Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Twelve Kingdoms - Juuni Kokki - 12 Kokuki

Original release by Kick Ass Anime [KAA]

The Twelve Kingdoms is another example of the popular schoolgirl-in-another-world genre, like Fushigi Yuugi, Magic Knight Rayearth or El Hazard - just to name a few examples without even trying. Spirited away is probably the most recent and well known movie in that category. I suppose the japanese really love Alice in Wonderland (which was made into an anime by 1983 under the name of Fushigi no Kuni no Alice, by the way).

Twelve Kingdoms is doubtlessly the best of it's genre by far.

The story starts rather ordinary - for a given amount of ordinary: Youko Nakajima (the schoolgirl) get's a visit from a strange man in the middle of her classroom, asking her to accept his protection. Shortly after some monster attacks (which is rather unusual for modern tokyo), she and some classmates find themselves in another world resembling ancient imperial china. Alone, without resources or guidance, they struggle for survival in a land full of youma (commonly translated as demons, but it's better if you just think of them as youma), hanjou (were-beasts who are regarded as secend class people), and people wanting to kill them just for being Kaikyaku's - people from another world.

The first story - let's call it the Story of Youko - proceeds rather straightforward. Youko explores the world and grows from a terrified crybaby into a frightened girl - which is a greater difference than it sounds like. She learns that the mysterious man who whisked here away was a kirin - a holy 'beast' resembling a unicorn - and the reason she was brought here and learns to accept her destiny and strifes to fulfill it - which is to become emperor of one of the twelve kingdoms.

In later story arcs something quite unusual happens: The story shifts completely away from the main character to explore the life of Taiki, a black kirin, Suzu, another Kaikyaku from Japan 80 years before Youko was even born, and Shoukei, a princess of another kingdom. With the shift of characters, the mood and focus also shifts in a rather dark and oppressive direction, adding more depth to the series than the early schoolgirl episodes might have suggested.

The whole series is 45 episodes long and the Story of Youko is just one of several stories in the land of the twelve kingdoms - even though it's the longest story arc. And the revisit of her story in a later arc is full of twists, intrigue and action enough for a whole season - and yet it spins all the threads and the loose ends of prior storylines together into a finely woven tapestry - minus the Story of Taiki, which was kindly pointed out to me. See the comments.

In terms of character growth you'll be hard pressed to find a finer example than that of Youko. You'll see her develop from a timid little girl into a hardened, awe inspiring woman - and you'll stay with her every step of the way. Likewise, many of the supporting cast do a similar transformation - namely Shoukei and Suzu - making the series more believable than any other you can name (ignoring the fact the demons roam the land, some god appointing emperors via flying unicorns who live in castles on mountains higher than the sky, which is actually a flying ocean. And ignoring the layout of the land that looks like it was made with a level editor for Civilization 4).

The art is decent and the characters are very distinguishable, with detailed and sometimes elaborate clothing. The backgrounds are ok, although they can't compare to the lush scenes found in Serei no Moribito - which is understandable given the age difference.

The music is perfect. The orchestra merges western classical and traditional chinese instruments and performs pieces of a similar stylistic mix. The result fits the series like a glove and rises well above the status of background music. Even the ending theme - a steady guitar piece - is great, sporting a quite uniquely distorted electic guitar and sung with a full, warm voice. And because the music is so great, I included it in this torrent - iphone ready, of course.

Sex & violence: The series starts like a typical action adventure fantasy anime with the usual violence level. It never comes to a point where violence get's out of hand to appeal to the gore-loving audience, but it becomes a bit disturbing, even if most of the violence takes place in your mind (imagine a small girl walked to it's execution with her seeing scores of people beheaded before her until it's her turn to die). However, those afraid of sex can relax, because despite a good batch of cuties the most flesh you'll see will be from guys with sleeveless shirts.

Conclusion: This is the greatest fantasy adventure anime you'll ever watch. The setting is truly original but the action stays down-to-earth inside the fantasy context. The plot is epic and never feels constructed like so many plots do. You'll never get the feeling that someone was just killed so the character is suitably shocked and motivated. It feels like something just happens - and you are there to watch it happen. There is a world out there, and you get to explore it with Youko, Suzu and all the others.

PS: Since the story takes place in another world, you'll stumble upon a whole lot of new words and names that are hard to recognize, so I either recommend taking notes (what was a kirin again?) or have a cheat sheet ready. This site has many background information and a useful "Encyclopedia" without spoilers. Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

"it spins all the threads and the loose ends of prior storylines together into a finely woven tapestry."

Hardly. It is a good anime, but there are sooo many loose ends at the end of the Anime that you are left with a "wtf, that's it" feeling. I believe the manga which this is based never finished. Supposedly, like X, the creator abandoned it and has yet to return to it (8 years+ now).

Anonymous said...

The main reason it was dropped as an anime wasn't the creator's or director's fault, really... it was the studio. They were worried about viewership dropping once the focus shifted from Youko, and refused to continue the series, canning it at ep. 45.
The source of Junni Kokuki isn't manga, btw. It's based on a series of 11 light novels, basically young adult fiction/fantasy... there WAS a manga, but it was produced around the same time as the anime, and I don't think it got any further than the Youko arc...
the novels were more complete, but again, issues with publishers. *sighz*.
At least in the novels, it was revealed that Taiki was returned to the Twelve Kingdoms in the end, after much effort and persuasion from multiple people...

DirtyFinger said...

Well, if we ignore the tiny little Taiki story, then i can rightly say that the storylines get wrapped up quite nicely.

And I read in a 2007 interview with Fuyumi Ono (author of the twelve kingdom novels) that she definetly wants to revisit the world of the twelve kingdoms.

so there is hope. :)

Anonymous said...

This may be a dumb question.. but here goes: how come everyone says that Yoko's face has changed once she goes to the other world even though it looks the same?

DirtyFinger said...

and I thought I was just not perceptive enough to notice the tiny little changes in her face.

hehe, no idea, I also didn't notice any difference in her face.

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