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Twelve Kingdoms Collection 1 Blu-ray Anime Review

16 min read

Twelve Kingdoms Collection 1
Twelve Kingdoms Collection 1
Transported to a complicated world of politics, supernatural and rulership, one young woman discovers that her past is anything but what she thought it was.

What They Say:
Our story begins with the everyday life of Youko Nakajima, a Japanese girl who covers her beautiful red hair to keep from standing out. Upon being confronted by a mysterious stranger, she is pulled into another world and abandoned on foreign shores with two of her classmates. Her epic journey continues to the Kingdom of Kei on a perilous road of espionage, terror, and betrayal. The mystic world of The Twelve Kingdoms assails her with one savage challenge after another. Will Youko have the courage to embrace her destiny?

Contains episodes 1–14.

The Review:
The audio presentation for this release is pretty good as we get the original Japanese language track in both stereo and 5.1 mixes and the English mix in stereo, all of which is encoded using the DTS-HD MA lossless codec. The show was originally recorded in stereo and got the Japanese upgrade a few years back, but it’s not a show that gains hugely by it, though the forward soundstage has more clarity and sense of placement about it because of the added levels. The series has a good balance of action and dialogue to it and the mix handles it well, with the music having some good warmth – particularly with the opening and closing sequences – while the action has some decent bass at times and overall a solid full flow to it. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we had no problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Originally airing in 2002 and 2003, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The fourteen episodes are spread across three discs in a five/five/four format. Twelve Kingdoms has a very good looking transfer here with its high definition presentation. The series has a fairly earthy tone to it with some decent bits of vibrancy from time to time and some fluid animation that comes across well here. Colors are strong and generally solid throughout with some vibrant areas such as the green eyes or the color of skin coming across in great layers. A lot of the backgrounds and look of the worlds is done in somewhat drab colors, going for the realism look (especially when you have everyone without colored hair). The series uses the same source materials as the Japanese high definition release, with a different disc count though, and it’s one that has a solid look overall and should be noted that it is not an upconvert but a native release.

The packaging for this release mirrors what we saw with the DVDs before and looks great as it uses a standard sized Blu-ray case to hold the three discs. The front cover uses the familiar illustration style artwork of Youko and Keiki together in the circle with some great border material that gives it a classic kind of feeling to it. The logo along the bottom is clean and easily readable and the arc name is included as well which adds a bit of weight to it. The back cover provides two strips of collage style shots from the show that blends together beautifully with the greater cast shown and it’s separated by the premise which is simple and minimal overall while also including some, but not all, of the extras that are on the set. Production credits round out the bottom part of the cover along with a clear and detailed technical grid that covers the Blu-ray specs well. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.

The menu design for this series goes with a very simple approach that works well enough to set the mood. The general design is that of using a variety of clips from the series to show off in a full frame format which sets has a decent balance of action bits and some character appearances. Like most menus that work like this, it loops after a bit and has a decent look to it but it doesn’t really come across as striking. The navigation strip along the bottom has the series logo along the left while the rest has the standard selections that load quickly and are easy to navigate. The navigation doubles as the pop-up menu as well and looks decent when it hits during the show itself.

The extras for this release are spread across all three discs where we get the basics such as the clean opening and closing and a bit more. The original “pilot film”, which runs for 90 seconds, makes its appearance here and we get some translation notes and a bit of a Twelve Kingdoms encyclopedia that covers some of the key phrases and types from the show that’s more like a dictionary than anything else.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Twelve Kingdoms, based on a series of novels by Ono Fuyumi and that as originally planned to be sixty-eight episodes but was shortened down to forty-five, is directed by Sho Aikawa. Like a lot of series that wants to deal with novel adaptations, it has a lot going on and a very different sense of timing and pacing when it comes to getting into the meatier aspects of it. Some shows, and manga especially where a new series has to hook you in that first chapter, just go big and provides a lot of story elements quick in order to show you were it’s going. But with a novel, you’ve bought the whole thing already, so it can take more time to draw you in. Anime adaptations have to deal with that in different ways and Twelve Kingdoms goes for a generally accurate adaptation with its pacing..

Twelve Kingdoms is done as series of arcs, with the opening one having the great title of “Shadow of the Moon, the Sea of Shadow”. In this arc, we start off in present day Japan where we’re introduced to Youko Nakajima, a quiet high school girl. She’s set apart from her classmates partially due to her having red hair, something we hear her parents insist that she get dyed before she returns to school. She seems unhappy with things in general and trying to get by, almost like most teenagers are at one point or another. During her trip to school where she talks with her friend Asano, a guy she’s known for years and rather likes, about her intent to not be class president again this year.

And, of course, she’s selected as class president again. Her school life looks like one that she does not want, giving further feel to the vibe you get that she simply doesn’t belong here on some level. One of the other girls in the class, the dark looking Sugimoto, provides the third main character that we meet here. She’s the kind that you don’t see much in the high school shows, she’s unhappy about her life in this world as well but spends her time reading fantasy novels, wanting to be involved in a world like that… almost believing it’s her destiny.

