DVD 1: Shoku
Brought to you by Studio Pierrot, the same production company that animated Fushigi Yuugi, the Twelve Kingdoms initially follows the same setup: Schoolgirl and Friend get sucked into ancient China-like place that is not, in fact, ancient China, can't get back home, and have antics. However whereas the popularity of Fushigi Yuugi is powered by the characters' relationships, the Twelve Kingdoms focuses more on individual character development through carefully organized plot and a fantastic array of supporting characters.
Based on a popular fantasy novel series by Fuyumi Ono, the Twelve Kingdoms follows the story of Yoko Nakajima, a quiet and extremely self-conscious girl who is obedient to her parents and respected by teachers and students. When a mysterious man appears at her school, Yoko is taken through a portal in the sea and soon finds herself lost and abandoned in another world and pursued by creatures both mythical and malevolent. Yoko initially deals with this the same way that many insecure, confused, and frightened anime heroines have (and scores no points whatsoever with anybody): by crying, and then whining, and finally breaking down (over and over and over). However, as she is forced to deal with a string of betrayals and to accept that she may never return home, Yoko shows evidence of an inner strength that will likely transform her into a truly heroic character.
When an anime is more dependent on plot and characterization than action, one of the most important supporting factors ends up being the choice of voice talent, and in that both the Japanese and English cast shine. The Japanese seiyuu cast is led by Aya Hisakawa (Yuki in Fruits Basket, Ami in Sailor Moon, Haruka in RahXephon) as Yoko, who is supported by no less than Yuji Ueda (as Asano, one of Yoko's friends) and Takehito Koyasu (as the “mysterious man,” Keiki) both formerly of Fushigi Yuugi. While one might question the casting of the deep-voiced Koyasu as a delicate, white-haired kirin, as per usual he does an excellent job and by the end of the volume it's inconceivable that the character be played by anyone else. Oddly, Koyasu's opposite number on the English cast initially reminded me of Casey Kasem, but that impression also disappeared over time. The only member of the main english cast that remains an annoyance is Joshua Seth as Asano: the voice seems too young for the character. On a definite plus side for the dub, the actors made a valiant effort to pronounce an extraordinary amount of Japanese words, with mostly positive results – an impressive feat when you consider that the show is sprinkled with not only Japanese names but also series-specific terms such as “kaikyaku,” “youma,” and “shoku.”
Even if the lingo confuses you, Twelve Kingdoms is still worth watching simply for the sake of the animation. The character designs are based off pictures drawn by the author, and the detail portrayed in the novels is brought to vivid life in the anime. Each character or creature Yoko encounters has a unique look, and a startling amount of attention was devoted to sketching in patterns on fur or clothing. A scene as simple as a kirin walking across a glade is gorgeous to behold, simply to ogle the lines of the hair.
The background artists also did some serious world-building, creating detailed decorations on and in buildings and washing everything in dusky yellow tones and bright colors that contrast sharply with the drab greens and grays of Yoko's present day Japan.
Enhancing the animation is a beautiful soundtrack arranged by Kunihiko Ryo, whose pieces add to the dynastic feel with an ancient Chinese folk music flare.
While the anime itself wins points for presentation, extras-enthusiasts may not find the DVD worth the price. Five episodes are included in the first volume, but besides those episodes and the option of watching the opening creditless (which isn't particularly interesting, considering the opening is essentially all still pictures), there are only the standard previews for other Anime Works series. Included in the DVD case is a two-page pamphlet with a small world map and a list of terms and creatures, but as far as extras go, that's all, folks.
As with any good book, ninety percent of the enjoyment should come out of getting to the conclusion – unfortunately, in an anime format, a story originally structured as a novel may seem to drag to people used to a climax and a conclusion every episode. Based on this first volume, Twelve Kingdoms promises a good story for those in it for the long haul, but anyone not looking for a commitment should probably look elsewhere.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Beautiful art, a complex and interesting storyline
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