When it comes to anime these days there’s already an infinite selection of available shows adapted from popular books or manga series. Rarely, however, is there a writer for these shows who manages to capture my attention the way Fuyumi Ono has throughout the years. Acclaimed for her list of popular tales like Shiki and Ghost Hunt, this author has proven time and time again that she has a gift for combining age-old fantastical-supernatural elements with modern characters. The Twelve Kingdoms (2002) is no less of a treasure in this regard.
What’s The Twelve Kingdoms About?
The Twelve Kingdoms (2002) is an anime adapted from a novel series of the same name. The series consists of forty-five full length episodes that cover the first four novels in the franchise. The show follows the journey of Youko Nakajima, who is one of the major protagonists in the book series, and those she encounters along the way.
Youko is an “average” Japanese high school student who works hard to please the people around her. She begins the series plagued by nightmares of another world. Her mother tells her to dismiss these visions as mere dreams, wanting her daughter to maintain a sense of “normality.” Because of her natural red hair, Youko attracts a lot of negative attention from those at school, and is pressured to avoid standing out. Despite being an “anime character” in a fictional setting, she takes to dying her hair a more natural shade under the demands of her mother.
After spending a lifetime of feeling like she doesn’t belong anywhere, Youko develops a fear of being hated by everyone. She becomes agreeable with whatever is requested of her and avoids anything that makes her appear less ordinary. She shuts her “real self” off from the rest of the world and hypocritically shuns her friends of lower social status. Of course, her efforts to become “normal” ultimately fail when a stranger appears at her school one day and takes her to his world to rule his kingdom.
The Setting & Worldbuilding
I know I say this a lot, but I love seeing the different types of worldbuilding in anime. The different worlds people imagine in their stories are always fascinating to learn about. A character’s connection to their environment helps you learn about their place in that world. The Twelve Kingdoms, in this regard, is an intriguing world. Everything in this series is inspired by Ono’s fixation on Chinese mythological culture, so a lot of the regions mimic the fantasy paintings and dramas we see throughout history. Most of the scenic backgrounds in this anime resemble many of the gorgeous rural areas in Asia. The series’ backstory is also more elaborate than any other fantasy world I’ve experienced in fiction.
The appearance and economic welfare of a kingdom differ based on how the monarch rules, which makes every kingdom unique. The world also relies on the use of magic and the spiritualism of the characters. The monarch’s decisions affect the types of characters we see within each kingdom. Things such as war, racism, and control over invasive species (monsters) determine the overall lifestyle of their kingdom. Education and immigration vary based on the rules of the kingdom. If a king rules well, the Heavens will reward their kingdom with richer lands and healthier people. Whereas, if they act poorly, the Heavens punish them by ravaging their lands with disease and famine (which, in turn, attracts monsters).
Gods, Beasts, And King Choosers
“Demons” and “mythical creatures” exist in this world. While I could spend endless hours writing a long list of all the unique creatures found in this world, I’ll leave some mystery for those who want to watch it. I’ll focus on the basics so you can discover the rest of them on your own.
Despite being labeled “demons” in the series, these magical beasts are nothing like the supernatural figures we see in religion. Instead, they’re a widespread species of fantastical creatures native to different areas of the Twelve Kingdoms. In other words, they’re just general monsters that are hazardous pests. And, just like the overall setting of this series, their designs are both beautifully distinctive and amazing.
The monsters of this world come in all shapes and sizes. There are some who have a humanoid resemblance and can wield human weapons and magic. Most are just normal animals with chimeric features. However, in spite of the different appearances of either “species,” these creatures are sometimes capable of understanding (and speaking) the “human” language. I don’t know if these monsters are edible, like some Pokémon presumably are in fiction. But they are tamable, and can sometimes be used as weaponized companions or mounts. (You know, like an RPG.)
Their Significance In The Twelve Kingdoms
Ultimately, only twelve kirins can exist at a time – one for each kingdom, all named after the region’s their monarch rules. Conceptually, they can only live up to thirty human years. However, if they happen to find a ruler anywhere during that time, their lifespan is “frozen” until their king falls from grace. Once a kirin dies in this world, they are gradually replaced by those born into the world after it. If they’re born male, their name will end in “ki,” so a kirin of Kei (Youko’s kirin) would become “Keiki.” Female names, on the other hand, end in “rin,” ergo “Keirin.”
