The Twelve Kingdoms Blu-ray Review
A parallel world adjacent to ours with its own lore, a turbulent history, magical creatures and twelve eternal kingdoms; Such is the high fantasy world of The Twelve Kingdoms – an anime of epic scale that, depending on your subjective definition of enjoyment, might just be a refreshing sidestep worth undertaking.
The story of The Twelve Kingdoms begins with Nakajima Youko – a timid high school girl living in modern Japan. One day a handsome man appears before Youko. Kneeling down he pledges his loyalty to her and tells her she is to become a queen. Shortly after accepting his pledge Youko and two of her friends are spirited away to a land very different from their own. It is a world governed by twelve kingdoms and Youko was picked by the heavens to be the next ruler of one of those kingdoms. But not all is as it should be. Keiki, the handsome man who swore allegiance to Youko, goes missing. Youko is separated from her friends and is forced survive alone in an unknown and unwelcoming land. Little does she know that one of the current kings is following her every step and will do whatever it takes to make sure she is wiped off the face of the Twelve Kingdoms before she has the chance to ascend her promised throne.
Soaking in the lore
As is common in high fantasy the world of The Twelve Kingdoms is vastly different from ours. It is a world governed by the heavens (much like the ancient Chinese religious belief) in which kings and queens receive the mandate of the skies to rule their kingdoms. At the ruler’s side stands a kirin – a mythological shape-shifting creature that is full of compassion and understanding for all living creatures. If the ruler and kirin govern the kingdom with wisdom and ability it will naturally prosper. The common people under the ruler and kirin live a modest life akin to that which was common in old feudal Japan. There are also monsters roaming around and hanjuu – half-human half-animal beasts who live among the humans. When Youko and her friends arrive to this world they have no knowledge of where they are or what they should do in order to survive this adventure. The series gradually explains the nature of this new world through Youko’s journey and trials. In fact the majority of the series is rife with fascinating lore to soak, a fictional history to learn, traditions to behold and an exotic atmosphere to experience. The wealth of this added background stems from the successful novel the series is based on (which goes by the same name). The exotic atmosphere though is largely in thanks to the series soundtrack, which is an interesting blend between Celtic music peppered with traditional Japanese musical instruments and just a hint of electronic influence.
This relatively long series (45 episodes in all) is divided into four story arcs. The first arc – Shadow of the Moon, The Sea of Shadow – tells of Youko’s arrival to the Twelve Kingdoms and the events that lead to her coronation as the queen of the country of Kei. The second arc – The Sea of Wind, The Shore of The Maze – deals with Taiki – the kirin of Tai kingdom who was accidently spirited away to Japan and upon returning to the Twelve Kingdoms finds it hard to readjust to his life as a kirin. Building upon the knowledge we have acquired about the world in the two initial arcs the third and fourth arcs delve deeper into the daily life of the kingdoms and sink their teeth in the politics of the kingdoms of Kei and En.
Although it is hard to sum what The Twelve Kingdoms is all about in one short paragraph broadly speaking these four story arcs tell a sad tale about poverty, abuse of authority and the unending struggle to end these ailments.
A steep learning curve
It feels a bit weird writing this about an anime but The Twelve Kingdoms has a steep learning curve. This wonderful world I just praised a paragraph ago is as alienating as it is fascinating. The series throws titles and terms at us at record pace. This will prove tiring for some and a complete turnoff for others. All the terms are in pseudo-Chinese and some are obnoxiously hard to memorize. Good luck memorizing the titles of the governmental officials serving in the court. Their titles are all explained within the span of a minute, and yet the series expects us to be familiar with them immediately afterwards.
The series also struggles when it comes to adapting the original novel into an anime. The episodes are named after the title of the original novel they adapt. For example, the first book in the series is titled “Shadow of the Moon, The Sea of Shadow” so the episodes in the first arc all have this title in their name. Now, excuse me but I hardly believe “Shadow of the Moon, The Sea of Shadow chapter 11″ is a valid episode name. Not only is there no meaning to the title itself, it’s also contextually incorrect to refer to an episode as a chapter. Furthermore, because this is an adaptation strange hiccups in the plot occur and are often than not left unexplained. Youko is told again and again that the magical scabbard of her sword was broken, but we never learn when and why that happened. Supposedly because children in the Twelve Kingdoms are born from trees women are “free” from pregnancy and as a result are more equal to men. In practice though women are still seen cleaning, making dinner, caring for the children, and serving as prostitutes. The number of women who serve as government officials is visibly lower than men and none are seen participating in combat in any form. Whether these (and other issues) were addressed in a more convincing way in the novels I do not know, but they sure weren’t handled in a convincing manner here.
