Saiunkoku Monogatari is one of those pleasant surprises where you get a lot more than you bargained for; indeed, far from being a fluffy, witless romance, this title offers a rare formula of ‘pink politics' where a girl tries to make it in a man's world as governor of an empire.
Saiunkoku Monogatari's appearance actually gave me the wrong impression at first. I was in the mood for a bishounen-packed romantic comedy when I first picked it up; subsequently, the more episodes I watched, the more frustrated I got that the romance I expected was seemingly getting sidelined by an encroaching political subplot. However, once I realised that the romance was more of a background issue to be resolved at leisure, I found myself enjoying the plot developments a lot more. What actually makes up the bulk of the story is Shuurei's struggle to take hold of a disconnected, elitist government and make it work for the good of the people; in the process she foils nasty plots, defies cultural conventions, and changes those around her for the better. Importantly, a few dark moments get chucked into the mix alongside the simplistic politics and recurrent gags. The high point of this formula has to be the arc with the androgynous guy, which is both clever and emotional.
Incidentally, it's important to note the complete lack of cynicism in this title: I'm personally amazed at the weak, token resistance to Shuurei's rise to power in a world that is utterly dominated by elite men; not to mention the bloodless battles and relentless positivity with which she tackles seemingly insurmountable problems. Regardless, the anime remains convincing as long as you can leave reality by the doorstep.
Taking all of that into consideration, I definitely enjoyed Saiunkoku Monogatari far more than I would had it remained a straightforward romcom. Sadly, considering the typical shoujo approach, it still falls a little short of being the deep, meaningful epic it wants to be.
Where the concept is concerned, the clue is definitely in the title: there are many pretty colours. Disappointingly, apart from the vibrant lilacs, pinks, and baby blues, Saiunkoku Monogatari's animation is basic to say the least; as well as minimal shading and background details, the characters are static when they talk (heck, they don't even blink) and utterly robotic when they do move. Most annoyingly, the men all look very similar, with only variations in hair and clothes to distinguish one bishounen from another.
Nonetheless, considering Saiunkoku Monogatari's genre and content, I don't feel its flaws in animation detract much from the enjoyment of the series; for example, because the action scenes are not integral to the story, their occasional use of streaky backgrounds and still shots and generally poor choreography is forgivable. At its most lovely, Saiunkoku Monogatari's scenery looks like a watercolour painting, which is pleasant on the eye and makes for a cheery atmosphere.
The opening theme is one of my favourites yet; with mellow vocals by Ayaka Hirahara and such a beautiful melody, I instantly wanted to own it. Sadly, the rest of the soundtrack is bland and forgettable, and the voice actors are decent without being particularly stunning.
As for the cast, the most remarkable thing about them is how easily forgettable they are; like a rosy daydream, their haze only lasts as long as you're in the moment. Having spent thirty-nine episodes watching their various adventures, I can only remember two names: the main character, Shuurei, and her adopted brother, Seiran. These two are arguably the most developed and most interesting of the bunch and thus the only ones worth caring about; all of the others, such as the Emperor and the eccentric guy with the flute, are only fleetingly amusing. As a whole, the cast is good, but just too large, too cardboard, and too lacking in unique backgrounds to draw attention beyond the series' running time.
Far from offering air-headed drivel, Saiunkoku Monogatari fills all thirty-nine episodes with compelling stories and briefly entertaining characters. In fact, the series' true worth lies in its ability to provide a substantial plot despite its soft, light-hearted appearance. Still, while I believe most fans will thoroughly enjoy this title, I doubt many would watch it more than once.