The Summer of Saiunkoku continues, this time in article form!
Once upon a time, a poor little girl named Hong Shurei did not dream of marrying a prince. Instead, Shurei saw the struggles of the people around her and dreamed of becoming a civil servant—an impossible dream, for women were banned from public office. Yet when the law changed to allow her entry, Shurei soon learned her dream was not without its nightmares, for deep-seated prejudices loomed everywhere she looked, and these were not the sort of monsters one could draw a sword and slay.
Despite its fantastical shoujo setting, The Story of Saiunkoku is no traditional fairy tale, and Shurei’s journey is much closer to unjust reality than escapist fiction. This allows the series to explore systemic oppression, workplace harassment, and the importance of structural support, especially in systems that claim to be merit-based. Through its young, marginalized civil servants, Saiunkoku provides an intersectional critique of the “bootstrap” mentality, highlighting how oppression creates hurdles that often require more than just “hard work” to clear.
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4 thoughts on “Good Soil Makes a Good Crop: The Story of Saiunkoku and the myth of meritocracy”
I’m not much of a manga reader in general so I never got around to the Saiunkoku manga, but I loved the hell out of the anime back in the day and still think of it extremely fondly. I’d hazard a guess that quite a few people dismiss it as being little more than a reverse harem and/or ‘chick flick romance’ kind of title, but to me at least, these ended up being the least of its aspects (and I say that as someone who also doesn’t mind watching reverse harem shows from time to time).
The manga is very similar to the first 18-odd episodes of the anime, just with a little more backstory and world-building here and there. So while I do recommend the manga for the extra tidbits, it’s not required reading if you can access the anime.
Poor Saiunkoku got hit with kind of a one-two-three punch: it looks like a harem series, which might turn some people off, but it *wasn’t* a harem series, which probably turned off people who were *looking* for that. Add to that the fact that it came out right as the bubble burst on the anime/manga industry, and it got a little lost to time :(
I’m hoping by talking about it more, I’ll get some extra eyes on it – and fingers crossed, someday they’ll make the full series available in the U.S.!
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