From left to right: Li Kouyuu, Shi Seiran, Kou Shuurei, Shi Ryuuki, Ran Shuuei
Saiunkoku Monogatari, The Story of Saiunkoku, is a series of short novels by Yukino Sai that has been adapted into a two-season-long (78 episodes) anime, and a manga. The series is set in Saiunkoku, an ancient China-esque country divided into eight provinces named after colors, with eight noble families to match: Kou (crimson; Hong in the English versions), Ran (blue), Heki (green), Ko (yellow; not to be confused with the other Kou, which uses a different kanji), Haku (white), Koku (black), Sa (brown), and Shi (purple), the ruling family. The series follow Shuurei, a young woman - 16 at the beginning - whose family is very poor despite being a part of the Kou clan, one of the most noble of the eight clans. Shuurei has dreamed of becoming a government official since she was a child, but cannot make that dream come true because the exams that one must pass to qualify to become an official are barred to women.Because of her family's poverty - a result of the Civil War for the throne eight years before - Shuurei and her family's retainer Seiran (who is really more a member of the family than anything else) have to work constantly to make ends meet. Shuurei herself teaches at a small temple school, does the accounting for a brothel and countless other odd jobs to earn money. So when Grand Advisor Sho, one of the most important people in the country, arrives at her house and offers her a job paying 500 gold pieces, Shuurei accepts immediately. As it turns out, this job involves temporarily entering the palace as the Emperor's consort, something Shuurei is less than happy about. The current Emperor, Shi Ryuuki, was the youngest of his brothers, but unexpectedly found himself on the throne when all the other princes killed each other in a civil war eight years before. Ryuuki, at only nineteen years old, seems to have no interest in governing, has yet to take in any consorts or produce an heir, and rumor has it that he prefers men over women. Shuurei's job is to act as a sort of tutor to Ryuuki, and turn him into a proper ruler.Several attempted poisonings and assassinations later, Ryuuki has, under Shuurei's influence, become a good emperor, and he decides to make it his goal to make Shuurei's dream come true, and give her to opportunity to become Saiunkoku's first female official.The court intrigues and politics are a game where you have everything to gain and everything to lose, and Shuurei is walking straight into the center of it all.The first season of the anime was licensed in North America by Geneon in 2007, but only 2 of the 9 planned volumes (totalling 10 episodes of the 39) were released before the company folded. After nearly a year in limbo - during which time the dub and subtitle work were completed - Funimation released and distributed the rest of the season as part of an agreement which also saw several other "orphaned" series finished. As of December 2010, Geneon's license and Funimation's distribution deal have expired and the series is out of print. The second season (episodes 40-78) was never licensed.The manga has been licensed by Viz Media and is being released under their Shoujo Beat line. The light novels remain unlicensed.
All Love Is Unrequited: About the only couples who succeed in making things work out are side characters: Sa Kokujun and Sa Shunki, Tei Yuushun and Sai Rin, Eigetsu and Kourin (who still aren't exactly together, but it's less this and more Ryuuren). The rest of them might get there someday, but in the meantime...
The worst case is probably Ran Shuuei, who is in love with Shusui, who is in love with Shouka, who is in love with his dead wife Shokun... with whom Hyou Riou is still obsessed, causing his sister Ruka to become obsessed with looking like Shokun so that Riou will pay attention to her. And if that weren't bad enough, before he fell in love with Shusui, Shuuei was in unrequited love with his brother's wife. Phew.
All Myths Are True: The series opens with Shuurei telling the story of the Eight Sages who helped the first Emperor found Saiunkoku, ending by saying that legend has it the Sages are still alive in secret among the people of Saiunkoku. This is absolutely true.
Early in the series, Shuurei begins to tell Ryuuki a fairy tale about a "Rose Princess" who had magical healing powers and married a mortal human man. This one is not only also absolutely true, it's the story of her parents' marriage. Although it is probably not, as Shuurei claims, the reason roses have thorns.
Later in the series, there's a story about demons sealed by a mirror, and the demons being calmed by the music of an erhu after the mirror is broken.
Averted in one case: When a disease begins spreading in the Sa province, the Jasenkyou, a cult in the area, spreads rumors that the cause of the illness is the gods' anger that a woman was made the province's governor. Many people believe it out of desperation, making Shuurei's attempts to solve the problem a lot more difficult than they need to be, but of course it isn't true.
All There in the Manual: Very important background information on the characters and the political situations appears in the side-stories.
Aren't You Going To Ravish Me: Said almost exactly word for word by Shuurei to Sa Sakujun when she's sort of captured in the Sa Residence, but she's glad he's not going to (yet), rather than insulted.
Asskicking Equals Authority: Ro Ensei, governor of the Sa Province by special dispensation because the previous governors kept getting assassinated.
