As we wind down my final month of anime reviews, we get to my favorites. Right now last week’s STORY OF SAIUNKOKU, SEASON ONE and this week’s THE TWELVE KINGDOMS (TK) alternate as my favorite fantasy dramas. While Saiunkoku has a good balance of adventure, romance, humor and world-building, Fuyumi Ono’s light novels The Twelve Kingdoms (YA novels in the USA) are weighted differently. Ono took her university degree in Buddhist Studies, and I feel this brings an intense philosophical difference to how she approached world-building and storytelling.
In Twelve Kingdoms, Ono chooses to tell us different stories with each of her books, so we learn about the Kingdoms as a whole, as opposed to following one character through an entire series, as Sai Yukino has in Saiunkoku. This does not mean we don’t get concentration on whoever is currently front and center in the tale (even as Yukino introduces us to many characters around her heroine Shurei Hong). But Ono aimed for telling important, representational tales from the Twelve Kingdoms, while Yukino is telling us the story of Shurei as she makes history in Saiunkoku.
The animators of Saiunkoku kept the same structure as the novels; the animators of Twelve Kingdoms decided to create a framing device to lead their viewers through the Twelve Kingdoms. In 45 episodes, they used the majority of Ono’s first three novels/tales and chose the heroine of the first book, Youko Nakajima from Japan, to lead viewers deep into the life of the kingdoms. The animators also created two characters, school friends of Youko’s, to accompany her from Japan to the Twelve Kingdoms. These characters are used to force into the physical world Youko’s private, internal struggles with the reality and meaning of the TK and of her own life.
The Twelve Kingdoms is a magical world where God is active and always watching. The messenger the god Tentai chose to dictate His will to His people is the kirin (oriental unicorn), a fantastic blend of horse and deer — sentient, holy, compassionate and just. The kirins are magical creatures, capable of taking on human form, and totally non-violent. They cannot fight for themselves, and can faint in the presence of blood. There are twelve kirins, one for each kingdom, and their primary mission is to choose a good ruler. They seek a king or queen who will be just, who will protect the people from civil unrest and help them be prosperous and good stewards of the land. The kirin will take on the ruler as its only liege lord, promising to protect the new ruler and to never desert their place at the foot of the throne. Kirins tame mythical monsters known as youma, turning them into servants and protectors of both kirin and ruler. Kirins must obey their masters, even if the new ruler fails to take the kirin’s advice into account when ruling. A good ruler will rule for centuries – a bad one will fall quickly, often taking the kirin down as well, throwing a kingdom into famine and chaos.
In the first story arc of TK, Youko has been plagued with nightmares of fantastic monsters. To her amazement, one day at school a beautiful young man shows up and insists that she accept his service and protection. Confused and dithering, sixteen year old Youko says “Yes,” and her life changes forever. An explosion of monsters like those of her dreams shows that Keiki, the young man who has handed her a sword, was in a race to find her. And now, he must return to where he came from – and take Youko with him.
Keiki was able to convince the frightened and confused Youko that she must accept his fealty and protection. He doesn’t ask about his next move – he plants one of his youmas within her, to help her fight. She has a sword with a small green glass globe attached to the sheath, but it’s useless to her at first – when the monsters darken the sky, Youko finds herself paralyzed with fear. All the private doubts and fears Youko has kept locked in her heart come roaring out to complicate her life. She doesn’t understand what has happened or why. As they return to the TK, Youko and her friends are separated from Keiki and dropped into unfriendly territory (for the King of Kou tells his people that the interlopers, the kaikyaku from Japan, bring disease and war to Kou.)
All this happens in the first episode – and then the viewer is poured into the world building of the Twelve Kingdoms, watching as Youko’s friends begin to distrust her – for she can understand the local language, and she begins to look different, her face changing shape, her eyes changing color. Eventually Youko is alone, lost in a complicated world where everyone’s hand seems to be against her and monsters travel in packs just for a chance to kill her. Her only companion is a monkey-like creature that talks constantly at night, praying on all her fears and undermining her confidence. It’s not looking good for Youko, until she is found unconscious on a road by Rakushun, a Hanjyuu, or half-beast, half man (we see him as a human-sized mouse). And suddenly, with intelligent, compassionate Rakushun at her side, Youko finally has a chance to survive the youma attacks and look for some answers.
I will freely admit that the first disk of this anime caused me to initially reject the series. Youko starts WAY down the scale of competent future heroes. She has run-ins with slavers, local police, the Imperial Army of Kou – and always, the monkey man does his best to convince her that she’s worthless and that suicide is her best option. There is much that is interesting about the TK, but little to help us believe that Youko will find her way through this alien land – even if she can use her sword with deadly accuracy, killing youma monsters left and right. It was almost depressing, how dark a place the twelve kingdoms is. Both Youko and her classmates will face ambiguous moral dilemmas and crises of many kinds before the twelve kingdoms are finished with them.
