Yoko Nakajima is a timid, proper high school student with a lot of expectations on her plate. In her home life, her parents are strict, with nothing but the highest standards for her. Her school life is even worse, as she’s the class president, with teachers breathing down her neck and an entire class room looking up to her with equal parts pride and scrutiny. One day, a tall, mysterious stranger appears right in the middle of class, and kneels before her, proclaiming her to be his queen! Before she can explain this to her bewildered homeroom, a demon attacks, and chases the two of them to the school roof, where Yoko… Along with two of her supposed friends… are ripped from the world they know, and transported to a parallel world known as The Twelve Kingdoms!
Now, with a darker complexion and an altered face,Yoko is alone in a dangerous and unfamiliar world. Will she ever be able to find her friends, return home, or even figure out what in the world happened to her?
I haven’t really talked about Studio Pierrot before, at least not by name, but I’ve seen enough of their work to know that they have an abysmal track record when it comes to animation. They did Saiyuki, a show whose animation quality I blasted over a year ago, and if that’s not enough to deter you, they’re the company who produced Naruto. Yes, The Twelve Kingdoms comes from the same stock as the ugly, ugly ninja show where people jumping from tree to tree look like cardboard cut-outs on popsicle sticks. They’ve proven with Yuyu Hakusho that they DO know how to manage a low budget, and in 2014, they’ve proven with Tokyo Ghoul that they can, in fact, look amazing.
Well, Twelve Kingdoms is no Tokyo Ghoul, but Thank God, it’s no Naruto, either. The animation is definitely cheap, and there are some moments where the character artwork is so clumsy it will make you cringe, but for the most part, it looks passable. Passable, of course, does not mean good… Movements are stiff and seldom look natural, key frames are constant, characters frequently appear off model, and a lot of action scenes are dominated by speed lines. It’s a series from the early 2000s, but it looks like it’s from the mid nineties, is what I’m trying to say. It’s not all bad, though… There are several combat scenes that are solidly animated, but they’re the exception that proves the rule. Thoughtful angles and exquisite lighting are used to beautiful effect, however, and unlike several other shows I’ve seen, this never feels like the obvious compensation that it is. Great care was clearly taken with every shot, taking what could have been a jarring visual experience and making it a lot easier to swallow.
An equal amount of care was clearly taken with the dub, which is a surprise, since it was done by the infamous Media Blasters. Even their good dubs are tolerable at best, with some notable examples being Berserk and Squidgirl, so it may not be entirely a stretch to say that the dub for The Twelve Kingdoms could be their masterpiece. Taking liberally from the Pioneer stable of actors, they went with a grounded, natural sound, without a single ridiculous or exaggerated performance in sight.
Our main character is played by Dorothy Elias-Fahn, a prolific character voice actor who’s probably most well known for her performance of Meryl Strife from Trigun. Yoko is by far the most important role she’s ever had in any single project, and with that, it’s also likely the most screen time her voice has ever had. They couldn’t have cast her better, as Fahn carries every single stage of Yoko’s development with depth and sincerity, from a whimpering pushover all the way to the strong warrior she eventually becomes.
While the rest of the cast doesn’t perform quite as amazingly as Fahn, they’re still pretty much all outstanding. Much like His and Her Circumstances, Twelve Kingdoms’s dub is a veritable who’s who of classic actors, with some very well known names from Wendee Lee to Michael McConnohie popping up not only in named roles, but frequently in the background, as well. Karen Strassmen, Kate Higgins and Mela Lee play at their very best in complex supporting roles throughout the majority of the story, and their respective dynamics with Fahn are portrayed remarkably.
Now, the premise of this show isn’t exactly unique. High school girl gets magically transported to another world(resembling feudal Japan, of course) by a mysterious handsome stranger… Honestly, even I hesitated when I read it, and while the tone of the first few episodes had me hooked, I was still worried that all the familiar details would eventually lead down a path to the same old tropes that similar shows like Inuyasha, Fushigi Yugi, and Escaflowne have already trodden. But Twelve Kingdoms distinguishes itself from these titles by how stone cold serious it takes it’s content, wasting absolutely zero time trying to entice the viewer through any other means. There’s no romance or bishounen to attract female viewers, and there’s no robots or nudity to attract male viewers. There’s basically no fanservice whatsoever, except possibly for the furry extremists out there, and even then, I don’t think that was intentional. No, this series places all of it’s bets on it’s own story, a bold move that it’s more than capable of backing up.
The story, for the most part, follows Yoko as she adjusts to this new world as well as to her destiny within it. This makes room not only for some smoothly executed world-building, which I’ll get to later, but for some truly inspired character development for not only Yoko, but for three other prominent supporting characters, all of whom have their own lessons to learn and flaws to face. All four of them start out as pathetic, arrogant, self-pitying little shells, only to be gradually molded by the hells they go through, both internal and external, into much more competent and likable people. They get worse before they get better, because that’s life, but as they travel, they gain perspective by interacting with those far less fortunate than themselves… one of whom is Rakushun, the most loveable anthropomorphic rodent since Mickey Mouse.