Attractive Bent Gender: Li Kouyuu (Mentioned in the novel, he was forced to participate, crossdressed as a girl, and won first place in a the annual youth beauty pageant when he was a kid. But this is top secret, don't let him know that this troper has spit it out.) In a humourous manga extra, Ryuuki, Shuuei and Kouyuu end up participating in drag contest for various reasons and are noted to be quite attractive. They are all upped by Ko Kijin.
Beware the Nice Ones: Seiran is very amicable but he is utterly ruthless by nature except to Shouka, Shuurei and Ryuuki. Kind, Bumbling Dad Shouka is the infamous assassin of the Emperor Black Wolf and is willing to let demons run rampant in cold blood to save his dear daughter. The biggest twist of all, mild-mannered and ever smiling Tei Yuushun is the sole survivor of a clan vassal to the Kou family who were wiped out by the previous Emperor and belongs to the faction that are plotting Ryuuki's downfall.
Big Screwed-Up Family: The Sa, Kou/Hong, and Hyou clans especially, but all of the eight noble clans have at least a little of this except for the Shi family - and that's only because Ryuuki is the only known member still alive by the time the series begins, four of his five older brothers having been executed thanks to their battling over the throne, and the fifth exiled and presumed dead.
Bishōnen: The entirety of the main cast, with the possible exception of Ensei. Basically if they aren't one, they were one.
Bittersweet Ending: Ryuuki marries Shuurei, overcomes the various intrigues and threats to his rule, and becomes one of Saiunkoku's greatest and most beloved rulers, presiding over a period of peace and prosperity. However, Shuurei dies giving birth to their daughter, leaving him so heartbroken that he never remarries. Also, demands of government eventually require him to distance himself from his former associates and even Seiran, causing him to be very lonely late in life.
Cannot Spit It Out: A serious problem in the Kou clan. Reishin just cannot tell Shuurei that he is her uncle and in general, has trouble expressing his affections to people who are dear to him except his big brother Shouka. In the backstory, Shouka keeps from his brothers that he is the Emperor's assassin Black Wolf and the one who killed their formidable great aunt. Reishin realizes the truth but in turn hides it from both Shouka (that he knows what really happened) and Kurou (that their eldest brother just pretends to be clumsy and becomes an assassin for their sake).
Cerebus Syndrome: Later volumes of the novels are noticeably darker. Many things viewed as positive early in the story are revealed to have negative consequences.
Chain of Deals: The old "single piece of straw for a fortune" legend is parodied when Ran Ryuuren starts out with money for dinner and, through a chain of random deals, ends up with a single piece of straw.
The Clan: The eight noble families of Saiunkoku, as well as the Hyou family. The Kou/Hong and Ran families especially fit the trope, and many if not all of the clans also double as Big Screwed Up Families.
Character Development: Meeting Shuurei does wonders for Ryuuki's management skills. Shuurei herself toughens up to achieve her dream as the series progresses.
Colour Coded For Your Convenience: The eight noble families (and the provinces they govern) are even named after colours. Clan members will usually wear clothes of their colours too, and some will even wear matching ear studs (such as Reishin's red ones and Hakumei's green ones). In the novels, it is stated that it is also forbidden to wear the "true" colours of the eight coloured clans.
Cool Sword: The twin swords Kanshou and Byakuya that can detect danger, exorcise evil spirits and cut through magic.
Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Shuurei's sidekick, Shin Suou aka Tan-Tan. Sure, he's a slacker, a tanuki-loving borderline Cloud Cuckoo Lander, and shows little initiative in his job unless physically pushed and pulled into it by Shuurei, but he's highly perceptive of people's character and has an excellent nose for clues enough to earn fame as one of the most successful investigators in the Inspector General's office. It is unclear, though, if he really just likes playing the fool.
In a side-story, it is revealed that Prince Seien's mother, who he remembers as a sickly and weak-willed person, manipulated her father into committing treason and thus got her son out of the palace via being exiled. She also made a deal with the Hyou clan for a deadly curse aimed at her husband with the "your heart or your life" ultimatum.
Dark and Troubled Past: It is faster to list the characters who have horrible backstory (including the antagonists) than those who don't. And Saiunkoku itself.
Prince Seien was exiled because of his grandfather's attempted coup. It turns out to benefit him in the long run because he avoids getting involved in the bloody succession war and more importantly, has the opportunity to make his choices in life, something his brother Ryuuki does not have.
In a sidestory, Shouka notes the irony of Shuurei, daughter of the master assassin Black Wolf, doing her best to save people suffering from a plague in Sa province.
A young Shuuei was sent to serve Prince Seien but was dismissed for his lack of skills. He determined to train and prove himself to the prince, but then Seien was exiled. After he gets himself disinherited, he was re-assigned to work under Seiran. And in the end, it is noted that he has become stronger than Seiran.
