TWELVE KINGDOMS (2001-2003)

 

Format: 4 or 5 24-minute episodes per volume, 6 volumes currently available (series has 48 eps to date)

Rating: PG-13 (BN, AC, GV)

Type: Fantasy

American Production: Anime Works

English Dub Production: Bang Zoom! Entertainment

Japanese Production: NHK/Studio Pierrot

 

Grading

 

Premise:

A-

Story:

A-

Writing:

A-

Character Design:

A-

Animation:

A-

Artistic Merits:

A

English Dub:

B+

Musical Score:

A-

Songs:

B-

Opener:

B+

Closer:

B+

 

 

Humor Content:

n/a

Action Content:

B

Drama Content:

A-

 

 

DVD Presentation:

B+

DVD Extras:

B

 

 

OVERALL:

A-

 

Synopsis

      Yoko, a high school girl who has always excelled by simply trying to please everyone around her, is plagued by odd dreams. One day a tall, blond-haired man appears before her in school, pledges his loyalty to her, and tells her that she is in great danger. The danger arrives soon in the form of beastly birds! The encounter sets Yoko and two classmates on a journey to another world, a divinely-planned realm called the Twelve Kingdoms, where they must first survive and then try to sort out their places in the world and how they can get home – or if they even want to. For Yoko the journey becomes a soul-searching experience as well as she attempts to resolve long-standing psychological issues and struggles with her own vision of who she is.

 

Quotes

      “I swear never to desert my post before your throne. I swear never to disobey your orders, and I swear to pledge my loyalty to you.” (Kirin vow that is an acknowledgment of an individual’s right to the throne of a kingdom.)

 

The Long View

      Whether or not Twelve Kingdoms is the best fantasy anime series ever is a matter for debate, but it is certainly among the best. More a drama than an action story, the series delves deeply into issues of teen angst while meticulously constructing a fascinating fantasy world based heavily on Chinese mythology. This is a fantasy world unlike anything that American viewers are likely to be familiar with, one that is carefully structured and balanced via divine planning, one where the common fantasy character of the adventurer is a foreign notion. The series, which is adapted from one of the most popular series of Japanese fantasy novels, is specifically designed to explore every corner and aspect of the world of Twelve Kingdoms during its 96-episode run, though I’ve heard that it is on hiatus (maybe permanently so) a bit more than halfway through its scheduled run. The viewer is educated on this new world as the main character Yoko is, an approach that usually works quite well.

      As its name implies, the world of Twelve Kingdoms is divided into twelve kingdoms of approximately equal size which are arrayed in a pattern similar to a Chinese zodiac chart, with an island that is both neutral territory and holy ground at the center. The King or Queen of each kingdom rules by divine sanction and is chosen from amongst the general population (there is no linear succession) by a kirin, a holy creature who normally appears as a gold-haired human but who can change into a form which looks like a unicorn with an antler-shaped horn. A kirin is physically incapable of bowing before anyone other than the ruler it has been inspired to choose (and this is an important plot point on more than one occasion) and is bound to faithfully serve the chosen ruler for the duration of his or her reign. A kirin also serves as the conscience of a ruler, advising the ruler on ruling the kingdom wisely and with compassion. The kirin is itself served by a fantastic creature called a nyokai, which looks like an amalgam of human and several different animals and is tasked with protecting and being a companion to the kirin throughout its life. (They are even born first and fully-grown so that they might help raise and protect an infant kirin.) A kirin may also bind various shirei into its service, which are supernatural beasts who serve the kirin under a special contact that allows them to eat the kirin’s body when the kirin dies. A kirin can also deliberately open a shoku, which is a portal to another world which normally manifests as a random storm. The greatest weakness of a kirin is an aversion to blood which is so strong that the close presence of blood can make them faint.

      Following along so far? There’s a lot more. The kirin is an immortal creature who ceases aging once it chooses a ruler – hence, some kirin appear as adults while others look like no more than children despite being hundreds of years old. The same is also true of rulers, who don’t age further once chosen. Rulers enjoy perfect health and cannot be slain by anything short of decapitation or having their body cut in half, though a ruler also dies within a year should their kirin die (see below). They also enjoy the gift of language, which allows them to speak and understand any language without even having to think about it. These blessings can be passed on to sennin, which are a ruler’s appointed officials. The catch to a ruler’s immortality is that he must rule wisely; if he does, then his kingdom prospers and is free of natural calamities. If he does not then his kingdom suffers from droughts, famines, calamities, and attacks from wild beasts called youma, which also happens when a kingdom lacks a ruler for some reason. A ruler is also forbidden to wage war on another kingdom or even enter one with an army except at the behest of that nation’s ruler, nor are they allowed to meddle in the affairs of another kingdom. A ruler who abuses his power and/or does not follow these rules finds their kirin suffering from a sickness called shitsudou, which is normally fatal for the kirin and thus fatal for the ruler, so it is in both the ruler’s and the kirin’s best interest to rule wisely.

      Another critical difference, which makes the Twelve Kingdoms different from any other fantasy world I’ve seen, is that all living things are gestated on special trees and born from its fruit. This has many interesting consequences for humans, among them the lack of unplanned pregnancies and a more equal status for women in official positions and military. (One also has to wonder if this would mean the lack of a navel, too, although this point never comes up.) It also means that human parents could end up with a shape-changing child called a hanjyuu, which can switch back and forth between a human form and an animal hybrid form. Occasionally the gestating fruits, called ranka, are blown through a shoku and end up in our world, in which case the ranka infiltrates a human woman’s womb and is born as a normal baby. Natives of the Twelve Kingdoms who are born this way but ultimately find their way back are called taika, while those native to our world who find themselves transported to the Twelve Kingdoms are called kaikyaku; being one can be a good thing or a very bad thing depending on where one ends up but usually puts one at a disadvantage since the languages are not the same between worlds (a problem rarely dealt with in other world-hopping fantasy stories but which is important here).

