Originally released as separate volumes in 2003, The Twelve Kingdoms is a fantasy anime that takes conventional plot devices of the genre (someone from our world transported to another reality, transforming magical beasts etc) and uses them in new and exciting ways. Instead of telling a story of grand battles and powerful magicians this show examines the way a new world, one where the god of the land makes his will known to the rulers, would work, how the people would live, and the problems the kings would face.. A surprisingly addictive series, after watching the first few episodes you'll want to churn through the rest of the installments as fast as you can. This set collects the first five DVDs which represent half of the series.
Youko Nakajima is a high school student who tries to please everyone but herself. She's the class representative and strives to keep all of the students in the class happy and productive, though the others in the class think she's just trying to curry favor with the teacher. She wants to get good grades and make her parents proud, but it seems that she's always failing them in some manner. She's even rejected by the class outcast, Yuka Sugimoto, when she tries to make friends with her. The only friend is Ikuya Asano, who she's known for years, but he seems to be more interested in other girls and hanging out with his friends than he does in talking to Youko.
That all changes one afternoon when a mysterious man with long, white hair, named Keiki we eventually discover, suddenly appears in Youko's classroom after school. He insists that Youko come with him, for her own protection, and vows to save her. Yuka spends all of her time reading fantasy books, so she instantly grasps the situation and demands that she be taken along too. Not wanting to be left out of it, Asano offers to go to. Youko isn't sure, but when all of the windows in the class are shattered, she follows Keiki onto the roof where a giant bird-like creature attacks them. It's obviously not from their world, and after Keiki gives Youko a sword, she reluctantly agrees to go wherever he wants to take her, but only if her friends can come along.
The trio of schoolmates are transported to the land of the Twelve Kingdoms. There is a battle as they arrive and Keiki has to leave, which means that they are all on their own in a strange world. To add to their problems, everyone speaks an odd language, but for some reason Youko can understand it even though the other two can't. Yuka thinks she understands the situation from all of the fantasy books she's read. Its obvious to her the Keiki made a mistake and meant to select her instead of Youko. There's a problem with this world, and Yuka believes that she is the chosen one, or possibly a queen, who is the only one with the ability to save this place. She just needs to unravel what it is that she needs to do. Youko isn't so sure about this theory however which angers the other girl.
Some soldiers capture the school kids and threaten them with execution, and it's only by luck that they escape. This event changes Yuka even more drastically. She trusts no one. Hungry and on the run, they break into a house to steal food. When the middle aged woman who lives there shows up, Yuka demands that Youko kill her, something that the other girl isn't willing to do.
Yuka becomes more and more paranoid and sure that she is the world's savior and Asano, who kind of liked Yuka to begin with, sees her as the stronger and more pragmatic of the two women. After a battle, Yuka leaves and Asano gets lost, leaving Youko all by herself in a strange place. Things get worse however when Yuka becomes convinced that the only way to obtain her true place in this world is to kill Youko.
That story takes up the first half of these discs. In the second half, another story is told that fleshes out the politics and history of the world in more detail. It involves a young boy named Kaname Takasato who goes to Youko's school. While being punished one day as a small child, Kaname disappeared. A manhunt turned up nothing, but a year later he returned, naked, to the exact same spot. His parents and friends just said that he was "spirited away", but in reality he was taken to the Twelve Kingdoms. It turns out that he is actually a Kirin, a magical creature that has a human for who is responsible for choosing a ruler of a country. The second story arc reveals how Kaname deals with this knowledge and responsibility.
This is a wonderfully engrossing series. Though it uses some standard fantasy conventions, this show is in a class all its own because of the unique way it develops this well thought out world. The feel of the show is very similar to Fushigi Y?gi, except without all of the romance and with more detail to the way that things run.
story has come up with a very interesting and logical way for the governments
of the twelve kingdoms to run. The god of the world, Tentei, displeased
at the way the rulers used their subjects, recreated the world. He
made 12 kingdoms, each ruled by a king who is granted eternal life.
Each kingdom also has a Taiki, a magical creature that is responsible for
selecting the King and acting as his advisor, sort of a link to Tentei.
The king rules by divine right, and can do whatever he pleases in his kingdom.
If he chooses to abuse his subjects or doesn't rule them justly, the Taiki,
a symbol of the king's power, gets ill and can die. If the Taiki
dies, the king will too, within a year. That way a good king can
rule forever while a bad one has a finite reign.
The one problem with this is the terms that are used. This series has a lot of things, like Kirin, that don't have a counterpart in English (or Japanese for that matter). They come up with their own words for these, and rename others just to make things difficult. The result is that if you don't pay attention at least a little bit, you can get lost in the terminology. The recap at the beginning of one episode was actually this sentence: "The Ranka of Taiki, Tai's Kirin, was blown to Houri from Mt. Hou by a Shoku." If you don't know what's going on already, that sentence won't help you much.
In addition to the detailed background, these stories also have interesting
characters that grow and change as the series progresses. Youko starts
off as a weak-willed child who only wants to please everyone but matures
in a realistic fashion due to the traumatic events that she has to go through.
Likewise Yuka changes dramatically, from a mousey introvert to someone
who honestly believes that killing an innocent person is right under some
The first five discs of the series which contain 22 episodes are included in this collection. They come in a double width keepcase that has a leaf in the middle which holds two discs, partially overlapping.
The discs come with both the original stereo soundtrack and an English dub, also in stereo. I alternated tracks through the first disc and finally settled on the Japanese audio. Not because the dub was bad, just because I thought the Japanese voices 'fit' the way the characters looked a bit better. Both soundtracks were free from noise and distortion. While it would have been nice to have a 5.1 track for the few action sequences, this two channel mix fit the show well.
The full frame image looks pretty good with only minimal flaws. The colors used in the show are more natural and realistic, so you won't find any blazing red hair or bright green trees, and they are reproduced very well. The blacks are solid, the level of detail is fine, and the lines are tight. The only problems are some slight aliasing when the camera pans across a scene, some light banding in a few places and some cross colorization with occurs rarely.
The extras included with this set are spread across the five DVDs, and they are pretty sparse. Viewers are treated to a textless opening and closing, and two interviews with director Tsuneo Kobayashi which run from four to eight minutes. He talks about the challenges of adapting the novels to the small screen, the character designs and other aspects of producing a show.
I really enjoyed this series. I liked the intricate detail of
the world that Youko finds herself transported to and way the characters
grew and changed in believable ways. The best thing about the show
however is the way the story really pulls viewers in. A great show
that is really a lot of fun to watch. Highly Recommended.