The time spent here is quite well done, providing the backdrop for these three people and how their daily lives are lived out. Naturally, it’s not going to last. Amusingly, it happens very quickly as we’re simply watching the school life go along in one of the classes during a break when all of a sudden there’s a tall pale man with striking blonde hair in a classical plain Chinese style outfit standing there. His quick insistences that Youko must come with him as he must protect her leads to much confusion. It also quickly leads to a lot of destruction as the windows shatter in and the class is thrown into disarray.

Youko is guided to the rooftop as the destruction seems to follow her, and once there she finds herself with Keiki, the blonde man whom she has accepted as her protector. Surprisingly, Sugimoto and Asano are up on the roof as well, hinting more at the possibility of a serious relationship between the two that Youko tries to digest while suddenly realizing that a massive bird-like beast is bearing down on them. Keiki provides her with a sword that only she can remove from its scabbard and tells her that she must fight it.

The reactions to this moment are priceless, as Keiki brings in his own beasts to right against the bird creature. Asano is halfway in shock about everything and Youko is practically at tears about what she’s being told, but Sugimoto is more alive than she’s likely been in some time. She sees the world she’s dreamed of come to life and though she keeps hearing how Youko is the key part to it all, she’s convinced that Keiki is mistaken and that she’s the one he’s really there for. So as the battle moves and heightens, Keiki finds himself having two more people with him than he intended and begins his spell that opens up a massive hole in the bay by the city, a portal that allows the beasts he conjured to take the three high school kids into another world.

All of that is the simple set up in the first episode that leads into the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, a place we see through a map as it focuses in on where the trio and the creatures with them land. The area they end up in is one of near ruin, a world that feels like the dark days of a feudal land where what few buildings you see are in near collapse, the people are almost soulless looking and the general feel is one of desperation. The trio ends up being separated, with Youko eventually wandering into a village where she’s captured. Sugiomoto finds herself saved by one of the creatures Keiki had created and eventually finds herself captured while Asano has the worst luck as he comes across a clearing where Keiki provides a surprising and grisly sequence.

Eventually, all three are brought together again and we learn that they aren’t the first to travel through from another world. Those that do are unable to return home and are often killed outright as they’re considered portents of bad news. Having three come through at once sets many of the more fearful people to panic, and so the trio is sent off out of the village. To make matters worse, Youko is the only one who can understand the language that’s being spoken. Sugimoto and Asano only hear gibberish, but to Youko it all sounds like Japanese.

Their trip is eventually cut short and the trio finds themselves on their own again, lost and confused and unsure of what to do. Youko and Asano are looking to go back while Sugimoto tries to think of ways to use this to her advantage, as she believes her true destiny is now calling. The stage is set for them to explore the world they’re now in and to find out what’s really in store for them. The five episodes here provide a lot of the groundwork and spend plenty of time letting the culture and settings really seep in. While there are a number of areas where things move quickly, especially in the last half of the first episode, the show meanders a bit in moving along the storyline, rather to let everything sink in. And there is a lot to adapt to, with the varying creatures, names and crafts that get talked about here.

While the show has Youko being thrown into a lot of things early on and kept on the run, the series takes a minor break from that for a bit as the group has separated. Without having to really focus on multiple storylines, this episode is mostly given over to Youko as she awakens in a bed having been tended for since washing up on the river. What’s surprising about her caretaker is that he’s a large rat! Rakushun had found her and has taken care of her for the past three days while she recovers.

Her arrival in the house is full of distrust and she plans to simply use him as long as she can before moving on and trying to adjust to her new life. Her frame of mind is that she simply has to survive to win and that’s the only goal she’s working with. The level of distrust towards everyone is strong and Rakushun is no exception, especially since she’s unsure of this whole rat perspective. She does stay there for some time though and Rakushun is an excellent conversationalist, bringing her and the viewer up to speed on a number of items relevant to understanding the basic concepts of this world.

And what a strange world indeed. With the arrival of Rakushun’s mother, a human woman, she learns such oddities as children being born from trees and are plucked by their parents. Rakushun is a hanjyuu, which means beast of some sort. These poor creatures are sometimes accidentally born on the wrong worlds, including Earth in a place Rakushun knows as China and other places as well. Rakushun’s mother raised him as the proper child she wanted, but the problem lays in the kingdom they live in. King Kou doesn’t like anything that’s not normal so hanjyuu are restricted in their movements and what they can do.

Rakushun also details much of the world and how the various kingdoms work after explaining how King Kou is. He goes on at length about how she should head off to the city of En which is far more liberal about kakyaiku and won’t hunt her down and try to kill her. With it being a fairly long journey as well as having his own interest in visiting there for some time as hanjyuu aren’t looked down upon in the same way either, he offers his services as a guide and the two eventually head off on their journey.

Naturally, there are a lot of things that occur on the journey. They run into a group of what’s essentially gypsies who end up hiring Youko on as a guard after seeing the way she went after several Youma that were seeking her out prior to entering one of the cities. The journey provides more information on the world that Youko now lives in as well as vast amounts of new information when she actually reaches the city port of En and finds many unexpected things there.

