The Twelve Kingdoms
(Juuni Kokuki) (2002-2003)
Directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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The forty-five episodes of The Twelve Kingdoms are divided into four successive narrative arcs. In the first of these, the viewer is introduced to three high school students in Japan, Youko Nakajima, Yuka Sugimoto, and Ikuya Asano. A supernatural being, Keiki, appears and informs Youko that he is her servant. When Youko and Keiki are attacked by monstrous spirits, Keiki transports Youko, Yuka, and Asano to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, which resembles medieval China but is governed by nearly immortal rulers and inhabited by various supernatural entities. There, Youko learns that she has been chosen as the queen of one of the kingdoms and must fight to win her throne. Later arcs introduce other characters and other plots, but these build upon the initial arc so that the series does not have an episodic quality to it.

Very few television programs have any artistic merit, but Tsuneo Kobayashi's The Twelve Kingdoms is one of the few that does.

Throughout much of its duration, the series is both visually stunning and filled with a variety of wonderfully executed narrative elements. The makers of the program have brought to life a number of engaging, fascinating characters, placed them in a nearly perfectly realized imaginary world, and involved them in a succession of deeply affecting and exciting adventures. The series is, as a consequence, despite its occasional misstep, a truly wonderful work of art.

The animation used in most of The Twelve Kingdoms is especially lovely and of a remarkably high quality for a television program. Backgrounds are rendered in lush detail, and the main characters are beautifully drawn. The colors used for skin tones are luminous and work well against the more subdued colors of the scenery. The beauty of the series is, however, somewhat diminished by a number of static crowd scenes. Figures in the foreground of such scenes move while those behind them remain completely still. The series' animation is, nonetheless, generally impressive and frequently gorgeous.

What is more, most of the program's central characters are well crafted and greatly contribute to its enjoyableness. Youko and Yuka, in particular, are appealing, sympathetic, and complex persons. At the beginning of the series, Youko tries to please those around her at the expense of her own personal fulfillment, but, over time, though full of self doubt, she changes. From allowing the expectations others have of her to guide her actions, she moves to anger and distrust, aroused by her being repeatedly mistreated, to real moral worth. The changes she undergoes progress naturally and enable the viewer to engage with her inner conflicts. The subsequent narrative arcs create further moral and personal challenges for Youko so that she continues to grow and develop throughout the series in ways consistent with what we have previously been shown of her personality. The viewer is consequently able to identify with her and remain emotionally involved in her experiences.

Yuka too is intriguing. When first introduced, she is sad and isolated and finds escape from her life in fantastic novels. She sees being transported to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms as an opportunity to live in the world of her fantasies and resents, and refuses to accept, the fact that it is Youko, not her, who belongs to that world. Her anger and resentment lead her to perform a number of immoral acts, but we see that she is not a wicked person and understand her behavior. Like Youko's, Yuka's moral growth is natural and engaging.

While few of the other characters introduced in the first narrative arc are as captivating as are Youko and Yuka, most are to some degree interesting or appealing. Asano, for example, is never made as complicated an individual as are either of his two schoolmates, but he does play an important role in the two girls' relationship and does, in a subsequent narrative arc, develop into a surprisingly tragic character. Rakushun, a giant mouse capable of transforming into a human being, is perhaps the most sympathetic of the series' supporting characters. He is given some complexity and is such an endearing, gentle individual that the viewer is certain to be charmed by him.

Sadly, the second narrative arc focuses primarily on a number of largely uninteresting and overly saccharine characters who are not particularly well realized. As a consequence, although the story told does give some insight into Youko's troubles, it is far less affecting than is that which preceded it. In the third narrative arc, however, Suzu and Shokei, two girls the same age as Youko, are introduced, and both are beautifully crafted, complex individuals who contribute significantly to the series. The development of each girl's personality is handled with as much care and sophistication as is the development of Youko's personality. The viewer is, consequently, able to become as deeply involved in Suzu and Shokei's conflicts, troubles, and concerns as he is in Youko's.

The fourth narrative arc is, for the most part, concerned with characters who have already been introduced, but they are given further depth in the course of the telling of this final tale. Even the new supporting characters with whom they interact are intriguing enough to keep the viewer's interest. While the brevity of the series' concluding story precludes the sort of development of their personalities that the director was able to achieve in the first and third arcs, he is able to involve the viewer with these persons. By doing so, and by raising a number of moral questions, he is, even in this short tale, able to arouse a real and affecting sense of tragedy.

Although not as fully realized as the protagonists, even a few of the series' villains are interesting individuals. The King of Kou, for example, who is Youko's enemy in the first narrative arc of The Twelve Kingdoms, is not a wholly evil figure, and, while his actions are unethical, his motives are understandable. He makes the story far more compelling than it would have been had Youko and her friends been opposed by a mere caricature.

Despite the series' attention to its wonderfully realized characters and intricate, enthralling world, The Twelve Kingdoms is also filled with rousing adventures and wondrous, magical beings. The protagonists face various dangers, fight battles, and endure terrible hardships so that the viewer remains constantly exhilarated by their heroism, fearful because of the threats they face, or commiserative from witnessing their sufferings. Kobayashi skillfully adds to these emotions a sense of wonder elicited with his depictions of the terrible powers and fearsome magic of some of the denizens of his fictional world. By arousing such feelings of awe, he further intoxicates the already enraptured viewer and makes The Twelve Kingdoms a truly engaging experience.

Unfortunately, The Twelve Kingdoms does have a few flaws, as those mentioned above. Some of the characters, especially several introduced in the second narrative arc, are entirely too adorable, and Kobayashi does spend too much time reiterating information about the world of the series and retelling previously narrated events. The program is complex, but there is really no reason why an attentive viewer should have difficulty remembering the story and the details of the imaginary world in which it is set.

The series' first narrative arc is wonderfully done. The second is less engaging. The third is as good as the first. It was able to rekindle the interest that had been waning for me during the second. The final arc, while not as well crafted as the first and the third, is genuinely touching and does leave the viewer with a sense of pleasant melancholy. Taken as a whole, The Twelve Kingdoms is brilliantly realized and deeply affecting. The program's faults are truly minor when compared with the impressive, emotionally evocative beauty of its lovingly crafted, exquisitely detailed world and its fascinating, delightful characters.

Review by Keith Allen

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