Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Twelve Kingdoms
The Complete Series Blu-ray
High school honor student Yoko Nakajima is adrift in life with little will of her own; even her reluctant acceptance of the role of Class President is a manifestation of her efforts to please others so she won't be hated. Only in her resistance to coloring her naturally red hair does she show initiative. Her world gets upended when unsettling dreams she has been having partly become reality: a tall, blond man appears before her, swears loyalty to her, and gives her a sword, which he insists she must use to protect herself from a monstrous bird which attacks her school to get to her. Before she understands what's happening, she and two classmates who happened to be in the vicinity get transported to another world. Separated from the blond man and his bestial talking servants, Yoko and classmates Sugimoto and Asano find themselves struggling for their lives in the strange country of Ko. Thus begins Yoko's journey through both the lands known as the Twelve Kingdoms and through her own process of self-discovery. Both for her own sake and that of many in this world, she must grow into her own person and fulfill the reason she was brought to this world. Meanwhile, others – many also with connections to Japan – must redefine themselves as they face the challenges presented by this world.
Though isekai stories have become the most prolific genre of the current decade in anime, manga, and light novels, they are hardly new to this decade. This 2002-03 anime and the novels it is based upon are among the most prominent predecessors to the recent crop. The franchise is much more stylistically similar to classic tales of characters being transported to another world, and so establishing any direct influence between it and current titles is difficult. However, given the timing of the novels and anime relative to the start of the isekai boom, the writers of such tales easily could have been at least partly inspired by this one. After all, it uses strong characters and a fascinating world design to tell a compelling story that is equal parts adventure and self-discovery. And now it is being rereleased in an economical Blu-Ray set, which finally gives me the opportunity to examine the series as a whole.
The appeal of the series starts with its potent world-building, which is grounded heavily in Chinese mythology and aesthetics. The world of The Twelve Kingdoms is one of the most rigorously-constructed of all fantasy worlds, a place where absolutely everything is structured systematically, from the symmetrical layout of the lands themselves to the deeply bureaucratical structure of governance. It is a place where rulership is not passed down family lines; new rulers are instead chosen from among the populace of a kingdom by divine unicorn-like creatures called kirin, who then become the chief advisors to their chosen rulers. This operates on a literal Mandate of Heaven because the governance and ability of the ruler is directly tied to the health of the land; if the ruler acts wisely than the kingdom prospers but if not, the kingdom falls into ruin. While this is generally true about rulership anywhere, in this setting the effect is direct and literal: when a king loses his way, droughts and other calamities strike the land with regularity and supernatural beasts called youma prey on the populace. To assure that kingdoms remain stable, rulers and specially-designated subordinates are immortal, though they may be killed with special weapons. Rulers can also die if their kirin perishes, and the kirin can get deathly sick if the ruler goes down harmful or destructive paths. In other words, it's basically a self-correcting system. There are many other fascinating details which make this world distinctive, such as how people are borne from fruit grown on special trees rather than from a mother's womb, and those are explored as the series progresses.
Just as important to the success of the series are the characters that it focuses on. A total of six protagonists or co-protagonists are used over the course of the series' 45 episodes, but the first and foundational one is Yoko Nakajima. Although she doesn't appear that way at first, Yoko ultimately becomes one of the single strongest and most compelling heroines that anime has ever produced. She starts out as a weak and timid girl who is unable to do anything decisively and responds as poorly as Neon Genesis Evangelion's Shinji Ikari does to the difficult situation thrust upon her. Over the course of the first story arc she has to battle youma and scheming rulers, gets harshly betrayed, is often plagued by doubts, and is almost driven insane by visions which bring out her personal demons, but in the process she also gradually builds her resolve, learns that there are people she can trust, and eventually starts to grow into her own. Later she faces additional challenges and troubles borne of ignorance and lingering self-doubt as she battles corruption in the kingdom of Kei, but she eventually comes out all the stronger for it. The Yoko at the end of the third arc is a far cry from the girl she was at the beginning, so much so that a scene at the end of episode 39, which represents the culmination of everything that Yoko has learned and experienced over the course of the series to that point, remains high on my list of all-time-great anime scenes even after 15 years. In fact, the whole of episode 39, which shows Yoko finally fully taking charge of both her life and her responsibilities, is easily one of the single best episodes of any isekai series to date.
Yoko isn't alone among great and memorable characters in the series. Her co-stars in the third arc, the similar-in-physical-age girls Shoukei and Suzu, are also strong examples of character growth and development. Both also start out being rather pathetic and unlikable, and though both do legitimately suffer, only with time and experiences do they come to understand their flaws and develop into less selfish individuals. Watching their growth over the course of the third arc, and the ways they ultimately contribute to solving the problems in Kei, is nearly as satisfying as Yoko's own development. Taiki, the kirin who is the featured character of the second story arc, doesn't impress as much but still shows his own share of character growth; sadly, the part of the story which explains how he ends up the way he is in the series' current time was never animated or formally translated into English. The other pair of co-protagonists, Shoryu and Enki, are featured in one flashback story in the first arc and are otherwise supporting characters for much of the story, though they come back to feature treatment for the fourth arc. Both are stronger characters from the start, so their appeal comes more from their strength than their growth. Rakashun, who spends most of his time in a humanoid mouse form, is the most prominent among the supporting cast members. Though not as dynamic a personality as the others, he nonetheless serves well as a voice of knowledge, reason, and sagacity first for Yoko and later (and to a lesser extent) for Shoukei.
