Last week, a blog post published on The Mary Sue, listing 10 feminist manga titles that are available in the US, caused a bit of a furor among the manga blogger community. The main offense was including Rose of Versailles as a title that had been translated and was widely available in English, which a quick internet search would have proven false. While I agree that the majority of the titles included in this “feminist-friendly” manga listicle present strong and interesting female characters, I was put off that the author included titles that have been long out of print. Emma, Joan, and Angelic Layer are still available, but their respective publishers have long closed down so it’s now become somewhat of a treasure hunt if you want to find a complete set of the series. I believe that if you’re going to make a list of manga to suggest to an audience that may not be familiar with them, you’ll suggest titles that are current and readily available in a bookstore.
I had written suggestions of titles that I think do pass as “feminist-friendly,” but after having read the first volume of The Story of Saiunkoku a few days ago, I’ll gladly add this to the mix as well.
Saiunkoku, as the preamble in volume one explains, means the “country of colored clouds.” The emperor who founded the kingdom was helped by eight sages, each represented by a noble color, which in turn, became the name of the various noble houses of the nation.
Shurei Hong (Hong being the Crimson House) is an impoverished noblewoman. Her father is the head of the imperial archives, a high-ranking position that essentially has no political pull and even less income. Their ancestral home is falling apart, needing constant repair and maintenance. To supplement their meager finances, she takes various odd jobs such as teaching little children in the temple.
When she is offered a lucrative job from Lord Advisor Sho, one of the leading governing ministers, she doesn’t hesitate, despite not really being aware of what the job entails. She is told that she is being offered to be the Emperor’s noble consort and should she take the job, she will be tutoring him in the governance of the country too.
The Unwilling Emperor
Shurei enters the Inner Court aware of a few tricky spots in her situation. It’s common knowledge among the palace staff that the emperor is nothing but a big slacker who shirks his responsibilities and frequently disappears during the day when he should be doing emperor-work. Also, he seems to prefer men and sleeps with a different guard each night.
With effortless charm and candor, Shurei manages to get the emperor’s attention. Of course, a few steamed buns doesn’t hurt. In a classic romantic-comedy setup, Shurei and Ryuki, the emperor, meet in the garden, each unaware of the other’s name and purpose. Ryuki, not wanting to reveal that he is the emperor, gives the name of one of his courtiers. He is fascinated by Shurei and makes plans to meet her again as she states that she visits the imperial archives everyday.
Life in the Inner Court
The Story of Saiunkoku is a study in contrast to Ooku in this setting of sexual politics and palace intrigue. Saiunkoku is a light, playful line to Ooku‘s coarse brushstroke.
In this first volume, Shurei is the only concubine, and if Ryuki’s wishes are followed, she would be the only one. It doesn’t take long for each of them to develop an affection for the other. Shurei is impressed by the emperor’s inherent intelligence; she realizes that his lazy and dumb emperor act, was just that: an act. Ryuki, in turn, is taken with Shurei’s common sense and empathy. He yearns for her approval, even to the point that he consistently insists that she call him by his first name, instead of the title of emperor.
Of course, what story would be complete without a conflict? In this case, a palace conspiracy would do just fine.
A Feminist in the Palace
The advantage of picking a title that falls under the dais of historical fantasy is that even though the character’s circumstances may not be the most favorable feminist setting, I believe that the author would structure the story in such a way that the female main character would prove her mettle at the end. So, while The Story of Saiunkoku may not start off too positively for Shurei — who after all, was given 500 gold ryu to become the emperor’s concubine — it appears that the narrative is being set up in a way that allows her to show her full value and potential as a female person.
From the get-go, Shurei is presented as capable and responsible. She’s capable in various spheres — she’s learned enough to pass the civil exam and can hold her own in conversations with courtiers and ministers, yet she’s also comfortable in typically female pastimes such as music and embroidery. She’s practical and loyal, two qualities that have garnered the attention not just of the emperor, but also of Seiran, her childhood friend and their family’s last retainer.
Despite being surrounded by a group of bishounen, Shurei’s the rare female character to outshine all of them. Ordinarily, I’d be picking out the most handsome of the male characters and only read for their storyline or be merely focused on the shoujo romantic entanglements. But not so here. I really find Shurei the most interesting and compelling character; I find myself cheering for her and looking forward to what she does in the next volumes.