The Twelve Kingdoms
One day, Youko Nakajima is approached by a mysterious man who pledges her loyality to her and asks her to accept.. something. Despite Youko's insistence, he's frightfully short on explanations, and before things can escalate any further between Youko and the attendants at school, a giant monster bird attacks them, destroying a large portion of the school in the process.
She is then taken to the world of the twelve kingdoms along with two other students, Yuka Sugimoto and Ikuya Asano. Their journey is anything but easy, though; if they aren't hunted by members of the various governments, there are also monsters about, and even the villagers doesn't necessarily look kindly upon outsiders. Youko will be facing many challenges in her road to become the Queen of Kei, as she is destined to.
The Twelve Kingdoms have long been held in high esteem when it comes to fantasy, though to be honest, I was hesitant. Eventually, I was given an offer for the whole series that was too good to pass up, and having seen the whole show, I can state with confidence that I would easily have bought it full price had I known. It would have been worth it.
That opinion, or those feelings about the show, didn't necessarily come easy, though. The Twelve Kingdoms is a fairly eccentric piece, and the beginning of it has a heavy sense of wish fulfillment about it that had me worried for a good while. I had already encountered this sort of entitlement born through chance, circumstance and luck before in Neo Angelique Abyss; where our pretty female lead is sought out by absurdly handsome men who literally hand her everything on a silver platter with a side order of cookies.
I sure wasn't prepared to see Youko go through hell to get where she is. And that's when it won me over. Not immediately, but the show's sense of duty and responsibility is quite admirable, and a far cry from the mouth service in Neo Angelique Abyss. Youko isn't inherently an admirable person, and unlike the men in the aforementioned other show, Keiki -- the man who gave her the sword and kinda-intentionally threw her life into chaos -- is as much demanding as he is supportive.
But before Youko can ascend to her throne as Queen of Kei, she's going to have to go through hell. On the very day she arrived on the shores of Ko, she is attacked, then taken prisoner by the local authorities, who all look on her arrival as a bad omen. Eventually, she learns what has happened to her future kingdom; that it's being held in a state of poverty by the leader of the Kingdom of Ko, and it's clear that things will get a lot worse before they get any better.
With her, Youko brings two of her... well, calling them "friends" might be a bit of a stretch, since Youko didn't really have any back in Japan. Asano is probably the friendliest of the two, though a lot will happen to him during the show. Yuka, however, takes to the new world like the antisocial loner she is, and her ego soon get the better of her, much to the detriment of everyone involved. That's as far as I will spoil this surprisingly complex story about a complex world full of complex characters. I said Youko's journey to become the Queen is anything but easy, but the story isn't even over when she does. Aside from the somewhat stereotypical "destined Queen" plot element, Twelve Kingdoms unleashes a veritable torrent of technobabble -- or spirituobabble, I should say -- on the viewers, and it looks like there's always something new to learn about the lands as you travel in it. The show has a lot to say about human behavior, some of it admittedly presumptuous, but never any worse than things you can take at face value as a part of the show. It's a surprisingly easy show to enjoy even in disagreement.
One thing I remember clearly, long before even considering to watch this, is that the main lead, Youko, was considered one of the best female leads in anime of this kind, heralded for her strength and wisdom. And she is, even if it's not really all that apparent at first. For a good while, Youko spends most of her time exhausted and on the verge of tears, and her friends aren't doing all that much better; Asagi is mostly panicking, while Yuka is maybe a little bit too excited about her new situation, and this influences everything they do, a lot of it being... less than admirable, but sometimes necessary for survival's sake. The foundation of most of the drama in the first story arc is mostly centered around trust, both the kind we lend people we don't know out of necessity and the one people earn. Twelve Kingdoms doesn't necessarily judge, and isn't afraid to break the viewers trust if it needs to. But it's worth it just to see Youko grow into one of the best female leads in just about any anime I've seen so far.
It's a shame that the show couldn't have gotten a better animation budget than it did. Not that it looks terrible, exactly; it's got really appealing character designs for one, and the animation is, if nothing else, mostly passable. The show isn't necessarily action-based, but when the chips really do come down, whether the action'll look good is a bit of a crapshot. Sometimes, fights look swift and well-made, other times they look stiff and unnatural. Even regular, simple movements sometimes look... off, somehow.
Aside from the animation quality, I do have another small complaint about this show. The way the show is split up, you could say it has two main story arcs and two shorter ones centered around various characters from the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. While that in itself isn't a bad thing, the way one of them end makes me wonder if the anime covers the whole novel series. It's quite open-ended, with the future of one of the major characters of said flashback/story arc quite literally left hanging. For someone like me, who prefer things to end conclusively, it can feel a bit unfulfilling.
There is so much to this show. So many characters to meet, so many things to see and learn. So many stories to tell. The world of the Twelve Kingdoms is large and complex, and it's an absolute joy to watch things unfold on sometimes absolutely massive scales. It's not quite as direct as... say, Moribito... with its story, but they are almost spiritual siblings in a way. And so, I have another clear recommendation for fantasy afficionados; The Twelve Kingdoms is not to be missed.
An immense fantasy adventure and a classic I waited far too long to watch. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: Government corruption is often in full display -- it is, in fact, the primary topic of the second main story arc -- and as you might have guessed, that spells dire consequences for the people. Outside of that, youma attacks tend to get people eaten, while battles tend to get people wounded or killed. Nothing excessive, but the show doesn't beat around the bush either. Outside of that, the show isn't afraid to portray brothels or poverty-stricken lands and refugee internment camps. Fairly mature stuff.
Version(s) Viewed: Region A&B Bluray, bilingual.
Review Status: Full (45/45)
The Twelve Kingdoms © 2002 Studio Pierrot.
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