Finding A King
Kings in this series work similarly to how kings were perceived in ancient times. Monarchs are all chosen by Heaven’s will. These people do not inherit their thrones based on bloodline, but instead become kings based on God’s choice. When a kirin chooses their king, their candidates aren’t always born in the country they serve. The kings are ultimately people the Heavens deem to have the potential to be great rulers. However, whether they manage to make the kingdom thrive or send it to its doom relies solely on the person. If their monarch turns out to be a terrible tyrant who neglects the welfare of their country, the people frequently look to the kirin as the first to blame. (Since no one ever bothers to blame God.)
Tidbits I Love About This Series
One of the small features I find fascinating in this series is how the beings in this world are created. In other words, where the babies of this world come from. All living creatures in the Twelve Kingdoms are born from the fruit of a tree – people included. Basically, a couple or person ties a piece of string around the fruit to lay “claim” on an unborn child. Once the fruit hatches, the kid is instantly theirs. The number of children families are allowed to claim, though, varies based on their socioeconomic status.
Because births work differently in this world, “humans” all have special traits that connect them to the other world. Depending on which tree they’re born from (there’s one for every kingdom), citizens are genetically marked as permanent natives of that region. This method of sorting is essential to the world’s king selection process as migrants of another kingdom can only be selected as a potential ruler from where they’re born. Sometimes, when a major storm hits the area, unhatched fruits are whisked away and brought into “our world.” In this case, they’ll “attach” themselves into the womb of a pregnant couple and grow naturally. However, they still maintain the characteristics of the other world. This is why characters like Youko are born with uncommon “genetics” and “traits,” and are able to understand the other world’s language without needing to learn it.
Recaps Exist In Place Of Fillers
I guess now is a good time to give you a heads up on what to expect from the entire series since it contains forty-five episodes. Nearly a fourth of those episodes are “recaps.” Instead of a series of non-canonical “filler” arcs, like we see in Naruto or Bleach, this anime contains a handful of episodes summarizing the events of every major arc. (Although, we also see recaps in Naruto as well.)
There are two or three extra episodes from each arc that recycle the scenes of the previous story. They help viewers go over the essential points in detail. You can easily skip over them without consequence, however, they’re quite useful to refer to whenever you want to better understand the series. The characters in the recap (usually one of the main characters) often narrate an explanation of what went on in the previous arc of the story. This helps viewers understand some of the major events as the series can get overwhelming at times. They’re not too bad to have around, they’re just annoying to watch.
Care To Journey Through The Twelve Kingdoms?
For once, I’m not going to recommend this series to anyone who wants to see it. Mainly because you’d have to buy it to gain access to it. (Or take the time to find it at a local library.) I love this series. I believe that everything in the story, animation, and music is a rare gift to our world. And, I have tried talking people into trying this franchise in the past and have miserably failed. They all grew bored from dealing with the endless details.
Why This Series Isn’t For Everyone
The anime simplifies events from the novel by including more relatable characters and removing the lesser issues. However, even then, the requirements to enjoy this series are quite burdensome. The Twelve Kingdoms, like all fantasy fiction, is built upon a mountain of lore rivaling books like Game Of Thrones. While there is definitely a surplus of action and adventure in the series, these adventures come at a hefty price. You need to keep track of all the information that comes with the characters, plot, and setting in order to understand what’s going on in the story. This can get boring for people who don’t normally watch anime to “learn” anything, and just want to mindlessly enjoy it.
Furthermore, The Twelve Kingdoms is also a very “niche” type of anime. It’s hard to know whether you’d end up liking it. The entire franchise is inspired by works of Chinese mythology and literature, so the viewer must also be interested in learning about another culture’s lore. It’s easy for anyone to zone out when watching this series. It takes a lot of patience to care about what’s going on. I can’t stop anyone from trying this franchise out of curiosity. I can only recommend it to fantasy-lovers who’re comfortable with handling copious amounts of detail and slow pacing. Otherwise, you’ll feel as if you’ve wasted a good forty to fifty bucks trying to watch it.
Where You Can Find Everything
If you’re still interested in watching this anime, you can find the entire collection on Amazon. The novels, on the other hand, are much trickier to obtain these days through normal means. This series used to be licensed and translated regularly by TokyoPop. However, those translations are on hold these days and have since largely disappeared from our world. The price of any available copies have all subsequently skyrocketed.
It can cost you nearly fifty dollars to purchase a new copy of these books, which is about three times more than the original pricing. This, sadly, is a bargain. If you had wanted to purchase any of these books just a few years earlier, other people would have charged you a lot more for a well-preserved copy. Anything “used” for this series is listed at a somewhat more reasonable price. It’s up to you whether you believe this series is worth the price painted on it.