The Twelve Kingdoms
Episode 3-4

by Nicholas Dupree,

How would you rate episode 3 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?

How would you rate episode 4 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?

The world of Twelve Kingdoms is an immensely complex one. That fact becomes abundantly clear during episode 3 with just a scant few cutaways, as a half dozen new characters from several of the titular kingdoms share news or scheme or just comment on the tumultuous times on the horizon. It's frankly a bit much, especially if you're as bad with names and keeping track of geography as I am. I promise to do my level best to keep things straight as the show goes on, but I'll take this moment to beg clemency from veteran fans if I get a particular term or name or title wrong down the line.

That being said, that complexity isn't a bad thing by any means. A failing of many fantasy stories – isekai or otherwise – is making fantasy settings that just feel like a collection of tropes and signifiers rather than lived-in worlds. Some stories can make that work, but part of what attracts me to Fantasy and Sci-fi fiction is creators using the systems and history of their world to craft intricate, compelling new experiences. I've only just scratched the surface of The Twelve Kingdoms' seemingly expansive setting, but what little I've seen has me itching to no more, not just to get answers to the lingering mysteries it's offered, but because the act of discovering them promises to be just as interesting. Already this feels like a world with centuries of history, populated by flesh and blood people with their own concerns and ways of life, and I'm itching to meet more of them.

Youko, on the other hand, is desperate to anything but that. She's besieged on all sides: on the run from the authorities of the Kou kingdom, hunted by a never-ending menagerie of monsters, and constantly suffering barbs from her companions as they grow increasingly frustrated with her timid disposition. Even the people she thinks she can trust turn out to have their own agendas, with her and Yuka barely escaping being sold into sex slavery by the kindly old woman who took them into her home. Fresh off that betrayal, their group narrowly escapes being sold out again, this time by one of their fellow isekai transplants. The world Youko has found herself in is harsh, hostile even, and the choice to trust anyone carries enormous risk for all of them.

Then to top everything off Youko's now being stalked by a spectral gremlin of a man who constantly taunts her with her deepest fears and traumatic memories. Turns out her almost pathological aversion to conflict stems from her strict, “old fashioned” father's callous control over her life and image. Pushed into a narrow role both at home and in school, Youko internalized acquiescence as the safest way to get by, and that's left her closed off, brittle, and completely unequipped to face the dangers she's faced with now. By episode 4's end she's all but broken down, more alone than ever despite her schoolmates by her side and tormented by a lifetime of avoidance paying her back with fear. It's a brutal sequence to watch, and something tells me things are going to get worse before they get better.

That something is Yuka, who on the surface is handling the whole lost-in-a-hostile-fantasy-world thing a bit better than our lead. Granted that's like handling instrumentality better than Shinji Ikari, but at the very least she's able to take pragmatic steps to keep their trio alive. She's a bit uh, let's say “overeager” to jump to killing Takki when they break into her house to scrounge for food, but her distrust of the caretaker's generosity proves to be pretty reliable. It's no wonder then that she gets more and more frustrated with having to deal with Youko's fragile personality, though that's only part of her issue. She's also increasingly jealous of the other girl's (relatively) easier time through this whole thing. From Yuka's perspective Youko's gotten a magical glow-up, a magic sword only she can use, a universal translator superpower, and is still begging for everyone to help her rather than taking the reins herself. This is all piled on top of Yuka's forestalled excitement at finally getting to live out the sort of swords & sorcery adventure she's always read about, where all she wants to do is find Keiki, clear up this whole misunderstanding where Youko's taking her place as the Main Character, then go off and claim her rightful place as a fantasy heroine. It's mixture just waiting to explode in an ugly way, and with every setback it only gets more volatile.

Overall these episodes have gone above and beyond to lock me in for The Twelve Kingdoms. While I do still feel a bit lost with all the names and places being thrown around, the level of strong, engaging character writing on display has me more than glued in. Youko's character in particular can be hard to watch in the best possible way, and I'm already aching to see what will happen next, even if I'm sure it won't be pretty.

Rating:

The Twelve Kingdoms is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Amazon Prime Video.


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