The overall story is broken into four arcs, with recap episodes after arcs 1, 2, and 4 and transition episodes between arcs 2 and 3 and between arcs 3 and 4. The first, which covers episodes 1-13, adapts the first source novel. It differs from the source material in that Asano is an entirely new character and Sugimoto is upgraded from being a very minor background character; both are used in the anime primarily to help bring Yoko's internal struggles out into a form more suitable for visual presentation. The second, which covers episodes 15-20, adapts the second novel story of Taiki's origin mostly faithfully, albeit with the perspective shifted to a story being taught to Yoko to help her accept her decision to take on her responsibilities and with some new scenes featuring Sugimoto interacting with the current-time Taiki back in Japan. The third and strongest arc covers episodes 23-39 and adapts the fourth novel (originally released in two parts in Japan) more or less straight except for a reappearance by Asano. The fourth and final arc, covering episodes 41-45, adapts most of the third novel and features the backstory of Shoryu and Enki, again in the context of a story told to Yoko. Frustratingly, the series just ends after that; it was originally planned for more episodes, and claims that there was not enough additional source material to be adapted have always sounded fishy since two more full novels would have been published by the production time. However, to my knowledge no additional elaboration on this has ever been offered.
In addition to strong storytelling, the series was also a stand-out on its artistic elements. Well-defined character designs which don't follow anime norms and sumptuous creature and clothing designs are both regular features, and the series particularly impresses in the way Yoko's design gradually shifts over time; this is not easily noticeable unless episode that are several apart are viewed back-to-back. Background art does not impress as much but still features elaborate palaces, soaring mountains, and detailed renditions even of ordinary hovels. The direction by Tsuneo Kobayashi (who would later go on to direct Midori Days and Emma: A Victorian Romance) includes many sharp choices which may not be easily caught on a first viewing, such as the reflection of characters in swords. At its best, this is a gorgeous series. Unfortunately the overall animation effort is erratic, especially in the later stages. The series offers some respectable action sequences, including giving Yoko a distinctively acrobatic fighting style which involved many leaps and flips, but there are also many occasions where movements – especially in attempts to give a layered, 3D effect – just look awkward. The series also has some trouble staying on model and/or in reasonable scale, with one scene involving horses moving siege equipment in the third arc looking especially bad on this. Many of these flaws were not as readily-noticeable when the series first came out, but HD TVs and Blu-Ray visual quality are more unforgiving on this.
The series also distinguishes itself on the musical front. This was the first anime effort music director Kunihiko Ryo, who later went on to also do wonderful work in Fantastic Children and The Story of Saiunkoku. Like the latter case, this one features many pieces which use classical Chinese instrumentation and mixes them in smoothly with dramatic orchestration, piano pieces, and synthesized numbers. The result is a distinctive sound which probably would have worked well as an independent soundtrack release. The use of a rock music-themed number at one point in the third arc makes for an oddly incongruous choice, but generally the music does a great job of supporting the content. The opener, which is used for all 45 episodes, is a purely instrumental piece which departs from the norm by not actually showing any characters from the series. Closer “Getsumei Fūei,” which features wagon wheels as they roll by various series settings, also shows no series characters and is at least as memorable in delivering its soulful vocals.
The English dub is also generally a strong point for most of the run. Provided by Bang Zoom! Entertainment, it is stacked with prominent English voice actors from the early 2000s, many of which were either great fits or actual improvements in casting for their roles; in fact, director Kobayashi was reportedly pleased with the English dub job. Midge Mayes (aka Dorothy Elias-Fahn) anchors the series by capturing the many different moods of Yoko, but many other fine performances, from the booming voice of Jamieson K. Price as third arc rebel Koshou to Lex Lang as the pragmatically arrogant King of En, to Mia Lee and Kate Davis as Suzu and Shoukei respectively, also shine through. The dub isn't flawless, as the script suffers from some awkward wording in places (especially in the last arc) and some distinctive voices are reused too much in minor roles, but the script does retain are remarkably high number of arcane bits of terminology from the original Japanese.
The re-release of the series on Blu-Ray by Discotek Media does not result in a dramatic visual improvement over the original DVD releases by Anime Works, but this presentation is noticeably cleaner and clearer. The episodes are spread across five disks in a single case which comes in a slipcover. Disappointingly, the maps and encyclopedic information included in liner notes for many of the Anime Works volumes is not reproduced here, but the final disk does include a 97 second long pilot which features some scenes that appeared either in altered form in the anime or were absent altogether. It also includes a trio of Japanese staff interviews totaling about 31 minutes: one with the director, one with the character designer, and one with the producer. I don't believe these were included in the original Anime Works releases. The main revelations from these are that original writer Fuyumi Ono was deeply enough involved in the decision-making process for the anime that she actually recommended the inclusion of Sugimoto, that Asano was added to provide more appeal to male audiences, and that the series was quite popular both with female audiences and, surprisingly, older men who got into the historical aspects of its depictions.
Taken as a whole, the main theme of The Twelve Kingdoms is simple yet potent: “don't let hardship cause you to give up or lose yourself.” That doubtlessly contributes to why this was such a popular and memorable series. It's also very rewatchable; I have probably viewed parts of it at least a couple of dozen times over the years, and it never loses the satisfying quality of seeing its protagonists struggle through adversity to come out as better people. It is a series with appeal well beyond just the normal fantasy or isekai audience, and it's well worth inclusion in any anime collection.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Compelling protagonists, fascinating world design, strong character development
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