The Twelve Kingdoms
by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 26 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
How would you rate episode 27 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
The past few episodes have been on a gradual yet inevitable trend towards tragedy for our trio of disparate heroines, and while we're still in the early stages of “A Great Distance in the Wind, The Sky at Dawn” it certainly feels like we've hit each character's low point. Well I suppose for Youko this is more her second or third low point. Girl just can't catch a break even after becoming royalty.
The longer her reign goes on the more that title feels like a burden or curse than anything. Despite Keiki's assurances that just being chosen by the heavens is enough, Youko finds herself trying to smoke out a clandestine power struggle among her ministers, narrowly avoiding an assassination attempt in the process, and finds herself falling back on bad habits from her previous life. Youko's fatal flaw in the first arc was her inability to endure judgment, which led her to be a people pleaser who subsumed her own personality to avoid upsetting those around her. And while that can already be a problem in high school, it's a much more dangerous one when it comes to wielding real political power. If she can't make decisions based on her own judgment, it could lead to ruin very, very quickly. Which is why it's both cathartic and worrisome when she decides, "Hey, why not do the opposite of what everyone expects me to do?" So she demotes her entire cabinet before secretly leaving the palace to live among the actual people of Kei and learn about what they need from a ruler first hand. It's a pretty classic trope, and it fits well with this arc's exploration of power as both a burden and a responsibility. Youko is in a position to dictate the course of history, and she can't keep handing that power off to others simply because she's afraid of using it poorly.
After all, doing that seems to be how you get Lady Riyo, who we learn trough Suzu's story was once an advisor to two generations of Sai's kings, amassing enough clout and political power to weather multiple regime changes and essentially self-isolate in her enormous palace for the rest of her immortality. Receiving power and wealth without the responsibility or any way to be held accountable has left her a selfish, pompous sadist who forces her servants into lethal chores just to pass the time. Which makes it so thrilling to watch Suzu finally have enough of it and flee by stealing her mistress' flying tiger. She luckily receives shelter from the elderly Queen of Sai, and is finally able to start her journey. Suzu herself is still naive despite being over 100 at this point, and Sai recognizes the girl needs to live and travel among the Kingdoms' people once more before she can really come to accept this world as her home, but things are finally looking up after so much misery. She even runs into another Kaikyaku, and wouldn't you know it, it's Asano, the guy who arrived with Youko and Yuna then disappeared like 20 episodes ago. I wonder what he's been up toOoooooh he has a gun. Where did he get a gun? And why's he pointing it at Suzu's head? Well so much for that new chapter in her life, I guess.
But even with that dark cliffhanger it's an easier watch than Gyokuyo's segments in these episodes. There was obviously no good outcome to be had once her identity as the child of Hou's despot ruler came out, but I can't say I was expecting an immediate, excruciating execution attempt. She's barely saved by the officers of the regent lord who killed her family to begin with, but it really sets in your brain just how much anger and pain is broiling beneath the surface of the country's survivors. Gyokuyo, however, is in no place mentally to recognize any of that. From her perspective all that's happened is that her family was murdered, she was thrown into hard labor for three years, and then a mob tried to tear her asunder for crimes she had no part in committing. It's to Twelve Kingdoms' credit that it manages to keep both sides on such a fraught, thorny topic feeling sympathetic. Gyokuyo is technically innocent, being ignorant of her father's crimes, but the life of immortal privilege she enjoyed for decades was built upon the mountains of corpses from the countless lives sacrificed by her father's brutal attempt to weed out “corruption.” The scars left by such horrors don't heal easily or quickly, if at all. For as much as an outsider might feel that it's cruel to want the girl dead, it's no surprise that an entire populace so traumatized and terrorized by a single person would be desperate for a target to take vengeance on.
But even though Gyokuyo is rescued by being exiled, she's still a product of the royal court she spent her life in. She's taken to heart the idea that, as divine ruler, her father was justified in what he did and the rebels were simply jealous usurpers who stole the life she deserved from her. By the time she's confronting the regent it honestly feels like she wants that to be the case. Because if it's true that means there's no reason besides abject evil that her fortunes have been turned, and thus no harsh lesson in perspective she needs to learn about her family. Things aren't helped by being forced to feign humility as a servant of the Queen of Kyou, a situation I can only imagine will get worse before it gets better.
While there are a number of moving parts I'm not entirely sure I grasp yet – I still have no clue who Koukan is or why he's so important to Youko's plot – things are beginning to coalesce for this arc, slowly but surely. Youko's development is especially rewarding, seeing her take a critical look at herself not as self-flagellation, but as motivation to change and grow. I'm not all too sure where the other storylines are going right now, but I have confidence that if and when they finally congeal, it'll be worth the wait.
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