Ryuuki and Shuurei make a bet that if he manages to persuade her, she will marry him. In a later novel, Ryuuki practically forces her to marry him not as "Shuurei" but as the eldest princess of the Kou clan.
A young Tei Yuushun tried to seek help from a young Reishin, the future head of the Kou clan, to avoid the massacre of his clan at the hand of former Emperor Senka and was rudely rejected. Years later, he is among the very few people who have Reishin's affection and respect, and in turn is shown to be fond of Reishin.
Dreadful Musician: Ran Ryuuren and his flute-playing, which seems to become more dreadful as the series progresses. It is ironic that in the novels, Ryuuren excels at other instruments.
Dub Name Change: The name of Shuurei's family is changed from Kou to Hong in the English localization to avoid confusion with the similar sounding Ko, as the short vowel/long vowel distinction which Japanese audiences could hear just fine would be lost on English ears.
Similarly, Seiran's assumed family name is modified from Shi to Si (but still pronounced the same in both sub and dub), since the distinction between the kanji used to write his name and the kanji of the royal family's given name is lost on an English-speaking audience.
Also Bilingual Bonus: both name changes are simply the result of reading those exact same characters in Mandarin Chinese, rather than Japanese.
Everyone Is Related: Characters from the Kou and Shi clans are related to each other one way or another. Seiran, who is Kou Shouka's adopted son in all but name, is Ryuuki's brother. Shouka's brother Reishin is married to Yuri-hime, who is the previous emperor Shi Senka's half-sister, and adopts Li Kouyuu, making Kouyuu cousin to Shuurei and Ryuuki and Seiran. At the end of the novel series, Shuurei marries Ryuuki.
Expository Hairstyle Change: Long, flowing hair marks a person's status as being a prince. Thus when Prince Seien is exiled, his hair is cut short and he keeps that hairstyle as Seiran.
Eye Scream: Late in the series, a flashback shows how Shiba Jin came to lose his eye: when he first met the very young Ran Jyuusanhime, she insisted that she wouldn't let him come near her or the corpse of her murdered mother unless he gave her his eyes. So he stabbed one of them out. He was about to do the same to the other before she stopped him, too.
Facial Composite Failure: Played with. When Seiran and Ensei get wanted posters put up for them during the trip to and through Sa Province, Seiran's likeness is perfect, but Ensei — who would be bishounen if he hadn't grown out a coarse, shaggy beard to disguise his face — is drawn as a wild-haired, jagged-toothed monster not unlike a bear. Ensei finds this rather unfair.
Fantasy Counterpart Culture: They're all Chinese people by another name. The legend of the immortal sages of eight colours is reminiscent of the Eight Immortals in Chinese folklore.
Fantasy Pantheon: Immortal sages of eight colors, all with colorful personalities.
First Name Basis: Ryuuki asks Shuurei to call him by his name instead of "Your Highness", at least in private. Close friends in the series also call each other by first name rather than title.
Flock of Wolves: In season two, Shuurei was demoted to be an official without actual rank as a result of her successful but reckless efforts to deal with the plague in Sa province. She had to find a job or do something useful within a month to remain an official. Every official ostensibly under the same trial who actively approached her in this period turned out to be a spy for somebody.
Flower Motifs: The symbolic gift of a flower from the emperor carries great significance, and recurs several times throughout the series.
Freudian Trio: Reishin, Kijin, and Yuushun appear to have been one in the backstory of the series, with Reishin as Id, Kijin as Superego, and Yuushun as Ego. The Kou brothers also form one, with Reishin again as Id, Kurou as Superego, and Shouka as Ego.
For Great Justice: Shuurei's reason for being an official. She wants to help create a world in which people have a chance at happiness. Interestingly, this is the motive of the antagonists late in the series (to create a country without famine, war, and injustice) as oppose to Ryuuki and co., whose motives are personal affections.
Gambit Pile Up: Pretty much everyone with a name is creating one, involved in one, or a sucker for one. Sometimes all three. Shuurei pulls off a particularly fine Xanatos Gambit against the Merchant's Guild in the second season of the anime: correctly expecting them to stonewall her when she approaches them for help in combating the outbreak of plague in Sa Province, she lets them stall until a message arrives from the Emperor declaring that if they haven't reached an agreement already, he's commanding them to do the work for free. She then pleasantly suggests that she's willing to pretend they'd come to an agreement by the time the message arrived... in return for some extra concessions from them for her understanding.
Generation Xerox: Shuurei and Ryuuki's relationship is often compared to Shouka and Shokun's. Ryuuki is also said to mirror his father in that he is love with a woman who'd rather work herself to death for him than marry him.
Grey and Grey Morality: The final conflict of the novel series between Ryuuki and those who want to depose him.
