The Twelve Kingdoms
Episodes 21-23

by Nicholas Dupree,

How would you rate episode 21 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?

How would you rate episode 22 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?

How would you rate episode 23 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?

With Taiki's arc unceremoniously concluded, it's time for another recap episode! I'll spare you covering that since it mostly just reinforces how totally aimless that story ended up being, at least in this adaptation. Instead we'll be moving right into the next arc, “A Great Distance in the Wind, The Sky at Dawn” and yet another new set of characters to follow. But first, The Twelve Kingdoms deigns to treat us with a cozy check-in with everyone's mousy nerd Rakushun.

“A Letter” is a wonderful return to form, letting us get right back into things with Youko and Rakushun in their respective new homes. Youko is trying to learn the ropes in her new station, fumbling through the duties and intra-court scheming of her advisors and ministers. Turns out it is indeed pretty difficult for a teenager to start ruling a nation she learned about 3 months ago, and Keiki the Awkward Turtle isn't a huge help in smoothing things over. Meanwhile Rakushun is facing a less outwardly hostile, but still far from welcoming time going to Fantasy Grad School. His status as a Hanjyuu and self-taught scholar leaves him in an awkward position where any success draws negative attention, and any failure confirms others' perception of him as an outsider. He does have friends, and some of his struggles are growing pains, but it's clear that even a more “tolerant” society than Kou's has its ingrained prejudices. It's a subtle kind of discrimination that most stories like this never really grapple with, and it immediately reminded me what makes The Twelve Kingdoms' political facets so engaging.

It's also just sweet to see the two sharing about their lives across bird-phone, both trying to spare the other too much worry about their struggles while reading between the lines of messages anyway. And can I just say I relate so damn hard to Youko getting her ministers' names mixed up? Other Isekai series try to make their protagonist relateable by having them spew anime and video game references, but after spending weeks juggling an ever-growing cast in a world where everyone has a name, an official name, a christian name, and a jellicle name, I've never felt more Seen than when Youko gets one interchangeable dude mixed up with another. Then just as the validation is radiating into my cells, I learn there are also popular baby names that multiple, unconnected characters share in this world, because Fuyumi Ono hates me and wrote this series to personally troll me.

Things only get more complicated with the start of the new arc, since along with following Youko's coronation we get not one but TWO new protagonists to follow. Across two coinciding but partially separate timelines. In two different countries. It's a lot to pack into one episode, and while it at times feels a bit much, the actual story being told is certainly a compelling one. On one end we have Suzu, a kaikyaku stranded in the Kingdoms a hundred years before Youko's arrival, who scrounged and suffered her way into becoming an immortal Senin as a servant to a noble in the Sai Kingdom. It's through her story we witness the cruelties of un-aging royals first hand, as her supposed benefactor Riyo brings her in so she can have someone to abuse for decades on end, confident that her victim has nowhere else to escape from. And without a soul-mate unicorn to catch the Karmic Plague there's seemingly no way to uproot Riyo's cruelty, there's no “easy” escape option for her.

On the other end, we have...okay I'm going to call her Gyokuyo since that's the name she has at the end of this episode, even though there's 2 other prominent Gyokuyos because, again, this franchise was written to publicly pants me. She goes by at least 1 other name during the time she is the princess of Hou, living in privileged solidarity as her tyrannical father, the King of Hou, ruled with a totalitarian fist. What follows is a short but sharp-toothed condemnation of yet another corrupt leader, this time one who executed innocent people for the crime of not being productive enough for his utilitarian, “find joy in labor” society. While not as complex as previous Bad Kings, it does a good job further fleshing out the series' thesis on the responsibility of power, and makes for an interesting contrast to Youko's struggle to be taken seriously when the pomp and arrogance of royalty doesn't come naturally to her.

I have no clue where exactly these 3 storylines will meet, or if they will at all, but they're certainly compelling so far. There's an intimidating number of moving parts, and I'm almost certain I've gotten somebody's name wrong already, but that's ultimately the good kind of problem to have. It's also nice to be returning to the somewhat more grounded worldbuilding of Twelve Kingdoms' politics rather than its mythology, and I'm excited to see Youko begin to build her own nation, whatever form that may take.


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

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