I recently decided that, just for the fun of seeing what would happen, I’d randomly decide on an anime I’d never heard of and watch it from start to finish. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. I mean, I do have quite a lot to say about it, but the show itself wasn’t especially good.
The First Arc: “Something About the Sun At Daybreak”?
The Twelve Kingdoms a portal fantasy anime. It follows Youko Nakajima, a teenage girl who—along with two of her classmates—is taken from Japan to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, where she has been selected to be the new queen of a kingdom called Kei. Sugimoto, one of her classmates, becomes jealous of Youko’s status as “chosen one” and joins the evil King Kou. Meanwhile, Youko meets a rat-person called Rakushun, who seems to have no shortcomings and becomes her closest friend. I hope you didn’t find all that interesting, because it quite suddenly resolves itself and begins going off on unrelated tangents.
The World of the Twelve Kingdoms
On a very positive note—before I get started on all the many problems—the art style, designs, and animation are all really good. The designs for the characters make them very easy to tell apart, which is always an important part of visual storytelling. Concepts like that of the animal-people (called “hanjyuu”) and the parallels drawn between different characters are interesting.
Many of the show’s concepts, in fact, are really interesting, as is its world. However, the customs of the world are hard to keep straight, and its rules are so rigid that conflicts feel slightly limited in scope. For instance, if a ruler oppresses his people or sends his army into another kingdom, then the gods will cause him to die within a short time, which at one point leads to a central conflict disappearing entirely.
Kirin; Taiho; Saiho—All the Same Thing!
It seems everything has some manner of magical mechanic pertaining to it, and the names and titles of places and characters (which are often as numerous as those of a Tolkienian character) are often similar or identical to that of something else in the story. Very frequently, a province in one kingdom has the same name as another kingdom. Most of the characters often have a staggering number of names (I know as a veritable worshipper of Tolkien’s work I shouldn’t complain about this, but it’s way more confusing here).
A type of creature, for instance, is called a “kirin,” but their official title is “saiho”—but out of respect, they’re called “Taiho.” If you think that’s confusing, don’t worry; every once in a while, they spend an entire episode recapping what everything is called (nothing happens in these episodes; it just reminds you what everything is called).
A Misnomer For a Dictatorship
The system that the show calls “monarchy” actually involves a ruler being chosen from the gentry by one of the aforementioned kirin, and it is impossible for a kirin to choose a relative of the previous ruler—or even someone with the same family name. Then the ruler becomes immortal. Why do they call it “monarchy”? That system is almost the exact opposite of monarchy! It sounds more like a dictatorship, which is—in most, if not all, cases—an inherently republican system.
Limits, Limits, and Convoluted Limits
The convoluted and rigid magic systems prevent the stakes from feeling as important as they should. A kirin chooses a ruler and is physically incapable of choosing the wrong person; even if the right ruler turns out to be a tyrant, worry not! That just means the kirin will get sick and die, and once a kirin dies it means the ruler will die. In other words, it’s a system where larger conflicts are easily prevented, and even when they do crop up, they can’t fully play out because the bad guy is doomed from the start. This makes everything that happens feel trivial. Rulers aren’t even allowed to invade other kingdoms, limiting the scope of conflicts even further.
The ’Orrible Pacing
The main problem is the pacing; conflicts often resolve abruptly, and there’s a painful amount of exposition. You think Naruto has a lot of filler episodes? Well, the filler in Naruto is nothing compared to that of Twelve Kingdoms, and unlike Naruto there is little payoff to watching the backstory episodes, which in The Twelve Kingdoms consist mostly of name after name… after name… after name. Even outside of designated recap episodes, the exposition slows down the pacing to the point where you’re drowning in it, and it very seldom lets up. Exposition frequently repeats itself.
The numerous story arcs usually have little to do with one another, and it feels like a show based on a series of short stories, as opposed to a single coherent narrative. That’s probably because it is based on a series of short stories. I’ve seen shows with similarly formatted source material, but many of those shows worked because they did not try to conceal this fact. The Twelve Kingdoms, however, seemed always to be trying to present a flowing narrative, which it was unable to do.
When The Cicadas Cry: Watch That Instead!
The different arcs in Higurashi, by contrast, do happen independently of one another, but they aren’t unrelated. Not only does each one serve as a story unto itself, but they also share a common setting, characters, and tone. Each plot thread in each arc is essentially resolved by the end of the arc. The Twelve Kingdoms attempts to string together an unrelated anthology of short stories by interrupting one narrative with smaller ones every once in a while, and the shorter arcs have nothing to do with what is supposed to be the greater arc. Even after the completion of the main arc, we are given another short story that has nothing to do with anything.
Had the show presented itself as an anthology of short stories in a similar fashion to Higurashi, it might have worked better. Instead, the larger narrative takes long breaks where one character is relating a tangential anecdote to another. Even the filler arcs in Naruto at least happen in sequence as opposed to being thrown in our faces as flashbacks—not to mention that they actually resolve by the end of the arc! Indeed, the worst filler that Naruto has to offer can at least be said to have payoff, which that in The Twelve Kingdoms usually doesn’t.
“I Hope You Didn’t Find That Interesting Either!”
