In the country of Saiunkoku, the Eight Families of Colour are the most highly ranked in the land, but that doesn’t necessarily make them particularly well off. In particular, the household of Kou Shouka and his daughter Shuurei has fallen on some hard times, and so it is that Shuurei eagerly accepts a highly paid if somewhat unusual job to enter the palace and try to drum some knowledge and motivation into the current emperor, Shi Ryuuki. It will be no easy task, but little does Shuurei realise it will be only the first step on a long and arduous journey to fulfil her dream of becoming the country’s first female official…
When SaiMono first came to our screens, I have to admit that I had little inkling of how good it would turn out to be, or how thoroughly I would end up falling under its spell. If anything, at first glance it seemed as if it would turn out to be another Fushigi Yuugi, with a helpless young woman ending up getting surrounded with bishounen who all ultimately fall in love with her. Luckily, aside from the obvious proliferation of attractive male characters, this initial assessment was to prove to be very wrong.
Instead of being a mere shallow romp inside a convenient fantasy world, SaiMono is the tale of a fully realised country, complete with a solidly constructed political system, plots and intrigues behind the scenes, and just a dash of otherworldly magic. It may not be the most intricately complex of worlds, but nonetheless it is well developed enough to host a story that is always absorbing and addictive as it progresses from a simple arc about life at the palace to a lengthy tale of the obstacles Shuurei and her allies must face as they try to bring order to the troubled Sa Province. Of course, the story isn’t finished yet as the original novels are still ongoing, but thankfully there is at least a second season to fulfil the inevitable craving for more that results from watching the first season.
Beyond the story, however, it is the characters that make SaiMono really shine. At the heart of the series is Shuurei, who, as a strong female character, is a welcome change from the legions of women who seem unable to function without a man- it isn’t that she doesn’t feel for the men closest to her, but she is also able to function on her own strength even when it would be easier to rely on others. At the end of the series, it is both edifying and touching to realise how far she has come since the early days- and she isn’t the only one to have grown and developed over the course of the series. It would be lying to say that there aren’t static and borderline generic personalities amongst the somewhat extended cast, but there is also a core group of well-explored and fleshed our personalities whose journey is interesting to watch during the series and reflect on at the end.
Visually, SaiMono’s animation is not quite up to the level it could be, with the original character designs losing something in the adaptation, and hints of budget saving frequently appearing- which is not to say that the series looks particularly bad, just that it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have managed. Background music has a period feel which slowly grows on the viewer the more they hear it, until the haunting strings and traditional oriental themes become nigh essential in establishing the setting.
In many ways, my skill is not enough to convey the sheer excellence of SaiMono, a series that slowly builds on itself until the viewer expects nothing less than highest of quality each time they watch an episode. One of the best (if not the best) series to emerge from 2006, SaiMono should be essential watching for any anime fan.