Saiunkoku Monogatori takes place in a fictional Chinese-like land. The story is based around the life of a young woman named Kou Shuurei. Shuurei’s family is one of the eight noble families of the land, but they are from an impoverished branch. Shuurei's mother died when she was young, so Shuurei is very self-sufficient. She does odd jobs to get by and her father, Shoka, works as a librarian in the imperial court, a role which is very prestigious but pays very poorly. Shuurei’s dream is to take and pass the imperial exam and become a court official. Unfortunately, women are forbidden to take the exam or to be court officials. So Shuurei and her father live relatively hand-to-mouth. They also live with a young man named Seiran, who was taken in by Shuurei’s father and who acts as Shuurei’s bodyguard.
Shurrei’s life takes a change for the better one day when one of the high court advisers stops by her house and offers her a job. It seems the new Emperor, Shi Ryuuki, is uninterested in running his country and spends his time flaunting his preference for men instead of working on getting heirs for the throne. Because Shuurei is known for her intelligence and teaching, and is pretty as well, the Grand Adviser asks Shuurei to enter the imperial household as Ryuuki’s consort for a few months, and to teach Ryuuki how to be Emperor. In return for this job, the adviser will give Shuurei an unheard of amount of money. Shuurei accepts the job and her peaceful life changes forever.
Shuurei brings Seiran with her to the palace, meets Ryuuki and begins the job of turning him into Emperor. She finds that he’s not stupid or lazy, just unwilling to accept the role that's been thrust upon him. As the youngest of six imperial sons, he was never expected to rule and was treated badly as a child. He secretly hoped that his exiled older brother, who he loved as the only one who was kind to him as a child, would return and take the throne. It turns out that Seiran is in fact that brother, but doesn’t want the throne. Between that and Shuurei’s teachings, Ryuuki turns around and begins to govern. Shuurei also gains Ryuuki’s love and admiration.
As part of the imperial family Shuurei also becomes embroiled in countless and continuous plots and schemes being run by the eight noble houses. Politics in the imperial court is incredible and convoluted and Shuurei becomes involved in it a lot of it.
The under-plots run deep in this series and occasionally it’s difficult to remember who is related to whom and whose House is scheming against the Empire or other House. Besides Shuurei, Seiran, Ryuuki and Shuurei’s father, the other main characters include Ri Kouyou, Vice-Secretary of Civil Administration who is serving Ryuuki directly and who has a penchant for getting lost in the palace, Ran Shuuei, who is a general and exceptional swordsman, and Ro Ensei, who is something of a vagabond, the former governor of Sa province and a person from Seiran’s past. This group of main characters is joined by a large cast full of relatives and adoptive relatives and various House connections.
After meeting and working with Shuurei, Ryuuki straightens up and rules his kingdom. One of the things he does for Shuurei after she leaves the Palace, is make it possible for women to take the imperial exam, allowing her to follow her dream of becoming a court official. It’s not easy being the first woman to do so. She ends up retaking the exam orally in front of all the court and advisers because some of them wouldn’t believe she could pass it. In addition, she barely makes it to her oral exam since other factions plot to keep her away so she can't pass it. She manages to overcome all of it and become a court official.
Ryuuki then posts her far away in problematic Sa province as co-governor with Eigetsu, another candidate who passed the exam but who others are also having trouble accepting because of his extreme youth. Out in the Sa province Eigetsu and Shuurei overcome lots more political intrigue and deal with a different set of politics and characters.
The plot in this series is occasionally hard to follow because of the interconnections between character families, but overall it’s very interesting and the series is worth watching. It borders on being a reverse-harem anime, with Shuurei surrounded by lots of attractive men, but that aspect is played down. There is a love triangle undercurrent between Ryuuki, Shuurei and Seiran which runs throughout the series and Shuurei is attracted to a Sa family schemer once she’s in the Sa province, but Saiunkoku Monogatari is not a love story as such.
This series is actually two season, each 39 episodes long. Most, if not all, of what I’ve discussed here happens in the first season. The second season brings more intrigue and different problems for Shuurei-tachi to solve. I recommend the whole two seasons, but at least watch the first season. It’s a good series.