now. I have logged hours and hours. Every once in a while, an anime will come along that blows my mind. Akatsuki no Yona, Serei no MoribitoPrincess Jellyfish, Durarara!!!, to name a few. And of course you have to love the old classics. But I find that there are some tropes that repeat over and over that can be really exhausting for me.

This week, I am watching Kuromukuro, a Netflix original. A friend recommended this one to me, actually. I was skeptical – I’m not a huge fan of mecha anime outside of classics like Gundam Wing. It’s been done, and done again, and then done some more. But the first episode was interesting, the premise kind of caught my attention, so I’ve been watching it. And I’m so frustrated.

Kuromukuro falls into a tired trope that reoccurs often in anime as an art form, especially in shounen anime. There is a girl. She sort of has an identity? She has people who surround her, tenuous relationships, unformed dreams, so I guess that counts. But those dreams never go anywhere. Unforeseen circumstances catch her up, and she ends up bobbing in the wake of some powerful male figure. Usually she cries about it somewhere in there. He needs her around to accomplish his goals, and he may pay lip service to her autonomy, but the plot itself never backs up his altruism. She just doesn’t do anything. She’s a magical object. You only need her to make the machine run. A glorified key that can talk.

I’d almost rather that girl didn’t exist. I’d almost rather the story just was about the man. At least it would not feel so degrading. There are insipid people about in the world, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes you might even need them for something. But unless it moves your plot, your message, to write that character, I personally don’t want to read about them. That would be true if they were male or female.

The issue is simply that these weak, deadweight characters are so often female that it almost becomes synonymous. When every woman’s story is hijacked by a man, when her only powers are domestic or romantic in a plot driven by glorious battles, it’s incongruous. And it sends a message that women’s stories are only worth telling if there is an interesting hypermasculine character to carry them forward. I’m not here for that. I’m not here for lazy writing that falls back on tired tropes about the uselessness of women.

Anime can be a wonderful medium. I have had my brain stretched so many times by this stuff, and I love it. I love Japanese, too. It has this speckled rhythm that pleases me, and the writing system is fascinating. But I do get tired sometimes. As with all mediums, there are genres and tropes which exhaust me. I’m sure this is not the last time that I will be disgusted by a writer’s treatment of a female character, either. I won’t stop watching anime anytime soon, but I’m definitely going to have to take a break from shounen for a bit after this experience.