Plot threads, character arcs, and conflicts are resolved abruptly with very little payoff. Sugimoto’s arc as an antagonist, which seemed to be building up to something important, simply fizzled out when she almost instantly realized the error of her ways. Zuko‘s development was compelling because he struggled for so long, often making the wrong choices—Sugimoto, however, gets a hold on her emotions within just one unimpressive scene.
King Kou, whom I thought was a good villain, kicked the bucket in the very same scene without ever really presenting any long-term threat.
After that, an entire war is exposited in the space of a few short minutes, and even then the war is easily won by the protagonists. All these conflicts end without much suspense or bloodshed, if any, on the part of the good side.
The Second Arc: “Mean-Spirited Morals at Sundown”
After a load of unrelated arcs, what is supposed to be the main arc begins a second main arc—and if you don’t think this is confusing, then you’ve probably misread the last few paragraphs. This is supposedly the last arc except for the brief and completely unrelated arc that immediately follows. This arc concerns three main threads: Youko, who has become queen of Kei; Suzu, an immortal girl from ancient Japan who, after ending up in the Twelve Kingdoms, was made to work as a slave; and Princess Shoukei, the moral of whose story is an even worse example of victim-blaming than Suzu’s.
“It’s Your Fault For Existing!”
Since none of these have much in the way of payoff, I’ll focus on Shoukei’s plot. Shoukei’s father, who was the king of a kingdom called Hou, oppressed his people and executed anyone who failed to be perfect in every way (similarly to Draco of Athens). Of course, Shoukei had no idea that her father had executed children for falling ill and similar “crimes.” Of course, it wasn’t too long before a rebellion broke out, and its leader killed Shoukei’s father and forced her to watch him execute her mother in front of her.
Shoukei was sent to an orphanage, and when her identity was discovered, everyone who’d lost a loved one to her father’s cruelty got together and tried to kill her. She was rescued by the leader of the rebellion, who promptly told her that she sickened him before exiling her. After being abused further, she became jealous of Youko’s status and decided to kill her (or something—it’s not very clear). There are any number of ways this could make for a good character; the abuse could turn her into an antagonist, for instance. However, very little happens and the story would have been mostly unchanged had she been wholly absent.
Wow! Rakushun’s Kind of an Asshole!
If she’s so unimportant to the plot, you may wonder, why am I focusing on her? Well, it’s because one of The Twelve Kingdoms’s consistent problems is that the show constantly sends bizarre mixed messages about nearly everything. Regardless of what moral question is presented, the show itself doesn’t seem to know what side it’s on. After a short-lived plot against Youko, Shoukei winds up travelling with Rakushun. When she says that what her father did wasn’t her fault, Rakushun replies,
“Sure it is!”
I think the reasoning is supposed to be that it’s her fault because she didn’t know about it and that she should have gone out of her way to find out what was happening. The show often alludes to the idea that she should have stopped her father from committing such evils, but it just begs the question of how on earth she’s supposed to do that! Although the immortality granted to her whole family meant she was actually in her forties, the fact is that none of the immortals in the story are ever shown to act any older than they look. Even more important is that the Twelve Kingdoms’ version of monarchy lacks the concept of a royal house; this means that her father is more dictator than king, making even more ludicrous the idea that a thirteen-year-old could do a damn thing about it.
Among the many problems with this message is the fact that it was also made clear that her father actively prevented her from finding out; she wasn’t even allowed to leave the palace. For this reason, supposedly, it is acceptable to blame a thirteen-year-old for the actions of a dictator to whom they happen to be related. Again, I have to mention Avatar to contrast this; when an Earth Kingdom village shuns Zuko merely for his being the Fire Lord’s son, despite the villagers’ actions being easy to understand, the show doesn’t try to justify them as moral. We’re never asked to believe that Zuko is responsible for what his forebears have done—only for his own mistakes. Shoukei’s treatment, however, is essentially justified by the words of a character who is never shown to be wrong about anything. My problem is not the way her father’s victims treat her, because it makes sense that they would act thusly; my problem is that the story tries to justify their actions by saying it was her fault for not knowing what was being actively kept from her.
Rakushun is completely void of flaws that would round out his character. Everything he says is correct. Everything he does is selfless. He is willing to forgive anything. All this gives what he says all the more weight when he tells Shoukei that everything was her fault simply because she isn’t all-knowing and all-mighty!
After the big (and yet somehow underwhelming and horribly-paced) finale, we get yet another unrelated tangent, and then the show gets prematurely canceled; the plot threads that didn’t abruptly resolve way too soon are just left unresolved. Although it is quite annoying that so many questions are left unanswered, I can see why a show like this would be canceled. It has, without a doubt, the worst pacing of any anime I’ve seen; most of them have really good pacing, in fact, which might be why the pacing here is so jarring.
Despite a large, well-animated, and interesting world with really creative ideas, the conflicts feel trivial. Said conflicts often end off-screen and we get exposition in their stead—it takes a lot of talent to successfully pull off something like the March of the Ents, and The Twelve Kingdoms was anything but successful in that respect. Plots pop up and die out left and right without contributing much, and very few of them ever bear fruit. Worse, the morals are confused and often incredibly mean-spirited, and victim-blaming is a huge problem across several of the arcs.
In conclusion, if you ever try watching a random show you’ve never heard of, I think you’d do well to re-roll your dice if you land on The Twelve Kingdoms.