Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Twelve Kingdoms, Complete Collection (anime TV series)

If you asked me "what do you think about this series?" while I was watching it, I might have said either "I love it" or "I hate it" depending upon the part I was watching at the time. It's that kind of series. It starts off fairly weak, gets stronger, then gets pretty weak again, gets stronger, etc. Unfortunately, it ended weak. I'm not sure what happened, but I remember reading somewhere that the original plan was to cover the events of all the books in the series (this anime is based on a series of novels by Fuyumi Ono). Unfortunately, the anime wasn't able to go on that long and only covers 4 books (I'm pretty sure) of the 11-volume series. All those partially finished storylines are maddening.

Despite the show's many flaws, however, it's still going on my "never even think about selling" pile. My reasons: the kirin are pretty, Youko gets to lead an army, and Shoryu is awesome.

Synopsis:

Youko has spent her life always doing what she thinks other people expect her to do. One day, however, her life is turned upside down by a strange man with long blond hair. He finds her at school and pledges his loyalty to her. A confused and frightened Youko is given the ability to slay terrifying beasts that are trying to kill her. The strange man, Keiki, takes Youko and her friends Asano and Sugimoto back to the Twelve Kingdoms with him.

In this first part of the anime, Youko gets separated from Keiki and her two friends. She must learn to come to terms with a world where everyone seems to do only what's in his or her own best interests. Her life is in constant danger for reasons she can't fathom, and the sword she carries with her for protection is determined to drive her insane. Eventually she finds people she can trust, including a hanjyuu (half-beast) named Rakushun. Youko learns to her shock and dismay that she's the new queen of the kingdom of Kei. The king of Kou had been trying to kill her, even sending her friend Sugimoto after her, in order to keep Kei from becoming richer and making his own kingdom look bad. In the end, the king of Kou accidentally kills his own kirin, which will mean his own death in the near future. Youko defeats the false queen of Kei, frees Keiki, and takes the throne. With Keiki's help, Youko sends Sugimoto back to Japan. Asano is still nowhere to be found and possibly even dead.

The second portion of the anime focuses on the story of Taiki, the kirin of Tai, whose eggfruit was torn from the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and deposited in the belly of a woman in our world. Eventually, Taiki is found and brought back to the Twelve Kingdoms, where he learns what it is to be a kirin and chooses the new king of Tai. At first, Taiki is terrified that he made a selfish and incorrect choice, but he is eventually shown that it is impossible for a kirin to choose anyone but a kingdom's true ruler. This entire portion of the anime is presented as though it were a story being told to Youko and Keiki.

The third portion of the anime is complicated, involving the intertwining of three different characters' stories. There is Shoukei, the pampered princess of Hou, whose father is killed after he begins executing his people for committing crimes of any sort. During her father's reign, Shoukei was beautiful and immortal. After his death, she is bitter at the loss of her immortality and at the gradual loss of her physical youth and beauty, and she must live in fear of what the people of Hou will do to her if anyone ever finds out she used to be the princess. There is Suzu, a young Japanese girl who ended up in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, unable to speak the language and generally mistreated by others. Even after she becomes a sen-nin, an immortal who can speak the language of the Twelve Kindoms, Suzu's life is still little better than that of a slave. There is Youko, who, although now queen of Kei, seems incapable of making anyone take her seriously. She has no idea how to rule her kingdom and doesn't even know whose opinion she can trust.

After Shoukei and Suzu hear about Youko, they both travel to meet her. Shoukei wants to steal Youko's kingdom from her, believing herself to be more deserving of it. Suzu believes that Youko, a kaikyaku (person in the Twelve Kingdoms who is originally from Japan), will understand her, sympathize with her, and be her friend.

During their journey to see Youko, both girls change. Shoukei learns that she does indeed have a lot to atone for. Suzu learns that Youko may not, in fact, be the perfect person she was hoping she would be and becomes determined to kill her. During all of this, Youko has been spending most of her time and energy trying to learn what her kingdom is actually like, and she doesn't like what she sees. Corruption is rampant, and there is little Queen Youko can do about it. However, when Youko learns that there is a revolution brewing, she decides that there is something she can do about the current situation if she acts as nothing more than another revolutionary. In the end, Youko reclaims her kingdom and has many corrupt officials arrested and replaced. She offers both Shoukei and Suzu a place in her court and they both accept.

Once again in the guise of a story (one being told to Youko by Shoryu), the anime goes backwards in time, to the time when Enki, the kirin of En, was a child born in Japan. After his village is wiped out in a war, he is abandoned by his parents and almost dies before he is found and brought back to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Firmly believing that all of a kingdom's problems are caused by rulers, Enki is horrified when he learns that, as the kirin of En, he is expected to choose the kingdom's next ruler. Eventually, though, he does find and choose Shoryu, who was the young master of the Komatsu clan in feudal Japan. After Shoryu's clan is wiped out, Enki takes him to his new kingdom, En.

