Well, this was a pleasantly infuriating experience — it was gripping yet so maddeningly convoluted and slow to develop that it nearly drove me to distraction. Nearly, but fortunately, not quite.
You’re reading the synopsis and thinking ‘hey, it doesn’t very sound very different from other series’ [see Escaflowne]. Youko Nakajima wouldn’t be the first reluctant anime character to be told she is the ‘chosen one’. She wouldn’t be the first to be consequently ripped from Earth, dumped into foreign land, given a magical implement [sword, club, chainsaw what have you] and instructed to save the world. She would be the first though that I wanted to slap and say ‘get a grip’. Watching her in the early episodes as she deals with her new fate was quite painful, her increasingly pathetic whimpering and breakdowns would certainly make the most patient saint give up their faith. When she does finally start showing some signs of courage and intelligence in episode 4, I felt jumping out of my seat and whooping madly. Make no mistakes about it, the girl is a wimp.
Twelve Kingdoms asserts itself right from the beginning, adamant on eschewing normal conventions. The trio of Youko, Asano and Yuka are no Harry Potter trio and ‘friends’ is a term that can only be applied very loosely in their case. Starving hyenas are nicer to each other.
Youko isn’t the conventional anime heroine, she retains her vulnerability and insecurities throughout. Playing off Youko’s meekness is Yuka. Surly and strong-willed, a steely look from her can give you whiplash. A social outcast at school, she escapes into the world of fantasy books and she is actually happy to be stuck in Kei with no possible means of getting home. Loopy? Oh yes, indeed. She is also convinced that she is the chosen one. Her ambitious delusions and the ambiguity about her intentions [is she friend or foe?] lends a very dangerous tone to the proceedings.
And as for Asano, the male of the trio, he serves as the love interest to both girls. You think I’m kidding. Of course I’m sure he will have a much bigger role but this apparent initial lack of distinction is again what sets Twelve Kingdoms apart. He ends up in Kei with Youko and Yuka, because he was at the wrong place and the wrong time… or was he? By the end of the 5th episode, Asano begins displaying signs of a being a major character and one who increases the division between Youko and Yuka.
As I have said before this is enjoyable as well as frustrating and the sources are often the same. Twelve Kingdoms is insistent on not doing things the usual way and that is a good thing in my book. Plots [and many subplots] are slowly revealed and characterisation layered meticulously but then it raises as many and sometimes more questions than it answers. You’re left scratching your head not just about the mechanics of the story but also the philosophical questions it raises. A rarity I would say in an anime series. And while many series usually have some sort of comic relief Twelve Kingdoms again bucks the system by refusing to diffuse the weighty content with humour. There’s nary a joke in the 5 episodes and Asano’s jovial character is only a mild reprieve. This seriousness and the addition of rather complex fantasy elements actually makes the the characters’ journey quite terrifying and a heavy visceral experience for the audience.
Thankfully, a very fine score by Kunihiko Ryo provides small reliefs. His music never overwhelms the action and provides the only moments of serenity in each episode — the beautiful opening credits with its lilting Chinese overtones. As for the much lauded character designs of Twelve Kingdom, unfortunately, it did not have quite the same visual impact on me although this is very much subject to personal opinion.
You won’t be instantly gratified and it isn’t light entertainment but Twelve Kingdoms manages to to tread this fine line of being frustrating but not driving you away very well. I’m almost liking this suffocating sensation. God, I’m so masochistic.
If you want a meaty anime series to chew on, then look no further than Twelve Kingdoms because it’s complexity and length [45 episodes, gulp!] should keep you occupied for a while, not to mention satisfying those, er… masochistic tendencies. I hope to be richly rewarded by the end of the series otherwise there will be WORDS and a very serious DUMMY SPIT.