There are many spoilers ahead for The Story of Saiunkoku‘s first season, so please read with caution.
When I first watched The Story of Saiunkoku anime a few years back, I remember feeling anxious when the series reached the Sa storyline. During the Sa arc, protagonist Shurei Hong has just been appointed the position of co-governer of Sa province by Ryuki Shi, the King of Saiunkoku who is also in love with her. Because the Sa province is the least politically stable of the eight provinces in Saiunkoku, Shurei and Eigestu To, the other co-governer, must secretly travel through the Sa region so they may offically take their positions, and many new characters are introduced along the way. One of my pet peeves is when series begin focusing on characters who have not been around since the start of a story, and thus we have no reason to care about them. At first, the Sa arc seemed as though it would fall into this trap – without much explanation, we are thrown into the turmoils of various members of the Sa clan, including Shunki, one of the last remaining descendents of the main Sa family who has been in hiding, and Kokujun, the youngest of the Sa princes who wants to atone for his family’s crimes. However, the Sa storyline also introduces the most mysterious and intriguing character the series has to offer: Sakujun Sa, the second prince of the Sa family.
When Sakujun and Shurei first meet, Shurei is on her way to Kinka, the merchant’s capital of Sa province. She is supposed to reunite with her comrades there, and uses Sakujun’s wealth to travel to Kinka safely. Both Sakujun and Shurei are keeping their identities hidden: Shurei tells him that her name is Korin, while Sakujun uses the name Senya Rin to fool Shurei. However, while Sakujun knows who Shurei is, Shurei has no idea that she’s fallen into the Sa clan’s reach. Sakujun demands that Shurei play her ehru for him and constantly tells her that she looks more beautiful when she wears her hair out. While Shurei and Sakujun are in their travels, the Sa family plans to take the government under their control by arranging a marriage between the two of them. When the two finally arrive in Kinka, Shurei and Sakujun go their separate ways, and she finds out that the entire Rin family, including Senya Rin, has been killed. She then realizes that not only is the man she travelled with Sakujun Sa – he is also the one responsible for the murder of the Rin family.
My favorite scene in The Story of Saiunkoku is probably when Sakujun and Shurei reveal their identities to one another. The scene is darkly beautiful – when Sakujun whispers his name into her ear, chills run down Shurei’s spine. Sakujun then proceeds to confess his love to her, which Shurei quickly realizes is fleeting: as soon as he gets bored of her he’d throw her away and kill her. She realizes that people are nothing but toys for him to play with, which he admits to by telling her that he would never tire of playing with her because she would never break. He tells her that he wants her to belong to him, and in return he can belong completely to her. After their confrontation, Shurei can’t forget Sakujun’s words. Sakujun’s confession of love reminds of her Ryuki, who told her before she left for Sa province not to forget that he loves her. Because Shurei has always been focused on her goals of becoming a government official, she’s never given much thought to love. However, Sakujun’s twisted feelings do have an effect on Shurei: she unconsciously starts wearing her hair down even when he’s not around. More importantly, Sakujun’s confession forces her to wonder why her heart beat so fast when he was around, and allow her to admit that Sakujun and Ryuki are not that different. The difference is in the intent behind their feelings: while Ryuki makes it possible for Shurei to achieve her dreams by sending her to Sa province even though that means they must be separated, Sakujun is only concerned about his own gains, and seems not to care about Shurei as a person.
However, Sakujun’s feelings for Shurei are more complex they appear at first glance. Although Sakujun has never been interested in marriage, he agrees to the arrangement between himself and Shurei. During their travels to Kinka, in every city they stopped at Shurei bought all of the gan lu tea she could find so that way her comrades could follow her trail without her making her identity known. When Sakujun asks Shurei to make him some gan lu tea, she tells him that she’s saving it for the people who are important to her. She refuses to serve it to him, making him jealous that there are people who are more important to her than he is. Near the end of the first season, Sakujun decides to place a wager with himself: he poisons hot water and puts the antidote in the gan lu tea. He tells Shurei that if she doesn’t serve him gan lu tea he’ll die, but instead she chooses to serve him the water. Later on, Shurei finds Sakujun slumped under a tree, bleeding from his mouth. As he’s dying, he is pleased by the thought that Shurei will live with the guilt of knowing that she was responsible for his death: because then she’ll never forget him. However, as his eyes are closing, Sakujun says that he wishes he could have listened to Shurei play her ehru more, which shows that despite his frozen heart, some part of him really did genuinely love Shurei – or perhaps it was obsession. When Shurei runs to find him help, Sakujun’s body mysteriously disappears, never to be seen again.
Much of the turmoil within the Sa clan was caused by Sakujun. Sakujun suggested to his mother that they should start using a certain fragrant incense, which interferes with the ability to think properly. Sakujun uses these to manipulate his grandfather Chusho to imprison his son, and it results in the deaths of both Chusho and Kokujun’s father’s deaths. Sakujun also has his elder brother Sojun Sa killed so he could take over as the head of the Sa clan. And yet, because Sakujun knows how to manipulate the people around him, none of these crimes were committed by him directly. Shurei even admits that although she knows of his crimes, she can’t hate him, and her comrades tell her that she is the only person in the world who is allowed to mourn for him. Everything about Sakujun is twisted and enigmatic. Even though he is dark and selfish, I couldn’t find it in myself to hate Sakujun or to see him as a true villain. As soon as he was introduced, I couldn’t wait to hear Sakujun’s sumptuous voice again, and I absolutely loved his presence in The Story of Saiunkoku. In many ways, he reminds me of Nakago from Fushigi Yugi: both are manipulative and mysterious characters who add so much intrigue to their respective series that it is hard not to pay attention to them, or to fully hate them. And although I know he is a dangerous character and completely wrong for Shurei, I was unable to avert my eyes when I watched the two of them together. In the end, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand his character or even how I feel about him. All I know is that Sakujun is the master of seduction: because not only is able to tempt the pure Shurei, he also able to captivate the hearts of the audience, who hate him for doing so.