This week I’m going to tackle The Twelve Kingdoms, a book and anime series that has given me some of my favorite female characters. I’ve been thinking about reviewing this series since I started this blog so I figured it’s about time I did. (It’s also a break for those of you who were getting sick of hearing about princesses.) I found The Twelve Kingdoms several years ago when the original book series by Fuyumi Ono was being translated and published by the now extinct TokyoPop. What initially attacked me to it was two things: 1) In the first book, the main character is a girl who, from the looks of the paperback cover seen on the left, appeared capable, and 2) a plot that was intriguing. Always on the look out for new female characters that don’t make me cringe, I picked it up. Once I did, I was hooked. Unfortunately, the book series has never been completely translated, stopping at four books in English, and the anime series never finished either, but I will review what I can of it. (Since the stories are self-contained that’s not something to stop you from picking this one up.)
The stories all revolve around an intricate fantasy world made up of 12 kingdoms (thus the name). Each kingdom is ruled by a king or queen, a person chosen by a mythical creature called a kirin who then serves the ruler after he/she has selected one. The books focus on various characters, meaning characters who were side characters in one book might come back in another as the star, fleshing out their stories further and the stars of one book will not appear at all in the next, but reappear in the one after that. Admittedly, I was dubious of this system initially as I grew attached to the heroine of the first book, but I ended up liking it very much; it keeps the stories self-contained, as I mentioned, and allows side characters that I liked to get some of the spotlight. The first book focuses on Youko Nakajima, a high school student living an unremarkable life in Japan. That is, until a blonde-haired young man suddenly appears before her, pledges his loyalty to her, and whisks her away to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. There they are separated, leaving Youko in a strange, unfriendly place and no idea why she was brought there or what to do next. Oh, and did I mention monsters are chasing her, too?
But for those of you unfamiliar with The Twelve Kingdoms who think this sounds like any old fantasy with teenage girls and cute guys fighting monsters, let me stop you. The interesting thing about this series is while action does take place and is important to the story I would argue the key feature of Ono’s stories are the characters. And Ono creates such rich characters! One of the reasons I love The Twelve Kingdoms is the fact that it is never about whether the character is female or male, young or old. It’s about the person and the journeys (emotionally and physically) that he/she takes, plain and simple. Yes, some characters are female and some are male, but this isn’t really focused on. In The Twelve Kingdoms it doesn’t matter as the characters aren’t restricted by stereotypes that lamely let the audience know “This character is male because he likes guns and breasts and never shows emotion!” or “This character is female because she has breasts, thinks of some boy 24/7, and is reliant on men!” In addition, this fictional world, women don’t have the gender roles seen in reality; women regularly join the army, are officials in the government, and can rule countries without the need to marry. (Interestingly, women also don’t bear children, but I won’t get into that in this post.)
Ono does a fantastic job of realistically sculpting out believable and relatable characters with very complex and realistic emotional journeys. Take Youko for example. Youko starts off as a girl who has lost herself in the effort to please everyone around her. She wants everyone to like her and doesn’t want to disappoint. However, as we all know, it’s impossible to honestly agree with everyone and make everyone happy. In the attempt to do so, Youko dulled her real opinions and personality. Then, after being betrayed numerous times in this new world, Youko becomes the opposite, so consumed with distrust that she decides to only look out for herself. I love that Fuyumi Ono takes her characters to these dark, unpleasant places–it’s not all rosy and smoothed over. There’s plenty of trial and error which makes them seem all that much more human and stronger because the audience is shown how much the characters struggle to get there. The series is full of characters with depth like Youko. Two other heroines of the series, Suzu and Shoukei, also are shown to have less than admirable moments; Suzu wallows in self-pity and Shoukei, who I discussed more in-depth last week, begins jealous and ignorant. Often, it’s very psychological and the emotional journey is just as nail-biting as the physical journey of civil strife, betrayal, political schemes, and rebellions. These characters don’t feel like caricatures and seeing them go through inner changes created makes one appreciate the characters all the more.
The anime series has slight differences in the way it’s set up (mainly in the part based on the first book–Youko sends long periods alone with her own thoughts in the book so the anime had to make adjustments) so, if you can, check out both the book series and anime series. The books are going to be harder to find since they’re out of print now, but the anime series is still being made and I believe is being released on Blu-ray now.