      Other myriad details crop up along the way, but the most important thing to understand is that the Twelve Kingdoms is one of the most tightly-regimented fantasy worlds you’ll ever see. Thrust unwillingly into this world is Yoko, a high school girl wracked by self-doubt and tormented by visions which question her values and self-worth. She finds herself regularly betrayed and constantly having to battle for survival while trying to sort out why some of the forces of this world – and eventually even the girl brought from Japan with her – are trying to kill her specifically. Her foil, at first, is Sugimoto, a girl from her high school class who is virtually a physical manifestation of one side of Yoko’s own internal conflict; in fact, her part was greatly expanded from the original novels so she could serve precisely that role. Even once Yoko finds out why so many forces are against her, she must struggle to come to terms with her true position within the world of Twelve Kingdoms and what is expected of her in that role. This makes for some great and dramatic storytelling which dominates the first 13-episode story arc but is also an important part of later story arcs. The second story arc concentrates primarily on the backstory of a young, missing kirin, which is only tangentially related to the main story but quite interesting in its own right. The third story arc, which begins with episode 23, splits its time between Yoko and two other girls – one a kaikyaku name Suzu who was granted sennin status and forced to serve a cruel mistress for nearly a century, the other a former princess now named Shokei who has fallen on very hard times since her father, a King, and his kirin were slain over his ruthlessness. So far these are three separate stories (though the girl in one of them appears briefly in the second story arc), but they seem destined to cross paths in the near future. Separating the story arcs are episodes which are mostly review but do provide some new details on the world and one stand-alone episode (the 22nd) which focuses on Yoko and her relationship with the hanjyuu Rakushun, who befriended her in the first story arc.

      The artistry in Twelve Kingdoms is gorgeous, especially beginning with the second story arc; from that point on it is easily the prettiest series anime I have seen to date. The character design shines, with superb designs for both the characters themselves and the various creatures and beasts of the land. The best of the lot is Sanshi, the nyokai of Taiki, the young kirin of Tai who is the focus of the second story arc. Despite being a creature that is parts woman, fish, tiger, and lizard, Sanshi is one of the most visually appealing character I’ve ever seen in anime. The elaborate costuming of the characters is a wonderful additional highlight. The animation is also quite good for series animation, though it uses little of the CG enhancements of other top titles. The musical score does not disappoint, and both the opener and closers are solid, subtitled numbers. The English dub is strong but not exceptional, although the original director himself has stated that he was quite pleased by how well the casting and performance of lead roles reflected the original Japanese vocals.

      Although there is some bloody violence in Twelve Kingdoms,a couple of scenes of implied nudity, and a story that can occasionally get harsh, it is, overall, a relatively mild series. Still, it is a series whose themes are more appropriate for teenagers and older audiences (I’ve heard it was popular with older men in Japan, who normally don’t watch anime), hence the rating.

      If you like fantasy, Twelve Kingdoms is a series that should be a priority view. Even if you aren’t a fan of fantasy, I still recommend giving the series a try. It is one of the best series out there right now.

 

DVD Extras

      Aside from trailers, extras on the DVD itself are limited to one per volume, often an interview clip with productions personnel or a “behind the scenes” clip. The liner notes, however, include very useful glossaries of important terms, creature names, and prominent locations. These are so important that they merit a higher rating than normal.

 

Principle English Voice Actors

Note: This roster may look formidable, but the story’s three distinct story arcs have few characters in common. Only Yoko and Keiki have appeared in all three story arcs so far and only a handful of other characters have speaking parts in even two different arcs.

 

Role

Voice Actor

Yoko Nakijima

Midge Mays

Keiki

Kurt Strauss

Yuka Sugimoto

Kirsty Pape 

Asano

Joshua Seth

Aozaru (sheath-monkey)

Edward Villa

Yoko’s father

David Orosco

Yoko’s mother, Kaika

Jane Alan

Rokuta/Enki, minor roles

Dave Lelyveld

Rakushun

Jim Taggert

Takki, Bishin (Shosei leader), Lady Gyokuyou/Genkun

Barbara Goodson

Hekki Rakujin, Jyouyuu

James Lyon

Shouko (En Minister of Law), minor roles

Dave Mallow

Kotetsu

G. Gordon Baer

Kourin, Kyoukuyo, Teiei, Kei Minister of Law 

Wendee Lee

King Kou

John Smallberries

King En/Shouryuu, minor roles

Lex Lang*

Kaname Takazato

Kevin Hatcher

Suguru Takazato

Rafael Antonio Oliver

Taiki

Terry Sutton

Youka

Jennifer Jean

Haku Sanshi

Julie Ann Taylor

General Gyousou

Chris Kent

General Risai

Michelle Ruff

Goson

Eric Hudson

Shoukei/Sancho

Kate Davis

Suzu/Honma, Mokurin, minor roles

Mia Lee

Gobo

Sue Beth Arden

Riyou

Jull Grossman

Seikyou

Ron Allen

Jokaku

Sonja Fox

assorted minor roles

Michael McConnohie

 

* - also an ADR writer and director

 

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