In addition to that the overall abundance of names in The Twelve Kingdoms sometimes lead to unnecessary confusion. For example, in the country of Hou there is a province called Kei. But the series never explains that. So when we are introduced to the governor or Kei we natural presume he is from the kingdom of Kei, which we are already fimiliar with. For me this turned out to be a great recipe for confusion, one that could have been easily averted with the use of an informative sentence or two.
A double-edged queen
One undeniable charm awaiting those who chose to watch the Twelve Kingdoms is Nakajima Youko herself. She is the main focus of the show and gradually transforms from a timid polite girl into a cunning and capable queen. As time goes by she meets new friends, secures important connections and establishes her place in the world. Her way of thinking is not the only thing about her that transforms – even her gestures, tone of voice and way of thinking undergo a radical transformation. Watching Youko’s journey to find her place in the world and develop her queen-like aura is very satisfying. But Youko’s amazing character growth is a double-edged sword. That’s because Youko easily overshadows all the other characters in this series, some of which serve as distractions at best. Youko’s classmate Asano is one such character. I found him obnoxious and an eyesore to watch (he wasn’t even in the original novel to begin with!). Youko’s Kirin Keiki is consistently annoying. The king of En – an important character in the story – talks like an actor in some melodramatic play and is worshiped as an almost perfect demigod. Trying to care for him, or anyone around him, is an impossible feat. Some minor characters, like the scholar Rakushun or the princess Shoukei, are much more relatable then these main characters. This is a bitter problem that persists for the entire series and seriously damages its appeal.
The series is presented in 1080p with a 4×3 aspect ratio, and even though this is a Blu-ray don’t expect it to look amazing. The Twelve Kingdoms was created with a tight budget and suffers a lot in the visual department. The backgrounds are initially almost empty and animation is kept to a minimum. This improves a little bit near the end of the show, but not by much. So while this series is in high definition there isn’t a lot there to “highly define”. The series is sold as three separate boxes and has a total of 10 Blu-ray discs. You are given the choice between an English DTS-HD 2.0 track and two Japanese DTS-HD tracks (2.0 and 5.1) with subtitles. The subtitles strive for ease of understanding rather than accuracy, but the English dub is not very good so Japanese with English subtitles is recommended. For so many discs the extras are few and far between. There are two staff interviews, very useful liner notes and an early production reel. One important thing to note is that the scene selection feature for this release was not fine-tuned, so if you press the skip button while watching you’ll often find yourself skipping into the middle of a sentence or a few second into the episode instead of its beginning.
The Twelve Kingdoms is both a successful endeavor and a missed opportunity. Here we have an epic story that is undoubtedly captivating and has the potential to be turned into a great anime. Unfortunately the true potential of The Twelve Kingdoms isn’t quite realized here. With confusing terms, adaptation hiccups, limited animation and a lack of relatable main characters it’s clear this series missed a lot of marks on the way. And I’ve even saved the real bombshell for last: the series was cancelled due to budget issues and has no ending. I feel that the series should have ended with Youko’s story at episode 40. Episodes 41-45 are considerably lower in quality compared to the rest of the series and as a result The Twelve Kingdoms ends not with a bang but a whimper.
Due to its many quirks I cannot recommend The Twelve Kingdoms to the average anime fan. I think fans of fantasy novels will be right at home with this series and will grow to love it despite its many shortcomings. Viewers looking for a solid watch on all fronts, however, can safely skip on The Twelve Kingdoms in favor of more accomplished fantasy anime.
- A rich fantasy world to marvel at.
- Relies on too many self-made terms, some of which aren’t clearly explained.
- Lacks relatable main characters.
- Strange adaptation hiccups.
- No definitive ending due to budget constraints.
Final Score: 6.5/10 (Mediocre)
Product Information: The Twelve Kingdoms Blu-ray parts 1-3 by Media Blasters. Release Dates: July 26, October 11 and December 13, 2011.
Review Equipment: A Samsung 32-Inch LCD HDTV (LA32B530) connected to a PS3 using a ver. 1.4 HDMI cable.
The Twelve Kingdoms Blu-ray Part 1 (Amazon)
The Twelve Kingdoms Blu-ray part 2 (Right Stuf)
The Twelve Kingdoms Blu-ray part 3 (Right Stuf)