And yet, unlike most action shows where a character faces their flaw and immediately overcomes it, the flaws our heroines face never really go away… They can never be truly conquered, only admitted and dealt with, especially in the case of Yoko herself. No matter how far you think she’s grown, an old demon is never far away, just waiting for her to waver so he can rear his ugly head once more.
And when I say these characters go through hell, I mean it. This show can get really dark when it wants to… Scratch that, this show can get freaking bleak, often with little to no hope in sight. It explores topics like famine, tyranny, corruption and Draconian law, peppered with the occasional slaughter of men, women and children alike. The only pulled punch in sight is the fact that you don’t actually see the executions on screen. You don’t need to see them, after all… With the right tone, a field of gravestones or the look of despair amongst an exhausted population can carry more weight than a million bloody dismemberings, and Twelve Kingdoms understands this perfectly well, as the effects of tyrannical leadership on an unfortunate community are thoroughly portrayed, in both figurative and very literal ways.
In short, The Twelve Kingdoms has the makings of an epic, with everything you’d look for within one… The themes of leadership, responsibility, and perserverence are played masterfully, and the heavily spiritual world steeped in Chinese mythology always has new details to offer both the characters as well as the viewer. World-building is at it’s best when it’s being explained to the viewer and a character at the same time, and in this case, every new detail… From the King’s connection to the very land he rules all the way down to the way babies are born… is given to us at the exact time it needs to, with consistent relevance to the plot, and with clues to the bigger reveals being offered every so often in the seemingly innocuous dialogue between the world’s residents.
However, that’s not to say the story is without it’s flaws… It’s adapted from an old novel series, and in addition to the novels containing the main story, they also decided to adapt two of the side stories… Neither of which cast our heroine as anything other than the listener. These little detours are nicely told, very enjoyable stories in their own rights, and I’m sure they would have made a couple of decent OVAs… But no, they’re right there in the story, and while they’re really fine on their own, they offer nothing to justify the damage they do to the pacing of the series. They don’t reveal any important plot-related information that couldn’t have been delivered otherwise, and they could have easily just been left out without hurting the series at all, especially when you consider the fact that only one of the characters within them ever shows up again.
And since I brought them up, I also have to bring up the way the series ends. I won’t reveal any important details, such as whether the ending is a happy or tragic one, but what I will tell you is that out of this 45 episode anime, episodes 39 and 40 bring the series to the most satisfying conclusion you could hope for. So, with five episodes left, I was kind of hoping they’d tie up some old loose ends, show how the conclusion effected various characters, and maybe bring the story itself to a nice, tight close. Nope! Episodes 41-44 contain the second detour story, and while it’s a perfectly fine story in it’s own right, but it was glaringly out of place. And the final episode? I kid you not… The final episode, 45, is a recap of what happened in episode 41-44. Yes, an episode-long recap of the previous four episodes.
I’ve heard rumors that this series was intended to continue past episode 45, which would make sense since the novels are still being released to this day, but even if that was the case, you don’t spend an entire episode recapping a story arc right after finishing it. With a show like this one, the viewers are not that stupid, and the material is not that forgettable, making this a very tacky move, especially for an ending. It’s an unfortunate blemish on what could have otherwise been a near-masterpiece.
The Twelve Kingdoms is available in the United States from Media Blasters. You can find it on both Blu-ray and DVD, pretty much exclusively online and in used FYE racks, with the latter being far more affordable than the former. The first four novels are also available in English from Tokyo Pop, and if you go on ebay, you can find a handful of beautiful artbooks and fan-made doujinshi at varying prices. There are also some Playstation games, but to my utter disappointment, they’re not available stateside.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really been a fan of feudal-type shows. Much like the insanely popular Giant Robot fare, it’s a genre that often leaves me bored with my eyes glazed over. Twelve Kingdoms is held in high regard… At least among those people privileged enough to have heard of it… As a pinnacle of the ‘modern girl spirited away to Feudal Times’ genre. And it’s not hard to see why. While I may have let my attention shift away from the screen a few times during the detour story arcs, the truth is that I never felt bored during this series. The characters are deep and relatable, the conflicts between them are genuinely exciting, and the mythical world it all takes place in is constantly offering one wonder after another. The animation is noticeably cheap, but it’s rarely ever bad in it’s management and execution… Unlike the episodic structure of the series, which wasn’t thought out or handled nearly as well as it deserved. The extra stories may have worked in the novels, but in televised format, they leave a lot to be desired. It’s not a perfect show, but the good far outweighs the bad. I give The Twelve Kingdoms an 8/10.