This series does not have American pacing. Youko slowly discovers that she was a shell of a person, back in Wa/Japan. She was always trying to please everyone, never taking a stand on anything. Her relationships were shallow, and she’s no longer sure if she was a good daughter or a good friend. But as time goes on, she discovers that she can make her way in this land. She has strengths she never knew existed, and numerous attempts on her life teach her that she does not fear death even as she gains a new appreciation for how precious is life. All she wants to do is find a way home.
In the end, she and Rakushun make their way to En, a land unafraid of kaikyaku and taika (people who were conceived in ranka eggs growing on a tree, and blown by a typhoon to Japan where they are born in our usual way). En welcomes newcomers who wish to live in peace and work hard for their new country. And it is there that Rakushun finally pieces together enough of Youko’s story to understand that she must be the new queen of Kei. For Youko, this is just a drop down another rabbit hole. The idea of destiny is strange enough; a holy creature designating her the queen of a country she knows nothing about? Youko feels entirely unprepared, unworthy of such a calling. Even when the king of En explains to her that she’s already been selected, and deserting her post will cause the death of herself and her kirin, Youko is still not sure she can do what is being asked of her. Although she does value her life, she is no longer afraid of death. What if it would be better for Kei if she died?
From the king and kirin of En she discovers what happened to Keiki. Her kirin is under a spell, trapped voiceless in his kirin form, captive to the false queen of Kei and her followers. The King of Kou, a neighboring kingdom, decided that the fake queen he helped install in Kei will do nicely – he doesn’t want a true queen in Kei, especially a taika. The other kingdom bracketing Kou, En, is ruled by a taika, a king born in Japan. Even the kirin of En is a taika. And En is one of the most peaceful and prosperous kingdoms in the archipelago. King Kou is convinced that taikas know secrets about good management, explaining the success of the King of En. King Kou believes that a taika queen in Kei will make him look like a bad ruler – and he’s decided that killing the fledgling queen will solve his potential problem.
Youko realizes that if nothing else, she must rescue Keiki, and her decision starts her down the path toward her destiny. Youko continues to be our eyes and ears in the twelve kingdoms, even after she is crowned queen and begins to learn the job of ruling. Unable to know who to trust of the people currently running the country, Youko goes off to find a teacher and learn firsthand about the country she has been given responsibility for. This causes her to end up in the middle of a province in rebellion, where we learn the stories of many other people of the TK, all of them in various stages of learning what they owe to their god and their people.
We will see the collapse of another kingdom, and watch its exiled, spoiled princess learn dignity and purpose. We will see a young kaikyaku who has served a bad master for over a century find strength and learn that her own suffering is a drop in the ocean of the world. We will learn the history of the King of En and his kirin, both born in the Feudal Period of Japan, the products of war and destruction. There is the story of the other taika kirin, a rare black kirin, and his trials and tribulations as he learns what it means to be a kirin, and finds a new king for his country. After these major story arcs, we are given a short arc in the history of En to finish the series. It’s not nearly enough to completely satisfy, after the long arcs of the three previous stories, but it has the same emotional depth and moral questioning of those earlier stories, leaving us wondering along with the King of En…what is the path of a true ruler, and what if another had ended up on the throne?
There is plenty of intrigue and politics, with a sprinkling of humor and lots of battles and swordplay. Romance is thin in this anime, although Youko is a beautiful young woman, and the King of En very easy on the eyes. This anime is a classic Coming of Age story, as Youko finds her purpose and her destiny, and begins to fulfill her promise as a fine ruler. A large part of life in the Twelve Kingdoms is figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing, and then doing it. Waiting around feeling sorry for yourself is a waste of time and energy. The question always is, what can you do to improve the situation? And why aren’t you doing it?
This story has enough depth for multiple viewings, and I like it better every time I watch it. We can call it PG, although war is a part of the twelve kingdoms, and it is seen as the horror it is. As you can already tell, the translators chose to keep a lot of unusual words, describing administrators, students, lords of provinces and more. These words get easier on a second viewing, but you can find notes on this series online if you want to know everything at once. Dubbing is pretty good, the voices weighted correctly for the characters. I love the music – here’s another soundtrack I’d gladly buy. The lush artwork is very rewarding, although some scenes of large groups of people are static enough to clash briefly with the rest of the series. There was apparently a problem at the animation studio, and the story of the black kirin was never finished. If this anime finds an American audience, a revival of interest might drum up a studio animating the rest of Ono’s books (and finishing Taiki’s tale!) Ono has written several popular light novel series, but Twelve Kingdoms was her biggest hit. She has written new short stories about the kingdom within the last two years, and we can hope that more tales of The Twelve Kingdoms will be written.
This one will reward your patience – it’s more like The Lord of the Rings than the Narnia books, if that makes sense. Highly recommended, but if you need constant action every episode, this may not be the anime for you. Rent it first!