Hannibal Lecture: Ruka gives Ryuuki one but he is not impressed. Ou Ki, on the other hand, shakes the young Emperor to the core by pointing out how ineffectual and selfish he is.
Heterosexual Life Partners: Li Kouyuu and Ran Shuuei are always together. The yaoi fangirls were suitably displeased when they both turned out to be straight.
Hitman with a Heart: All Wolves of the Wind (a group of assassins in service of the previous Emperor) members that appear in the story.
Hoist by His Own Petard: In season two, the tactic Ryuuki and Kouyuu came up with to protect Shuurei against the opposition against her in the court was turned against them instead. Reishin chewed Kouyuu out for their oversight.
Humiliation Conga: Another reason that one just shouldn't mess with the Kou/Hong family - particularly, as Senior Secretary Sai of the Ministry of Rites discovers, if one then compounds one's error by trying to target Shuurei.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Shuurei's efforts to help victims of the plague in Sa province incur the ire of quite a few high-ranking officials, to the point that Ryuuki has to demote her to keep them quiet.
Nepotism: One of the criticisms against Shuurei, besides the issue that she is a woman.
Not With Them For The Money: Shuurei hates extravagance thanks to her personal experiences with poverty and want. As a result, she's unimpressed and even angry with Ryuuki's attempts to shower her with gifts, only accepting them when they can serve a practical purpose, such as when he sends her a block of ice during the heat of summer - and even then, he has to be careful. Similarly, her father is the eldest son of the prominent Kou family and has contacts in very high places, but allowed his salary from the Palace Archives to be cut back to little more than pittance because he's simply too easygoing and disinterested in financial matters to speak up about it.
Papa Wolf: Kou Shoka. Normally a complete pushover, if anyone does or says anything against his daughter within range of him, he will silently end them.
Poor Communication Kills: What lies at the core of the drama involving Reishin and Kouyuu in the novels. Reishin just does not know how to tell his adopted son that the boy is dear to him and thus does not have to live solely for his approval. In the end, he resorts to the drastic measure of stubbornly refusing to work so that Kouyuu will get him fired. Unfortunately, Kouyuu does not get the memo and instead does Reishin's work, which leads to him being accused of overstepping his authority.
Properly Paranoid: A must if you want to survive the intrigues of the court, a lesson Ryuuki takes to heart.
Rapunzel Hair: Almost all the characters. Even Especially the men.
Real Men Wear Pink: Ryuuki is quite decent at embroidery and Kouyuu's cooking is good despite its looks.
Reasonable Authority Figure: Ki Kouki, Chief of the Inspection Department, who first appears harsh but ultimately turns out to be a fair judge of character. Also Official Rou, who puts the new officials through harsh tasks but takes care of them.
Royally Screwed Up: Ryuuki's entire family is loopy, starting a civil war and killing each other for the throne. Ryuuki is saner than his various deceased family members were, but is still kind of messed up.
Scarpia Ultimatum: Given by Sa Chusho to Shuurei when he wants her to marry Sakujun. He threatens to set fire to the city and kill one of her advisors if she doesn't go through with it. She still refuses.
Sliding Scale of Beauty: Out of the full harem of pretty men in the series, Kijin is the one who has the "Divine Beauty" status up to a thousand. Anyone (with only a few exceptions), men or women, will instantly faint, go blind, tremble, and be disabled to work for years upon seeing his face in a flash. Hence, that's why he wears a mask in public all the time.
Thicker Than Water: Clan obligations are serious and being disinherited by the clan is treated as a great misfortune. In return, the clans do their best to protect their members. The Kou in particular are rather infamous for inflicting Disproportionate Retribution on those who cross their members. On the other hand, they are willing to sacrifice the monopoly on the precious seven-coloured ink to protect Shuurei.
Title Drop: Each episode of the anime has a proverb for its title, and in the first season, the proverb always gets used by someone (usually Shuurei) before the episode is over. Some of the title drops work more naturally than others; the practice is dropped in the second season.
Unexpected Successor: Youngest (and seemingly weakest) sons seem to end up being leaders quite often in Saiunkoku, courtesy of power struggle in the clans. Or in the case of the Kou brothers, because the elder sons drop the position and the youngest gets stuck with it.
Why Do You Keep Changing Jobs?: Not really pointed out or used for comedy, but Shuurei seems to be holding down a truly spectacular number of part-time jobs before entering the palace. We know for a fact that she's a teacher and the accountant for a brothel, but she also apparently cleans restrooms and plays her erhu in several places, among other things. She does even more in the light novel, such as stints serving as handmaidens for rich families. Basically, she is willing to do any job that pays. Seiran seems to accompany her to most of these (with the exception of the brothel) while still acting as the family's retainer and serving in the army.