If you have not been following the storyline of Twelve Kingdoms prior to this point then this volume is a bad place to get on board, as extensive familiarity with what has come before is both assumed and required. For those who have followed the series since its beginning, though, this is an exceptionally satisfying volume. The dramatic build-up with which episode 35 ended is well capitalized-upon in the first four episodes as the “A Great Distance in the Wind, the Sky at Dawn” story arc is brought to a decisive conclusion, but in many ways this volume also represents the culmination of the entire series to date. Issues which have been lingering throughout the series (including Asano's fate) are resolved by the end of the climatic episode 39, which sees Yoko finally fully embrace her destiny and make her dramatic first ordinance as
Queen. Though the subject of the ordinance may surprise some at first, everything which
Yoko has experienced since the beginning of the series has built a logical progression towards it. Unlike some decisions she made earlier in her role as Queen, this ordinance is well-reasoned and strongly reflective both of her and of the kingdom she wants to build. It is a brilliant stroke of dramatic storytelling which would have provided a fine ending to the series as a whole had the producers chosen to cut the story off at that point. Instead the story continues on with episode 40, an interlude episode which clears up several loose ends from the “A Great Distance” story arc and leads into the next one—which must be either short or unfinished since there's only one volume of episodes left. (I have heard it said that fans who don't wish to be left hanging should stop after episode 39, though I cannot at this time personally attest to the accuracy of this statement.)
Although this volume of episodes focuses more heavily on Yoko than the previous volumes in the “A Great Distance” story arc, both Shokei and Suzu still get a fair amount of screen time. Unlike Yoko, they have already worked out their issues, so their relegation more towards supporting roles in this volume should come as no surprise. They play only minor parts in the action of these episodes, but their importance is greater as peers with whom Yoko can casually commiserate with, something which she has been sorely lacking since coming to the world of Twelve Kingdoms. The half-mad Asano also gets his fair share of screen time, and numerous villains and supporting characters who have been making regular appearances throughout the series continue to do so.
Twelve Kingdoms is best characterized as a drama set in a rich and meticulously-developed fantasy world, but this block of episodes sees a higher action quotient than most volumes in the series. The extensive attention to character development which has been a hallmark of the series continues, however. As fascinating as the world of Twelve Kingdoms is, the way its storytelling allows its characters to grow and change over time is just as compelling. The Yoko that we see by the end of episode 39 is not the same young woman who first came to this world, or even the same one who set out to covertly learn more about her kingdom at the beginning of this story arc. Though some of the lessons have been harsh, one cannot help but empathize with characters who gradually learn to overcome their weaknesses and faults and not only become a better people for it but also become more likeable characters in the process. The transformations which Shokei and Suzu underwent in the previous volume become a guide for Yoko's own final steps towards completion and offer the series one of its strongest selling points.
Twelve Kingdoms has long been remarkable for its pretty character designs and gorgeous costuming, but this block of episodes offers little that's new or exciting on those fronts. Overall the artistry seems a little off compared to earlier volumes, especially in the integration of character animation with CG backgrounds in some places. The animation is a mixed bag: some scenes (especially when Yoko is sword-fighting) sparkle, while others (especially when characters are running as a group) look awkward. The opener and closer, and the fact that they are only presented in their English adaptations, remain unchanged from the earliest episodes. Only episode 39, which bookends the unique Japanese opening and closing credits with the traditional English versions of the opener and closer, deviates from the norm. The musical themes are the same as those used throughout the series; if you liked the soundtrack before, you'll still like it now.
Despite the wealth of action and violence in this volume, the graphic content continues to be kept to a minimum. Killings abound but very little blood is depicted in any of them and the series regularly pulls its punches on showing anything gruesome. Although it may be a little strong for a PG rating, this part of the series isn't strong enough to truly deserve PG-13. I wouldn't hesitate about showing it to a mature 10-year-old.
The English dub, whose cast is composed mostly of veteran English voice actors, continues to be strong. Although the voices don't always match well with those of the original Japanese actors, rarely did I hear a case where the voice didn't match well with the character. Koshou is one case in particular where I felt that the English casting was an improvement, as James Lyon lends him the deep, rich voice that he looks like he should have but which the seiyuu could not manage. Kate Davis and Mia Lee give Shoukei and Suzu voices which sound a bit younger and, surprisingly, have a bit higher pitch than the original seiyuu; they sound more appropriate to me in the roles, but that may be just my personal preference. Kurt Strauss, on the other hand, continues to be a bit of a disappointment as Keiki, although interestingly his voice is not given the enhanced resonance that the voice of his seiyuu counterpart was given. Most English performances follow the style and tenor of the original Japanese vocals closely enough that the original director has stated that he is pleased with them. A comparison of the subtitles with the English script (which an “English With Subtitles” menu option allows) reveals no major discrepancies in translation.
If there's one area where this volume of Twelve Kingdoms is a big disappointment, it's in its complete lack of extras beyond trailers. Earlier volumes had glossaries in the liner notes but even these have been dropped for later ones. This is partly offset by packing five episodes onto the DVD, but even so there should be at least something here. I must also express my annoyance with the way the Scene Access menu is set up, as you have to flip through the earlier episodes on “Next/Previous” buttons to get to the later ones. Another submenu which allows you to jump to any episode would be preferable.
If you have followed Twelve Kingdoms to this point, then volume 9 should be a priority view. If you're looking for an excellent fantasy series with well-developed characters and setting then I recommend checking out earlier volumes first and working your way up to this one. You won't be disappointed.