Why do I spend most of my time revisiting old titles these days? I have no idea. Maybe it’s just pure nostalgia, or maybe it’s just too much work for a lazy bum like me to get into something new. The Twelve Kingdoms is a series of novels by Fuyumi Ono first published in 1991 and subsequently adapted into an anime in 2002. All things considered, it’s almost as old as me. I think it’s probably one of the greatest stories ever told through anime. If only more people watched it.
I became a teenager with the turn of the millennium (sort of), hence the start of the 21st century sort of exemplifies the idea of contemporary in my subconscious mind. The year 2000 seems like only yesterday. I suppose this may simply be another manifestation of nostalgia, but I just find it interesting that my perception of date is always relative to the year 2000 (i.e. 1998 is a long time ago but 2001 is just recently). The Twelve Kingdoms therefore belongs to this peculiar part of my recollection, frozen in time in the “recent” category.
But I digress. The Twelve Kingdoms is a fantasy epic set in a world divided into twelve kingdoms (duh). The story is heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese folklores and centres around Youko Nakajima, a Japanese high school student. The opening premise sounds very much like the typical girl-falls-into-well cliché, but fortunately Twelve Kingdoms is not just another action adventure cum romantic comedy. Rather, it is one of those epic stories about the trials and tribulations of the human condition that, if it had been told in an earlier era, could have been the foundation of entire oral traditions and civilizations.
A really good fantasy story, in my opinion, presents the same features as a really good science fiction. It is easy to substitute robots for tanks and call the resulting abomination “sci-fi”, or to throw in some elves and magic and call it “fantasy”, but doing so defeats the point of the genre. A good fantasy story requires an out-of-this-world setting that is fantastically exotic and yet logical and believable in its internal workings. I enjoy Warcraft lore and all, but all too often the solution to every problem in the novels tends to be “obtain more powerful magic from x”. I just can’t stand that in storytelling. I suppose this is a problem inherent in the sub-genre of fantasy novels that bears the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons…
Oh shit I digress again. Anyway, The Twelve Kingdoms is an excellent example of a story that fully exploits the intricacies of its unique settings. Each of the twelve kingdoms in the story (represented by a single Chinese character in the style of Romance of the Three Kingdoms) is ruled by a monarch chosen by divine will (that of Tentei 天帝, which is really the Chinese word for “Heavens”), similar to the ancient Chinese belief of Mandate of Heaven. Unlike ancient China however, this mandate is not hereditary, and therein lies the crux of the story.
At the centre of the world, a divine being known as the Kirin is born for each of the kingdoms. A Kirin (something like a chimera in Chinese folklore but depicted in the show as a unicorn-like creature) selects the ruler of the kingdom it represents, and both the Kirin and the chosen monarch possess eternal life but remain vulnerable to mortal wounds. The presence of a monarch in a kingdom is enough to help mitigate natural disasters and Youma (demon) attacks within its borders. However, if a monarch rules tyrannically or incompetently and incurs the wrath of Tentei, the Kirin suffers from a divine ailment and eventually dies with the monarch soon to follow.
This presents many interesting what-if scenarios which the writer explores in great details. What if a Kirin is compelled by divine forces to choose a king whom he knows is incapable of just rule? With Kirins as the physical proof of the divine providence behind the throne, do the people have the right to revolt against an unjust king or must they suffer in silence as they wait for heavenly judgement? Each scenario is explored through a very engaging story that distills these macro concepts into the personal life stories of the various major characters, and each mini story helps to paint a picture of a living, breathing world.
Themes of racial discrimination, xenophobia, corruption, poltical infighting, it’s all there. I do wonder how a liberal Western mind perceive the depiction of duty and honour (absolute loyalty to the throne and what not) in the story, one that is rather Confucian and somewhat undemocratic (power sharing be damned). It’s interesting because these somewhat feudalistic values can still be observed in Asian politics and business. But of course unlike in real life, divine retribution is a cause for real concern for any aspiring tyrant in The Twelve Kingdoms.
Due to the fact that Fuyumi Ono had not finished writing the novels at the end of the first season (up to episode 39), the second season was prematurely aborted at episode 45 with a hanging conclusion. The novels are now completed with a total of 7 books divided into 11 volumes (Japanese novels are tiny; the Da Vinci Code takes up two volumes) so you can give them a try if you read Japanese. The TV series more or less covered the events of the first four novels with some changes.
For those who don’t, the good news is that since March 2007, Tokyopop has been releasing translations of the novels. The bad news is that it’s doing this at the rate of exactly one book per year, so assuming all goes well (an optimistic assumption in the manga licensing industry), it will take another four more years for the complete translation. The three books currently released do not go beyond the scope of the TV series, although “The Vast Spread of the Seas” (東の海神 西の滄海) was sort of rushed through in episodes 40-45.
Personally I don’t see why Tokyopop had to mutilate the book names and cut them down to half, but I do like their artsy cover designs.
Anyway, give The Twelve Kingdoms a try if you haven’t already. I know many people who give up after a few episodes because they feel that the plot is too slow or generic, but it’s all worth the effort.