The Twelve Kingdoms
by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 34 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
How would you rate episode 35 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
How would you rate episode 36 of
The Twelve Kingdoms ?
The Twelve Kingdoms has certainly never been unwilling to discuss politics. But what sets it aside from so many other high fantasy series mired in court politics is its insistence on examining power from a ground level perspective. In many stories the lies, scandals, and machinations of the nobility are treated like tawdry affairs of intrigue, slathered in twists and surprises for the purpose of soaking in the drama. Twelve Kingdoms, on the other hand, never wants the viewer to forget the human cost of all those betrayals and changes of allegiance. That aspect comes to the forefront this week as all three of our heroines converge (more or less) to join the rebellious forces that have been building within Wa province.
In some ways it's a break from the more dedicated character-driven narratives that have defined this arc up til now. Episode 36 in particular is largely interested in describing and executing the rebels' plans to disperse Shoukou's troops in order to corner him in his own castle, and is easily the closest the series has come to more typical high fantasy adventures since Youko ascended the throne. But what also sets this story apart is how it uses its quickly expanding cast to express the myriad experiences of those living under oppressive or capricious rule. There are easily a dozen unique ways the show uses various characters to expand its perspective on oppression. The most affecting scene for me is when Koshou, one of the rebel leaders, just vents about the emotional weight of knowing there is bald-faced injustice being committed before your eyes, but being powerless to stop it, and how that burden stays with you no matter what else happens in life. What's more, even the burgeoning rebellion is recognized as a sort of stop gap – killing Shoukou will get rid of him, sure, but Gahou is above him, and if the ministers or even the Queen are just as rotten, there's only so much a few thousand commonfolk can do to end their oppression. The nature of power makes extracting the corrupt a messy, strenuous, and actively hostile process, and even a movement as well-planned as this one is more than likely to fail.
That is, unless they have a secret trump card, like say the Queen of Kei herself joining their rebellion to circumvent the bureaucracy and conniving officials who would stop her from taking direct action. On the one hand it's a bit questionable for Youko to start killing what are technically her own troops – which the show acknowledges – but on the other it's a pretty bold statement that even the top dog can't get rid of fleas by just sternly telling them to leave. Trying to reform a broken system via its own decrepit authority is at best an exercise in impotency, at worst an excuse for tacitly approving atrocity, and I have to admire Twelve Kingdoms' willingness to say something that anti-authoritarian in a show that by all rights should be very pro-authority. This is a show where immortal monarchy are instated by divine revelation, after all, yet at every turn it seeks to interrogate and excoriate the assumption of power as validity of itself. Also on a shallower level it's just cool to finally see Youko taking charge of an army and kicking ass on the battlefield. Much as I think more works should interrogate the assumptions at the base of a lot of fantasy escapism, sometimes you just want to see some cool sword fights.
The black mark on all this remains Asano, who more than just feeling pointless starts to actively distract from the larger themes at play. His delusional fear of this world and desire to “rescue” Youko from it and get back to his world was a) already done way better and quicker with Yuka and b) all but totally divorced from the rest of this conflict. There's a perfectly interesting parable to be had here about how his particular isekai adventure relates to the more common wish-fulfilling adventures, and the scene where Youko tells him life cannot give him a singular reason to live and so he must find his own is really nice. But that's also decidedly not what any of the rest of this story arc is about, and time spent with him feels like time wasted that could have been spent with more engaging, interesting characters. Also he shoots and nearly kills a kid. You're not gonna make me feel sorry for him after that, sorry.
But hey, whatever issues that albatross brings ultimately pale in comparison to everything else this arc has done right. As an examination of power, oppression, and revolution I'm hard-pressed to think of another pure fantasy series that offered as much depth as The Twelve Kingdoms has with this arc, and as we approach the ending episodes of the story I find myself more impressed with every episode.
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