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Twelve Kingdoms (Juuni Kokki) Anime Review

One of the things I like the most about fantasy is how varied it is. From the melancholy and slow decline of Middle Earth, to the endless conflict of the Warhammer world, the action-packed adventures of Elric of Melniboné to the elaborate cultural tapestry David Eddings weaves in his works, when I’m bored of this world, I can go to whatever world fits my mood at the moment.

However, it’s sometimes frustrating to see that a great part of the available works have, to a greater or lesser degree, strong European or Tolkienesque roots: great castles, heavily armored knights, elves, dwarves, hermetic magic, etcetera. Elements that can be mixed in a myriad combinations become boring if repeated too much, or in too similar a fashion.

When this happens, it’s a good idea to go beyond what western literature offers. In this case, to see what China and Japan can give us in terms of fantasy.

Since olden times, China has been linked to magic and wonders, a place where anything can happen. There powerful emperors speak with the voice of Heaven, the Monkey King Sun-Wukung travels in a cloud, and things seldom are what they seem.

In Japan’s case, we have many instances of western fantasy filtered through their eyes, among which Record of Lodoss Wars and The Vision of Escaflowne are the most famous examples. However, they are still examples of European/Tolkienesque fantasy, with many of the elements we have seen time and again.

Twelve Kingdoms (cover)That’s why it’s so nice to see works that focus in the epic and the fantastic as seen from an eastern point of view. That’s the premise behind Juuni Kokki, the Twelve Kingdoms, an anime series based on novels by Fuyumi Ono.

Youko is a Japanese high school student, who has been elected as her class’ representative. While she’s not completely happy, her life is at least quite stable. This changes, the day a strange man arrives at her school and bows before her, swearing loyalty and asking her to accept his protection. Confused, she accepts. Immediately, an enormous birds attack the building, spreading chaos throughout the school.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the stranger summons a myriad of creatures who take Youko and transport her to another world. There she is revealed to be Queen of Kei, one of the twelve kingdoms that give name to the series. From that point, the plot focuses in on other characters, showing through their eyes the ways of the world to which she has been taken.

Here, the rulers are chosen by the divine heavens through sacred creatures called Kirin, which are an oriental version of European unicorns. There’s one for each kingdom, capable of bowing only to the one whom the gods have chosen as king or queen. From the moment that person accepts the charge they become immortal and start ruling their own kingdom.

But having a ruler doesn’t necessarily solve all of a kingdom’s problems–otherwise this would be a tremendously boring series. Should the sovereign surrender to the temptation of power and riches, the kingdom’s Kirin starts to weaken and great catastrophes sweep the kingdom. Should the Kirin die, the ruler dies too, plunging the kingdom into misery until another Kirin is born and another ruler chosen.

The setting’s novelty aside, this series has many other merits: the animation is amazingly fluid, with superbly drawn landscapes that truly give the impression of having entered a world very different from our own. Also, the characters are very well defined, each of them with a believable motivation and, even more importantly, a story to tell.

Another pleasant surprise for me was the way women are portrayed. One of the most annoying elements of fantasy literature is, from my humble point of view, the role women are usually assigned. While they’re not always shown as trophies to be earned, or an excuse to show more skin than would be reasonable (just remember Pirotess from Lodoss War or the myriad scantily clad ladies in the Conan tales), damsels in distress or simply a romantic complement for the hero, they are usually subordinated to a male figure that gives sense to their existence or role in the story. In Twelve Kingdoms, however, the female characters appear as fully equal to men: whether they are fragile or strong, they are so through their own merits or flaws, not because there’s a man causing them to be that way.

It is a fantastic world, very different from the one we live in, with its own rules and customs that give a refreshing twist from the usual genre conventions. While it might not be to everyone’s tastes, I would recommend watching a few episodes, even if only to catch a small glimpse of the many possibilities the fantastic genre can offer.

Rating: 8.5/10

This article is a translation made by me of an article I wrote for the Spanish online magazine Nosolofreak.

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