At first, no one, not even Enki, has faith in Shoryu's abilites as a ruler. He rarely attends court and must constantly be dragged back to the palace, usually after he has spent all his money on prostitutes and gambling. Convinced that Shoryu is a war-hungry idiot, Enki allows himself to be captured by Kouya (a friend of Enki's and someone who was raised by a demon) and Atsuyu, a governor of a province in En. Atsuyu wants to overthrow Shoryu. He says he wants this for the good of the people, but, as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, his own people turn against him. Shoryu arranges things so that the people in Atsuyu's province see the royal army not as an invading force, but rather as something meant to help them. When Atsuyu opposes the royal army, then, he pits his army against his own people. Eventually, Shoryu is forced to kill Atsuyu. He promises Kouya that he will one day make En a kingdom where demons and humans can live together peacefully.

Commentary:

I'll start by talking about the things I disliked about this show, so I can end by talking about all the things I liked about it. Because, overall, I did like it.

1) I didn't like the beginnings of several of the story arcs - mainly the first one with Youko and the later one with Shoukei and Suzu. All three of those girls were annoying at the beginnings of their stories. Youko was a weak and whimpering girl who later became hard and distrustful. It wasn't until she thawed a bit that I actually started to like her - I think I had to make it to the second DVD before that happened. Even when she was likable, she wasn't quite believable - how humble can one character be before they start to appear saintly? Although their initial flaws were different from Youko's, Shoukei and Suzu were similarly easy to dislike at first, eventually morphing into characters that were almost unbelievably good and humble.

2) The artwork was occasionally sloppy. No, it was never as bad as the worst shows I've seen, but I shouldn't be watching two characters talk and thinking "the angle of that person's mouth is really odd in comparison to the rest of her face."

3) Keiki was lame. Thank goodness I had already read the first two books of the series and knew not to expect much from him. So many anime series have trained female viewers like me to expect that pretty male characters with long flowing hair will either fight alongside equally awesome female characters or act as protectors. Of course, these pretty male characters would also be love interests. Right away in this series, Keiki not only doesn't fight, he flat out tells Youko that she has to do all the fighting for the both of them and hands her a sword she can use. Actually, that bit was kind of funny.

4) I hated how Taiki, Shoryu, and Enki's stories were turned into "tales being told to Youko." I know that the anime's creators were probably at a loss as to how to turn this series into a single coherent story, but the way they chose to do it was boring and didn't always make a lot of sense. Along that same vein, I know that Sugimoto and Asano were used to make certain parts of the book easier to communicate in the anime - that doesn't mean I didn't hate them and wish they hadn't been included. Sugimoto was annoying and kept reminding me of the horrible "clashes between friends" that was Fushigi Yuugi (although I'd argue that Youko and Sugimoto were never friends to begin with). Asano, on the other hand, was just useless - ineffectual in both life and death.

5) I hated the ending. I know there's probably an explanation for why the series ended with an episode that was little more than a recycling of clips from the final story arc, probably something to do with funding suddenly being yanked. Whatever the explanation (and there had better be one, because what kind of moron would do something like this on purpose?), it was a terrible way to end the series. I already intensely disliked the "interlude" episodes for generally being worthless on DVD (I can see their usefulness in a weekly televised show, where a story arc recap might be helpful, but it still seems like a cheap way to pad the episode count). I did not see the benefit in ending the series with one of them. It seemed like a waste, when there were still loose ends like the whereabouts of Taiki waiting to be tied up.

Now that I've written all about the things I hated about this show, I'll write about the things I liked about it.

1) Once Youko got over being all whimpery, she was pretty awesome. True, her fighting skills were due to a hinman (a water spirit Keiki had ordered to possess her), but it was still fun to watch her kick monster butt. Plus, in her later story arc, she got to face down a whole army. How awesome is that?

2) The whole world of the Twelve Kingdoms is interesting and complex. I watched the show twice, first in Japanese with English subtitles and then in English, and during my second viewing I realized how much I hadn't noticed. Lots of characters make multiple appearances throughout the series - I remembered that Suzu appeared as early as Taiki's story, but I hadn't realized that Kouya had appeared that early in the series as well. I liked learning how the whole world worked, even if certain aspects were kind of depressing, like the poor kirin, who basically have no choice about anything.

3) Shoryu is awesome. The guy managed to set things up so that his enemy couldn't oppose him without making his own people turn against him. Very cool. Plus, any guy who can wear a pretty, flowing pink bow and still look manly gets a thumbs up from me.

