The Twelve Kingdoms
by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 11 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
How would you rate episode 12 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
Last week, we finally got acquainted with the King of En and his young(-looking) companion Enki, and this week we really get into their origin story. In terms of narrative there's no huge revelations–we see the royal selection process in action, more or less, but the focus is largely on developing the impish Enki, and in the process extrapolating The Twelve Kingdoms' thesis on power. The crux of Enki's story is that, as a Taika lost in our world, he lived through the fallout of war as a poor, sickly commoner. Witnessing both the brutality of those in power and the indirect cruelty left in its wake, when eventually spirited away to En and told he's a magic unicorn who must choose the next king, he rejects it outright. En as a kingdom might crumble to dust, but putting some new ruler upon the throne would merely make Enki complicit in whatever horrors that leader caused. It's only after traveling back into our realm that he meets a leader who can truly put his doubts to rest: Shoryu.
Shoryu is just as much a stand-up guy in his youth as he is 500 years later. Charismatic, candid with his people, and most importantly determined to act in their best interest. It's here the show finally starts to coalesce around its idea of a proper leader: one who respects those who follow them, and views their devotion as a responsibility rather than validation. Shoryu, now King En, has maintained his place as a king by treating his position as that of a servant to his people, and that has allowed his kingdom to prosper unabated for centuries. It's a bit simplistic, and I suspect there's more to En's history than the summary we get here, but it's a solid thesis for the series as it moves on from Youko's quest for safety and into her journey to become a leader herself.
Our heroine isn't particularly thrilled about that, for the record. While the challenge of reclaiming a kingdom she's never been to is daunting, what's really holding Youko back is her own self-image. While we the audience have seen Youko face desperate trials and come out a stronger, more compassionate and dependable person, she's still haunted by her mistakes throughout the show. She let a friend die while another grew to despise her. She abandoned Rakushun and endangered countless lives in the process of fleeing. These are all perfectly human foibles that any one of us might make in her place, but Youko's shame leaves her terrified of hurting even more people by accepting a role she isn't fit for. Her companions, including that water spirit who's been just hanging out inside her vascular system this whole time, assure her that she is fit, precisely because she's aware of her faults, but in the thick of self-loathing it's often impossible to recognize anything good about yourself.
Still, even if Youko does eventually make a royal screw up, she'll probably never outdo her predecessor. The late Queen Kei lasted just 6 years, we find out, because her possessive obsession with Keiki drove her to a toxic paranoia about losing him to another woman. Speaking frankly, this is the first bit of characterization in Twelve Kingdoms that doesn't work for me. In abstract it works as a solid example of what the show posits is corrupt leadership, using one's position for validation only to be consumed by fears of losing it. But without a more thorough understanding of Queen Kei's history she just comes off as a shallow, jealous monster who destroys herself with no provocation. Compared to King Kou's equally petty, but better articulated fear of being outdone by outsider rivals, it feels like a thematic shortcut that makes its point faster, but not altogether better.
That stumble aside, Twelve Kingdoms continues to be a solid and considered narrative, and as we approach the end of this arc–based on the episode titles anyway–I'm very ready to see where it can go from here. I'm also just about ready to say goodbye to Yuka, who, after her 4th assassination attempt in a week, seems to have pretty much completed her character arc. Hopefully she can find some peace, go home, and let Youko move on to a new part of her life with new obstacles to tackle.
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