The Twelve Kingdoms
by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 24 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
How would you rate episode 25 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
Since its first episode, The Twelve Kingdoms has always known how to channel tense, even oppressive atmosphere through its direction and framing. While that isn't the show's sole strength, it's something that's helped set it apart from both its contemporaries and the modern isekai landscape. There are moments of triumph or victory, but they're nearly always tempered with some level of melancholy, and its darkest moments have been uncompromisingly harrowing. These episodes of Arc 3 are perhaps the heaviest the series has gotten since Youko was left alone and suicidal in the forest all those episodes ago.
First up is Youko's developing story as she tries to sort out the gnarly conspiracies of her new royal court. Predictably, there's a lot of tension between ministers who have served through two deposed rulers in as many years, and the lingering tensions from all that means Youko is trying to find even footing in quicksand as she ascends the throne. She knows almost nothing about the history or landscape of Kei as a country, and is also a teenager who could barely navigate the politics of high school, let alone the conflicts of royal chancellors hungry for power. Top all that off with an assassination attempt by one of her royal tutors and it seems like defeating Kou and taking the throne was just trading one life-threatening gauntlet for another. While I'm still not sure about all the moving parts, the paranoia and uncertainty it all fosters in our heroine is palpable, and that keeps what could be a series of interchangeable faces and names interesting even as the conspiracy spirals outward.
And that's somehow the lightest story we're following at the moment. Youko may be in a precarious, stressful situation, but she still has allies and divine right on her side. Suzu has nobody, not even her fellow abused servants, to rely on. She's trapped with a mistress who revels in mistreating her, going so far as to smugly demand the girl to give thanks for the privilege of being spit on. Riyo is full of senseless power plays like forcing her servants to clean in the dead of night with no sleep, just so she can punish them when one of them inevitably makes a mistake. It's a cruel, miserable turmoil that gets legitimately hard to watch at points, and I can fully understand why Suzu so readily grasps onto a fantasy of being saved by the mysterious Queen of Kei, who comes from Hourai just like her. It's also more than a bit depressing to see even these fantasies invaded by the trauma of her life with Riyo, and every minute of screentime had me wondering when the girl will finally snap and try to slit her tormentor's throat.
And yet, that's still not the hardest to watch part of these episodes. That goes to Gyokuyo's story, which is as emotionally fraught as it is compelling. Deposed of her privileged life as a tyrant's ornamental daughter, she finds herself at the bitter mercy of an orphanage matron who despises her for even existing, and only tolerates her living by justifying it as the will of the chancellor who killed the king and freed the people of Hou. Alone, terrified, and jealous of the rumored new Queen of Kei for earning the eternal youth now denied to her, the girl lashes out and decries the survivors of her father's despotism for taking out their resentment on her when she never took anyone's life herself. It's a complicated conflict that doesn't really have a satisfying answer. Gyokuyo may not have been aware of her father's tyranny, but the life of luxury and eternity she so desperately wants back was nevertheless built on a foundation of corpses. While she could never answer for crimes not her own, is it any surprise that the surviving families of the countless people lost wouldn't want somebody to blame, to take their hurt and anger out on? I don't really know what the answer is here, and I suspect finding out Twelve Kingdoms' stance will involve a lot more pain for Gyokuyo before it's done.
This trio of stories combines to make for a bleak but constantly engaging set of episodes. They're genuinely difficult to sit through, but only because of how effectively they capture the traumatic subject matters they deal with. While I still don't know how (or if) these three tales will coalesce, for now they're each enthralling enough to work separately and in tandem.
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