4) The kirin. I know, I said Keiki was lame, but he was also pretty. Although Taiki probably would have been just as useless in a fight as Keiki, what with the whole allergy to blood thing, watching him face down the toutetsu was fun. Let's see...Keiki was the pretty one, Taiki was the awesome/cute one, and Enki was the smart-mouthed one - every one of them had some aspect that I liked. In addition, even if the kirin weren't, by themselves, always cool, they traveled with beings that were pretty nifty.

5) The anime clarified a lot of things that had confused me in the book. I may not have always liked how the creators of the anime chose to do things, but it was a lot easier to figure out who was who and what happened when. I wish the entire series had been made into an anime - I just know there will be things in future books that will confuse the heck out of me.

6) Some things in this series were just beautiful. The music was lovely and fit the series well. Even though the artwork definitely had rough spots, the backgrounds were often very nice. You could tell, too, that the animators must have had a soft spot for Youko, because she, in particular, tended to look really good, especially during the arc in which she is queen.

So, overall, I liked this anime. As long as I don't think too much about the way it ended...if I do that, then I start to get angry.

I highly recommend watching this in Japanese with English subtitles, rather than dubbed in English. The English dub voice acting often felt awkward, and I think the casting was, in general, badly done. Some voice actors were reused far too often - while several members of the Japanese cast also voiced many characters, I found it much more noticeable in the English cast. Those who are sticklers for name and word pronunciation will cringe at the way some characters' names and some Twelve Kingdoms words are said. Although there are moments when the English dub is good and certain characters (unfortunately only minor ones, in my opinion) who are consistently done well, the Japanese language track is much, much better. I could believe that Aya Hisakawa, Youko's Japanese voice actor (and the voice of Yuki Sohma in Fruits Basket!), might get mistaken for a guy, but Midge Mayes always sounded like an annoying girl to me.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • The 10th Kingdom (live action mini-series); The 10th Kingdom (book) by Kathryn Wesley - In this mini-series, a New York waitress and her father are transported into a world filled with fairy tale people, places, and magic. If they are to survive and get back to their own world, they have to help a prince regain his true form. Those who'd like another story in which characters are transported into a strange and sometimes dangerous world might want to try this. The special effects in the mini-series are sometimes a bit cheesy, but it's still fun to watch. Anyone disappointed by the lack of romance in The Twelve Kingdoms will probably like that there is romance in both the mini-series and the book (which is a novelization of the mini-series).
  • The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another series set in a pseudo-historical world might want to try this. Shurei, the main character, is, like Youko, a female character who (for the most part) doesn't let romance rob her of her brain. This series has more romance than The Twelve Kingdoms, but not nearly as much as one might expect - the bulk of the story deals with court politics and adventure.
  • Fushigi Yuugi (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi (anime TV series) - Two friends are transported into a book - the main character, Miaka, becomes the priestess of Suzaku, while Yui becomes the priestess of Seiryu and her enemy.  This one might be good for those who liked the idea of someone being transported to another world but wanted way more romance - most of the male characters in this series are handsome, several of them love Miaka, and there are even a few who love Yui.
  • Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - A teenage girl is transported to the past, a time filled with demons and magic. Together with Inuyasha, a half-demon, and several others, she must find and purify the shards of the Shikon Jewel. This series has more humor and romance than The Twelve Kingdoms but may still appeal to those looking for another "transported to another world" story.
  • Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore - This YA book might be a good suggestion for those who'd like something else starring a strong female character ("strong" being a bit of an understatement in this case) who, like Youko, must survive great danger. This adventure takes place in a pseudo-historical world in which some people develop into Gracelings, people with amazing special skills.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Talia is a dreamer who longs to leave her restrictive home and live with Heralds and their Companions. When she is given the chance to do just that, she must also figure out how to deal with those who would do anything to keep her from getting in the way of their ambitions. Those who were particularly intrigued by the kirin and their relationships with their rulers might want to try this book or perhaps another book in the series.  There are times when the Companions are a great deal like the kirin.
  • Daughter of the Blood (book) by Anne Bishop - The first in a trilogy focusing on several powerful, emotionally damaged characters. For centuries, Daemon has waited for Witch, a woman he is determined to serve and love. Somehow, Daemon and others must protect Witch, who is still a child, so that she can grow into her power and save everyone from the corruption that has almost destroyed the Blood. It's a dark series, but a good one. The Queen of Kyou prompted me to add this to my list of read-alike suggestions - there is something about her that reminds me of Bishop's Queens, or at least makes me think of what they could have been.
  • Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - Those who loved finding out about how the world of the Twelve Kingdoms works might want to try this book, which also includes a lot of interesting world-building details. Like The Twelve Kingdoms, the main character in this one is a young woman who must gradually become stronger and more capable, to the point where she is able to lead others against an entire army.

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