Twelve Kingdoms, The
This series will be an interesting one to review, such a mixture of strength and weakness. It also remains the final proof of why quickflix sort of sucks for anime. It's taken me 4-5 months to actually get to borrow all of the disks. Thankfully, for reasons that will become clear, the fact my memory of the first episodes is a little hazy shouldn't be an issue.
Somewhat parallel to our own there is another world. It is similar in many ways, populated by humans and with a culture reminiscent of classical China. The foundation however is very different, for in this world gods, magic and monsters are very real and influence every aspect of life. Balance is maintained as if by an exotic and ancient contract. If the people live as the gods intend, then all will be well. If the people act against the gods then their lands will sicken, their children will be denied them and monsters will threaten their lands. Sadly humans are weak, uncertain and easily corrupted by power so even with selection by the gods there is still room for treason, tragedy and complex politics.
The two lands are also not entirely separate, it is possible for a freak storm to sweep someone from our world into the other. This is not a good thing as they find themselves in an alien land, incapable of communicating and frequently regarded as either responsible for the destructive storm or an omen of even worse to come. Various magical beings are also able to cross this boundary in a much less destructive fashion. The story largely focuses on two individuals who have made this crossing and found themselves destined to have a role in the politics of this strange world. One is a Japanese schoolgirl from the modern day, one a noble from feudal Japan. We get to follow them as they learn the secrets of this world, and their place within it.
There are many types of fantasy story. One axis of measurement is between characters and story versus world building. In the first the actions of the characters, their relations and the story they are following is the clear focus. The world may have a decent amount of depth, but it remains primarily a backdrop for adventure. The other is world building, where someone has invested masses of time in detailing socio-political structures, writing up documents on imaginary economic systems and the underlying theory of magic. The characters often exist to provide a point of reference as the story explores the details and intricacies of this world. This second type is symptomatic of some of the more obsessive role-playing game masters, who would write pages of notes about parts of the world that their players would probably never visit, or understand... or even care about.
This series sets new records for world building. I seriously suspect the author of the novels on which this anime is based is a role-player, and this world has evolved over time. I base this on the fact that she has considered things that most people wouldn't even dream of thinking about. For example the notion of sex, this imaginary world is full of male and female humans but reproduction works entirely differently (and rather prudishly I might add). Likewise she has invested immense amounts of time in the socio-political systems of this land, and is quite willing to spend seemingly infinite time exploring the complex system that holds this land together. Indeed exploration of the political system is the dominant focus for the entire series.
This series has, as can be expected, all the strengths of a world building series. The relentless detail, and very consistent foundations, give the world we visit a lot of depth. It quickly begins to build its own reality, the feeling that the deeper we look the more details we will find. Its a really impressive piece of creation. The only possible downside is its a little bit too fussy. The creator likes order which can be seen in the world map, perfectly symmetrical and broken into extremely neat and convenient kingdoms. Of course the back-story is that the gods made it so, even to the extent of forbidding the kingdoms to conquer their neighbors, which works well enough.
The characters have been constructed with the same sort of care. They have a rich sense of personality, nice back-stories, and the creators are patient about letting their words and actions bring out their character. They do tend to be a little over-worked, lots of character flaws and some rather excessive angst being displayed. Fortunately two of the lead characters we follow rise above it making the series fun to watch. The female student has the angst, but also this wonderful internal strength that allows her to overcome it, at which point you can't help but become supportive of her growth. Meanwhile the Samurai, being just too damn cool but also perceptive, is soon running rings around the locals all while being laid back and seemingly having a good time.
These two characters are superb. There's one other we spend a lot of time with, a Kirin (a holy creature that plays a complex role in the politics of the kingdom), but he never manages as much depth. They are too passive and wussy to stand up to the strength the other two display. Yep, it didn't take many episodes before I was glued to the set wanting to know what twist would happen next.... and this is about when we get up to the bad news.
The story progression for this series is quite a mess. The first couple of disks give you the hope that you are watching the first steps of a story epic enough to span this carefully created world. And then just as it reaches a peak we suddenly wander off into an entirely disconnected story, with a much weaker lead. The series never really regains this early energy, instead becoming just a jumble of weakly connected character stories from various parts of the world. They attempt to fake connections between them for example the lead characters being "told" the story, or Sugimoto being an observer to the second story, but it doesn't really tie it together in any real sense. Some of the stories are good, especially those with Youko or King-en at their center, but there's a lot of much weaker ones. Even the political system starts to bore a bit once you've got the essence behind it. In the end a lavishly detailed world still needs a reason for us to care about it. This reaches a high point at episode 45 where the series comes to a sudden and abrupt halt. In theory they're going to make more some time, and take it upto 68 episodes, but it certainly was a bit of a shock to see a series with not even the slightest attempt at a conclusion. Then again, the previous disk had been a long, and disconnected, historical story so it's not like there was much to conclude. And yes, I do realise those who know the source novels will have a different view of how it all fits together, but I'm reviewing the anime as an independent product... which makes sense since it is being sold here and to the best of my knowledge the novels are not.
So how to rate it... a difficult question. It has undeniable weight and quality to it, a depth that makes it seem more real and solid than the vast majority of anime. It also has good production values. This has to be balanced against the weaknesses in story, while the creators are excellent at doing memorable scenes a show of this caliber cries out for a suitably epic story. Instead most stories are just explorations of the rather ornate and artificial political system. Additionally in the absence of story events a lot of the characters have to provide all the drama themselves, leading to it being a trifle over-wrought at time, especially for minor characters. I'm going to give it a worthy rating, when it is good it is a pleasure to watch and very addictive, but it definitely has some sizable flaws. I'd even recommend watching it on rental rather than buying.
The show has very solid production values. The characters are well depicted and expressive, helped by well selected voices which bring them out well, even for relatively minor characters. The guy playing the King of En obviously really enjoyed himself and this comes out in his performance. The world design is great, as can be expected, although it draws heavily from its historical sources (much like Fushigi Yuugi did). It's also very colorful gaining variety and depth of color from modern animation techniques. The action is sparse, there's an awful lot of talking, and its not terribly exciting or detailed when it does happen. The music is good, light orchestral pieces as is traditional, with some strong signature pieces to set the mood. It's generally well in the background, or absent, so you can focus on the voices though.
It's a pseudo-historical fantasy world, realised in astounding depth and full of interesting characters and events to follow. However it is also drawn from a series of unconnected books which gives the anime an extremely odd, and somewhat disappointing story progression. It is worth experiencing for the depth, and the strength of the creators intensity, but the ultimate experience is somewhat disappointing... especially given that the series comes to an abrupt and incomplete halt.
None of my regular sources seem to have a review for the whole series. There's a couple of good reviews for the first disk, but that doesn't really give a fair feel for the whole series.