While Asano is essentially ignored for several episodes, we do get to see Sugimoto some and wonder at her fate. Having tried to align herself with King Kou, she finds that his version of kindness is not what she expected. While she thinks of herself as having saved the world from the dangers found in the earlier episodes, King Kou treats her with a kind hand by exiling her to estates at the extreme of the country where nothing lives and nothing grows, saving her from execution. She doesn’t understand that however and rails against it. Her position does change later on and she becomes an interesting new player in this great game that’s slowly becoming apparent.

While in the middle segment of this set provides some basic information on Shouryuu and his time in Japan before he came across into the realm of the Twelve Kingdoms, we get more glimpses of it here but through someone else’s eyes on the final disc. The story shifts focus onto the young looking Enki. Revealing that he’s actually a taika, one of those who is immortal but born outside of the Twelve Kingdoms, we see his life early on in Japan 500 years prior to today, where Kyoto has fallen in battle and parents are forced to make horrible choices over family members, children included. Enki is weakened and practically dead, little more than skin and bones. But with him being immortal, he cannot die. Through luck though, he’s brought across into the Twelve Kingdoms where he’s raised on Mt. Hou as the Taiho of En.

His time spent on Mt. Hou is interesting in how they raised him and have been guiding him towards his goal of selecting the new King of En, as that is his destiny and duty. But his previous time in Japan and seeing the failing of the rulers there makes him incredibly wary of being one to choose someone to rule over En. Things become so desperate for him to choose as En descends deeper into chaos that he ends up triggering an effect that allows him to shift across back to Japan. His appearance shifts back to the ragged child he’s always looked as opposed to the golden haired lad he was when he went to the Kingdoms and now travels Japan, undying.

But his tale intersects with Shouryuu’s as well, as he ends up in the lands where Shouryuu is the son of the leader and inherits the mantle when his father dies and he has to protect his people against the raiders trying to seize their lands. When Enki finally gets a good look at Shouryuu, he realizes that he’s the one that he’s been searching for all this time to lead En as their King. Their destinies become intertwined through what they face here and eventually what they face together as they have to try and bring En out of the near ruin that it is and to bring it to the prosperous level we see it as today.

This tale, as told to Youko and Rakushun by Shouryuu’s main aide, helps greatly in letting Youko understand what Shouryuu had to face once he came to realize what was required of him. En had fallen so far after the abuses of the previous king, abuses that ended with him killing his own kirin, which dooms him since the two lives are fully connected. With the tales of what the kingdom of Kei is like under the abusive rule of Johei, and having seen what madness descended onto her elder sister before she resigned the throne and her own life, agrees that she must ask the favor of Shouryuu in helping her to reclaim Kei from them.

But there’s still the deep seated fear about taking on the role of ruler. Partially because she’s grown enough to realize the mistakes she made at her home and the desire to fix them, but also because if she does take on the role it means she can never return to Japan. The pros and cons of each choice is strong, but there is much riding on her decision which is reflected in the interesting advice she ends up receiving.

There are a lot of levels of dialogue and plot going on during these last episodes as we learn the past, see how it parallels the present and how Youko herself must deal with it differently than Shouryuu had to deal with it. Choices for characters are simply given to them to be made, and while there is some angst over it, Youko continues to be different than she was at the start of the series by making them – even reluctantly. There’s so much going on in fact that this continues to be one of the very few series where I wish a real guide book was being published at the same time.

If there’s any downside to the way this set plays out is that the last episode is basically a recap. This isn’t bad in and of itself since so much has gone on, it helps to re-view portions of earlier episodes and dialogue to see how it all fits together. There’s some scattered bits of new animation and dialogue throughout in the form of Rakushun and Youko talking about the paths their lives are about to take, but that’s it. Since this disc only has four episodes, one of which can easily be skipped, it’s unfortunate that the first chapter didn’t get a 5/4/5 release to let this last volume feel like it had more content.

In Summary:
It’s been years since I last saw Twelve Kingdoms but it’s a series that holds up very well, especially since I can watch it in marathon form this time around. The first arc here covers a lot of ground with so much going on as there are lots of characters to introduce, the whole setting itself and the interactions that exist since there are some complicated relationships here. Twelve Kingdoms doesn’t hold back from the various names, titles and locations that are involved here and that does involve some complicated bits at times which gets to be a bit much, but it wants to immerse you into the whole thing in a big way and you have to give over to it. Media Blasters has put together a good release here and it mirrors what the Japanese release is like when it comes to the visual quality of it in high definition. Twelve Kingdoms isn’t a show that stands out as gorgeous, but it’s distinctive in its own way and this presentation overall makes it worth upgrading for overall, especially if you have a large screen.

Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 Language, Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 Language, English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Language, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Pilot Film, Translation Notes, Twelve Kingdoms Encyclopedia

Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: A-
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B

Released By: Media Blasters
Release Date: July 26th, 2011
MSRP: $49.99
Running Time: 350 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Review Equipment:
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70″ LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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