Japanese Title: Juuni Kokuki
Similar: Vision of Escaflowne
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
The Beast Player Erin
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 45 episodes
- Strong characters.
- Deep lore.
- Vibrant design for the world, monsters, and people.
- Complex politics.
- Epic music and great voice work.
- Many unexplored areas.
- Overload of specialist nouns and terms.
Youko’s natural red hair, despite her Japanese origins, has always been a source of derision from classmates – even her own mother thinks she dyes it out of rebellion. However, her hair speaks to a destiny that awaits her, one she isn’t eager to accept. A tall man of long blonde hair arrives at her school one day, claiming the enemy is near. Before she can comprehend his meaning, her school is under attack by a giant bird with the power to control storms. The man summons monsters to fight and he hands Youko a magical sword fit for a queen. He is eventually forced to open a rift to transport her to his realm for safety, where her destiny as future queen of one of twelve kingdoms will thrust her onto a journey of self-discovery and political conflict.
The world of Twelve Kingdoms is inspired by Chinese mythology with twelve separate kingdoms ruled by a king or queen chosen by a Kirin, such as the blonde man from earlier. Monsters roam the lands, some of them hostile. Politics and magic are entwined in this world. A Kirin can only chose the right ruler for its kingdom, but even the best of people can go evil, which brings famine and disaster to their kingdom until, eventually, death claims the Kirin and thus the ruler as well, for they are linked in death as in life. Some years later, another Kirin is born to select a new ruler, as what happened to Youko.
Of course, choosing a sixteen-year-old student to rule a kingdom can’t end well, and at first seems like another eye-rolling moment of anime logic, but Youko has a long way to go before she is fit to rule. The first problem is her ability to fight monsters and invaders – one of a ruler’s many duties. Her Kirin imbues her with a spirit that takes control in combat as long as she keeps her eyes open – she had better not flinch at a lethal attack. Next is knowledge of the kingdoms, for which she has none. She meets various characters along the way, with both good and bad intentions, including the king of an allied kingdom and Rakushun, a rat-man with kind heart and deep insight into the ways of the world. He is such a sweet character that you just want to hug him – he’s fluffy too.
I love how Youko has to work for her kingdom and power, even though she was chosen. In most anime, the selection alone would have given all knowledge and power without effort on her part. By giving her the minimum to survive, – she is separated from her Kirin early on – it allows her to grow from a meek girl into a mature woman. Youko’s purpose and growth are excellent, far better than Hitomi in Vision of Escaflowne, an anime of similar concept.
Youko doesn’t react well to her new world, but one of her two friends dragged into the portal loves it. She sees this as her fantasy novels brought to life. She feels this was her destiny, so much so that she comes to resent Youko for being the chosen one, leading to an interesting character arc. Most transported-world fiction acts as though everyone would hate being in a fantasy world – utter rubbish – so I love how they included this passionate perspective as well.
While I found The Twelve Kingdoms’ complex politics and lore to be engaging, the overload of specialist terms can be alienating if you don’t know Chinese. It isn’t the number of fantasy names, but the context in which they are presented. In The Lord of the Rings, which has far more specialist terms than here, we learn each new term in a memorable context. I mean, the first chapter is all about telling you what a Hobbit is. Even the less important ones have tricks for learning them. Aragorn is a Dúnadan Ranger, for example. Even if you don’t know what a Dúnadan is, you can still understand enough because of the added ‘Ranger’ context. Without said context, Dúnadan could refer to his race, his profession, or is it the term for a leper in Middle-Earth? Twelve Kingdoms lacks these contextual aids, and it doesn’t help that most uses for specialist terms are done without visuals accompaniments. In Twelve Kingdoms, you hear Nyosen, Taiho (three meanings!), Gishi, Shuuko, Seicho, and so on, taking a dozen uses until additional context is supplied to help remember. That said, if you pay attention, you would manage without a drop of Chinese.
My other gripe is tangential to what you see in Twelve Kingdoms, for it concerns what you don’t see, namely half the world. The plot focuses on the Kingdom of Kei, Youko’s kingdom, and several others to varying degrees. The narrative also leaves Youko a few times – the shift can be abrupt – to follow other characters, including the daughter of a tyrant ruler, which was great – man I loved and hated that character. However, by the end, I felt much of the world and potential (sometimes promised) politics was left unexplored. Youko’s thread ties satisfactorily, yet with room for more, at least. The anime only adapts about half the novels and I would love to see the rest come to fruition.
The Twelve Kingdoms is a deep anime with such a rich world that it begs further exploration. As is, I still found The Twelve Kingdoms to be thoroughly engaging, far beyond your typical fantasy. If this anime sounds appealing to you, prepare for a world of corrupt rulers, magic, monsters, strong characters, deception, alliances, and Rakushun.
Art – High
A beautiful colour palette and keen artistic sense bring the world to life. Love the East Asian-influenced monsters. Excellent costume design. The only way they could improve the art is with more animation, which isn’t bad already.
Sound – High
Twelve Kingdoms boasts great music and voice acting in either language, but the script could have done with some refinement. I got the impression the writers gave the same amount of time to this script as given to your average anime. Twelve Kingdoms isn’t your average anime, however, and needed more attention to editing.
Story – High
A girl is taken to another world, a world of monsters and politics, where she is to be queen of one of twelve kingdoms. I was so close to giving The Twelve Kingdoms a ‘Very High’ for story, but with so much left unexplored, one can’t be sure if the hinted at depth is real or false promises.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A must for high fantasy fans. Be warned that The Twelve Kingdoms uses a lot of specialist words, which may alienate many viewers. (Be warned, there is some alternate, possibly fan-made, awful dub I have seen used several times on YouTube.)
Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)