The Twelve Kingdoms
by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
Welcome to Classic Streaming Reviews! While it's always fun to dig into each new season of anime, sometimes it's also worth looking back find older series that may have faded from fandom's collective memory and see if they still hold up. If nothing else, it's certainly interesting to look into the trends of yesteryear and see just how much has changed in the anime landscape. Thus we begin our escape from the deluge of isekai light novel adaptations by journeying into...an isekai novel adaptation. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.
Actually, The Twelve Kingdoms is a far cry from most of the isekai series of today, a fact made evident almost immediately by its first episode. These days, you rarely see an isekai protagonist in their natural environment for more than a handful of seconds, with most stories cutting to the chase under the assumption that most of the audience knows the deal already and just wants to get to the fireworks factory in another world. Not so here, where we spend the entire first half of the premiere following heroine Youko's mundane life. But mundane doesn't exactly mean happy – Youko is a shy, nervous girl who feels out of place with her family and schoolmates, pressured to dye her naturally red hair to avoid causing a fuss at school and desperately wanting to renounce her class president title but also too timid to go against the grain. Youko's life in her own world is a stressful, uncertain one that she feels wholly overwhelmed by, and the direction sells this with the tense, almost claustrophobic framing making the world around her feel as alien and unwelcoming as anything more otherworldly.
In a different show this might all be set up for Youko to be whisked away into a thrilling adventure in a fantastical isekai setting – she's even approached by a handsome man who immediately pledges to serve and protect her, the chosen one! But our heroine's journey into a new world is anything but a power fantasy, as snarling fantasy creatures crash into her school and terrorize the people around her in an attempt to crush her between their jaws. Youko is all but dragged kicking and screaming into a new world she has no understanding of, complete with a semi-sentient spirit possessing her body for “protection” and forcing her into combat with the ferocious beasts after her head. No sooner is she free from monsters than she immediately runs afoul of the people of Kou, being arrested for the supposed disasters brought by otherworldly visitors. This new world is not an escape from the fears that plagued Youko in her old one, but a new and even more unknown form of them – dropped into a world and culture she has no clue how to navigate, burdened with cryptic expectations she can't understand, and even dissociated from herself thanks to a mysterious magical makeover that leaves her almost unrecognizable to the only people she knows.
In short, The Twelve Kingdoms has started off about as far away from the now-typical setup as you can get. Youko's story is one that embraces the inherent fear of finding one's self truly out of their element, adrift in an unfamiliar place with nothing to grab onto, and so far it's quite a compelling watch. Each new detail about the world Youko or the audience learns only serves to raise new questions, and the rural, aged setting of Kou is a welcome contrast to modern isekai's paint-by-numbers JRPG fantasy settings. The direction is no slouch either, with series director Tsuneo Kobayashi's skilled hand making the premiere feel almost like a horror story as the intensifying dread and danger ramps up around our lead. Crunchyroll's stream is sadly only available in 480p, but the rough resolution can't do much to diminish such well used staging and blocking.
There's also plenty of mysteries and potential storylines being planted in just these first two episodes. Two of Youko's classmates (“Friends” is probably too strong a word) wind up pulled into this world with her, and are even more alienated than her, what with their lack of magical translation skills. This is another wrinkle that promises something different from its isekai familia: typically these adventures are solo affairs, with the rare exception like Fushigi Yugi's Yui. Considering that precedent, Youko might want to keep an eye on Yuka. There's also the uncertain nature of Keiki, Youko's supposed protector who promptly lost her the second they went through the portal and is possibly a unicorn(?) and also possibly dead. With the typical protector/boyfriend fantasy MIA, things will likely be that much tougher for Youko going forward.
So far, The Twelve Kingdoms adventure is tense, engaging, and actively embraces the inherent conflicts of its central premise like few of its peers, contemporary or otherwise, can claim. With 40+ episodes left it's impossible for me to predict where the story will go, but consider me hooked right now.
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