Title: Twelve Kingdoms
Youko has a quiet, ordinary life–except for her monster-filled nightmares. But when a strange man shows up at her school and whisks her and two of her friends to another world, her life changes forever. She didn’t want this. She’s not ready for this. Going home is not an option. If she’s going to survive, she’ll have to confront murderous monsters and a jealous king, and in the process discover her destiny . . .
It’s hard to put into words everything about this that makes it my favorite series. The first time I saw it was like the first time I read Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones—the kind of story that just makes your soul resonate. This had everything I liked in stories: fantastic creatures (bonus points for being intelligent and able to talk!), magic, swords, shapeshifters, getting taken to another world . . . and also the core of deep character building, where Youko is forced to confront herself and rise above, to become a queen in actuality and not just role. Also a huge plus for me personally was the lack of romance. With the exception of Youko’s initial crush on Asano (which he doesn’t return), the story ignores romance in favor of action and intrigue.
Youko wasn’t my favorite character initially: that was always Sugimoto, the fantasy lover, whose utter delight at finding herself in a world like her books contrasts sharply with Youko’s tendency to cry over every setback. But Youko grows up, facing herself as well as her circumstances, and Sugimoto is again her dark mirror as she sinks ever deeper into jealousy and frustration. And the story doesn’t give Youko many breaks. I was shocked at the encounter with Taki the first time I saw this, and Taki is merely one of many who may help or hinder in ways not initially obvious.
But when Youko does confront herself, and later the embedded corruption in her country, she doesn’t do it halfway. That meek little people-pleaser hid a backbone of steel. She’s constantly confronted with her own weaknesses, her own stupidity, her own limitations, but that isn’t going to stop her from pouring everything she has into the decisions she eventually makes. I love her second story arc (episodes 23-39) because they tackle a fascinating question I hardly ever see in secondary-world fantasy: having been given the throne, how does an outsider actually rule well? Youko isn’t just ignorant about government, she’s ignorant about geography, history, climate, inhabitants, everything. And that ignorance, through no fault of her own, costs her dearly.
As much as I enjoy Youko, she’s not the only excellent character. King En and Enki are two that never fail to amuse. I love Enki’s accusation that En enjoys playing the bad guy way too much–right after decking his own king in front of other people. I love that En’s introduction is “Kill monsters first, ask questions later.” He and Enki both are hands-on, stubborn, and full of surprises. En is so unconventional. It’s one thing to go down to hang out with the lay people in disguise—it’s another when your ministers are constantly needing to bust you out of jail for getting into bar brawls. En seems to exist to drive his ministers insane. (See: nicknames. En is a giant troll.) But behind that teasing, En is working out plans on a level no one expects. He and Youko are very similar in a lot of ways, but there’s also a profound gap between them. En is a leader born and raised, and he gets how people work.
And I love Taiki. One of the biggest frustrations I have is that the anime doesn’t finish adapting out Demon Child (Mashou no Ko), which gives at least a little closure to the horrible situation Taiki finds himself in. The intersection of past and present in the anime does lend an element of horror that isn’t really there in the books—because it’s obvious from the outset that something went drastically wrong if Taiki is now back in Japan with no memories of his time in the Twelve Kingdoms. (The blood on his face does provide a clue that it’s due to his horn being damaged, but the books are clearer on that point.) And I like the anime’s decision to use Sugimoto to pry into his history, because she’s a foil for him. Her venture into the Twelve Kingdoms taught her she couldn’t grab for a world that wasn’t hers, and she assumes Takasato is the same, although the situation isn’t supporting her assumptions. Taiki is also unusual in being the only kirin to really struggle with being a kirin. He’s too used to being human to really get most of what is supposed to be natural to him. And I like that Taiki unwittingly showcases Keiki as a gigantic stick-in-the-mud. Even other kirin think Keiki is too much, heh. (If you’re interested in reading Demon Child to see some additional scenes, the translation can be found here: https://tu-shu-guan.blogspot.com/2006/08/demon-child-prefacing-poem.html)
I’m less fond of Suzu and Shoukei, but I do like their character arcs. Both of them are extremely self-centered, but it plays out differently. Suzu is unconsiously addicted to being miserable, whereas Shoukei has a massive entitlement complex. Youko, compared to them, is starting from a much better place, but she’s still clawing herself out of the pit of pleasing others rather than forging her own way ahead. All three of them suffer from ignorance (though in Youko’s case, it’s at least excusable because she just hasn’t had time to get caught up on how this world, much less her kingdom, actually works). I love the challenge to Suzu about the different reasons why people cry–and that she’s stuck in a child’s mindset despite having been alive over 100 years. (This is a show very much not afraid to outright TELL its characters “Grow up.”)
And that’s just the characters. I also really like how the show approaches destiny and the will of the heavens. There is absolutely an element of choice for everyone involved—but those who challenge heaven find themselves in the way of heaven’s justice. And it raises some fascinating questions about Keiki’s first queen, and who she might have been if she hadn’t crumbled, and other questions along those lines. Destiny can be denied, thwarted, foiled at the individual level. But the heavens aren’t, long-term. Or take Youko’s struggle to figure out what makes a ruler a good one. Every time I watch this, I see some new facet that leads me to wonder about something else.
I get that this series may not be for everyone, but for myself it’s basically perfect. I only wish we had more. Even with Demon Child’s happier ending, Taiki’s situation remains grim (and what DID happen in Tai?). Whether the stories would be about Youko or someone else, I’m always happy to visit this world. I rate this series Highly Recommended.