Based on a series of novels by Fuyumi Ono, The Twelve Kingdoms was originally planned to be a 68 episode series. Unfortunately it was cut short and only 45 episodes were made. While it is disappointing that they didn't adapt more of the novels, it isn't a fatal flaw as this second set of episodes ends on a nice note with things more or less wrapped up. It does leave viewers yearning for more however. The first collection was excellent, and this second one builds on the groundwork laid in the earlier volumes and expands upon it. One of the most intricate and thought out series that I've seen, the quality of this show really took me by surprise.
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 when a mysterious man with long, white hair, named Keiki (we eventually discover) suddenly appears in Youko's classroom after school. He insists that the girl comes with him for her own protection, and vows to save her. Yuka, who spends all of her time reading fantasy books, instantly grasps the situation and demands that she be taken along too. Not wanting to be left out of it, Asano offers to go also. Youko isn't sure, but 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. After several trying adventures, Yuka returns to Japan, but Asano becomes lost somewhere in the Twelve Kingdoms and Youko discovers that her destiny is to be queen of a country.
The first story in this set, which takes up the lion's share of it, focuses on three young women and how they are connected. The first is Youko, who is now queen of Kei. She's routed the pretender to the throne and ascended it herself, but now that she has to rule she finds that it's not easy being the boss. Her ministers argue and bicker while trying to curry favor, and she doesn't know enough about this world to make intelligent decisions. Like she was back in Japan, Youko finds herself trying to make everyone happy and in the process she becomes a weak and ineffective ruler.
Like Youko, Suzu is from Japan, but she arrived over 100 years ago. Not knowing the language, she took up with a group of traveling performers until she encountered Lady Riyou, an immortal that could talk to Suzu and understand her. She begged this royal person to take her away, and Lady Riyou did. She made Suzu a Sen-nin, granting her immortality and the ability to speak any language but at a cost. Suzu was given the job of servant and treated like a slave. Harshly punished for the slightest error and given demeaning and pointless tasks, Suzu dreams of leaving Lady Riyou, but where would she go? When she hears that the Queen of Kei is also from Japan, she envies the lady and convinces herself that if they could only meet, they'd become best friends and her life would turn around.
Shoukei was a princess, the daughter of the King of Hou. She was stunningly beautiful and taught to dance and sing for her father. She did this well and was the jewel of the castle, but her father wasn't a good king. He was very strict with the peasants, creating more and more laws for them to obey and putting to death anyone who broke the slightest of them. After over 300,000 people were slaughtered by the tyrant, one of his generals rose against him and cut off his head which will kill even an immortal king. The queen was also killed, but Shoukei was allowed to live. She was sent to an orphanage, stricken from the list of Sen-nin so that she would start to age. There she had a rough life until the head mistress discovered who she actually was. After that her life was unbearable, performing slave labor and being beaten when her tasks weren't accomplished soon enough. She too hears about Youko, but instead of envy she hates the new queen, since she has everything that Shoukei feels should be hers.
The tale of these three women is just as engrossing as the stories in the first collection. The mechanics of this world are explored even further, the way a king has to rule and delegate power and how the lowest classes survive. All three of these characters change because of their ordeals, but not necessarily in the way one might imagine.
This was the best story in the series, and even with it being rather long, I zipped though it in no time flat. The way the story unfolds and the pacing of the episodes is really wonderful. Just as each episode ends, you'll want to skip past the ending credits to get to the next episode.
The last five discs of the series 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 are a bit skimpy this time around. The first disc in the set, volume six, has the only bonus item a fourteen-minute interview with Producer Ken Suekawa. It's a pretty interesting discussion, and he spends a good amount of time talking about how they approached turning the novels into an animated show. Unfortunately that's it.
This is the best fantasy anime show that I've seen. Totally engrossing with a complex world and well thought out political and economic system, the stories are very strong. This show also has some wonderfully human characters that have flaws and strengths just like real people. The Twelve Kingdoms is a must-buy for anyone who is remotely interested in fantasy fiction or anime. This collection, like its predecessor, is Highly Recommended.