The Twelve Kingdoms–Anime Review

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4.5 Stars
If you have watched much anime you probably have a pretty good idea of what will happen if some Japanese high school students are suddenly transported to a strange and dangerous new world. They will quickly bond with each other even if they didn’t know each other previously. They may be frightened, but they will face the unfamiliar threats and challenges with courage and integrity. They will stick together, fiercely resisting any attempts to turn them against each other. They will never, ever let each other down.

It is easy to poke fun at the gambatte spirit, but it is a standard part of the genre, and one that gives it a great deal of its charm. To find it missing would be disconcerting.

But what if it does appear to be missing? What if the characters, placed in a frightening situation that they could not have anticipated, behaved less like the people that we wish we were, and more like the people that we fear that we actually are? Could this still be a good story? Actually the answer is “Yes.”

  • Original Title
    Juuni Kokki
  • Genres
    Fantasy, Drama, Adventure
  • Contents
    45 Episodes on 10 DVDs (2 box sets)
  • Languages
    English, Japanese with subtitles
  • Based on
    A series of novels by Fuyumi Ono
  • Director
    Tsuneo Kobayashi
  • Script
    Shou Aikawa
  • Character Design
    Akihiro Yamada
  • Animation Director
    Hiroto Tanaka
  • Animation Studio
    Studio Pierrot
  • Broadcast
    NHK, 2002-2003
  • Region 1 Publisher
    Media Blasters

I don’t mean to suggest that this is some sort of dreary postmodern exercise in moral relativism. This is a fascinating adventure story set in a richly imaginative (and beautifully drawn) fantasy world. There are real heroes and real villains and acts that are definitely good or definitely evil.

However the evil springs mostly from ordinary human weakness and the line that separates the heroes from the villains is sometimes disturbingly thin. This is a thoughtful adventure story that raises interesting and troubling questions. What is the source of evil? What is it exactly that distinguishes a hero from a villain? If you had the power to create a world with whatever natural laws you wished, could you design one that would encourage people to behave virtuously? Or would they keep on being as cruel and wicked as ever in spite of your best efforts?

The series does not offer definitive answers to these questions, and to the extent that it does suggest answers they are not necessarily ones that will appeal to Western viewers. There is a strong element of Confucianism here. Still it is possible to ignore the questions and just enjoy the adventure story.

The greatest weakness of this series is in its dramatic structure. There are four major story arcs. The first, third and fourth arcs all have reasonably satisfactory endings, but the second arc ends abruptly leaving most of its questions unanswered. Apparently this was intended to lay the groundwork for a third season of the anime which was never made (and at this point probably never will be made.)

Though I would like to see the missing third season, I think the series as a whole is pretty satisfactory. We are not dealing with an “InuYasha ending” here; most of the story lines are wrapped up in an appropriate way. In spite of its imperfections, this is still a great work of high fantasy.

Parental Advisory

This series is too dark and violent for young children. The violence is necessary to the story and is not excessively graphic. Nevertheless there are a number a scenes that I would not want to expose a young child to.

I would say that age 10 is the absolute minimum, and it would have to be a fairly tough-minded ten year old at that. Teenagers should be able to handle it without much difficulty, and most will probably enjoy the series.

DVD Notes

The box sets are beautifully packaged with cases designed to resemble hardcover books, complete with replicas of the original cover art.

The liner notes don’t contain too many spoilers but I would still suggest watching the anime before reading them. This is a world best discovered without too many preconceptions. For that reason I am not going to go into a lot of detail about it.

The first DVD box set, which ends with the incomplete story arc, is not very satisfactory by itself.

Premise and Characters

Youko NakajimaYouko Nakajima is a 16 year old high school student who has always felt out of place. She compensates by trying to please the adults in her life. As a result she does well in school, but the other students regard he with a degree of suspicion. Lately she has been troubled by terrifying nightmares.
Yuka SugimotoYuka Sugimoto is another misfit, but she doesn’t even try to please her teachers. She treats everyone with sullen hostility, and the other students respond in kind. She likes to read fantasy novels and dreams of finding happiness in a different and more interesting world. (Given the role that she plays in the second arc, it’s possible that in some sense she represents the author.)
Ikuya AsanoIkuya Asano is an easygoing young man, in love with Yuka, although it is not clear how she feels about him. He and Youko have known each other for a long time and she has a secret crush on him.
KeikiKeiki is a strange man with long blond hair whose sudden appearance turns their world upside down. He barges into the classroom, bows down before Youko, and warns her that her life is in danger.
YoumaAnd he is right, because strange monsters immediately appear and do battle…
Another Youma…pretty much wrecking the school.
ShokuA great storm sweeps Youko, Yuka and Ikuya away…
Vista…and leaves them stranded, alone in a strange and hostile new world.
The Twelve KingdomsMapThe world of the Twelve Kingdoms is oddly symmetrical. In fact it is obviously artificial.
Youko with Youma and SwordIt is even stranger than it first appears, beautiful and dangerous.
King of KouThe King of Kou is a man of great power, but insecure and ruthless.
KourinKourin is the kirin (a sort of guardian spirit) of the land of Kou.
RakushunRakushun is a hanjyuu (half human, half animal.) Though his appearance is disturbing, his basic decency and common sense make him the moral anchor of the story.
RokutaRokuta is the irascible kirin of En.
The King of EnShouryuu is the King of En. He sometimes pretends to be carefree and irresponsible, but he is actually an astute ruler.
Kaname TakasatoKaname Takasato is a student at the same high school as Youko, Yuka and Asano. When he was a boy he was mysteriously “spirited away”, then reappeared just as mysteriously a year later. Now he paints strange pictures and is rumored to be a source of misfortune for anyone who gets close to him. It is his story that is begun in the second arc and never completed.
SuzuSuzu Ooki is a Japanese girl who was transported to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms years ago, and has been living a miserable existence ever since.
ShoukeiShoukei is the daughter of the deposed King of Hou. She is filled with bitterness over her father’s fate and her own reduced circumstances.
AtsuyaAtsuyu the lord of Gen province, is a man of high standards and noble principles, but he must live with the guilt of having deposed his own father to gain power.


Anime News Network listing.
Wikipedia article (spoilers.)