The larger world of the Twelve Kingdoms is explored, though Youko does come around to central importance eventually.
What They Say:
The fate of those who live within the Twelve Kingdoms is intertwined in such ways that only the Heavens can understand their true meaning. Instead of being born as a holy beast of power, Taiki – the Kirin of Tai – was born as the first son of the Takazato family in Japan. But a quiet, lonely life is not the destiny of one such as Taiki, because the will of the Heavens can never be denied. Returned to the Twelve Kingdoms, he must fulfill his duty and choose the next King of Tai.
Contains episodes 15-33.
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 nineteen episodes are spread across four discs in a five/three/six/six 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 Taiki and his environment 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 discs where we get some of the staff interviews we saw on the previous DVD editions as well as more liner notes for the series.
With the first set in the series having a strong focus on Youko before delving into other areas and a recap, the second collection is one that pushes Youko more to the background and works to expand our understanding of the Twelve Kingdoms as a whole with all of its workings, mysticisms and political aspects as well as a few social ones as well. The new arc, entitled, “Sea of the Wind, the Shore of the Maze.” uses Youko as the one being told a tale by one of the Nyosen on Mt. Hou while she’s there with Keiki before they move on to where Youko will be formally acknowledged as the new Queen Kei. Youko’s a bit surprised by this turn of events since it’s a request made by Keiki, who often does not ask for much of anything.
This new arc is a very interesting piece, and much like parts of the first arc, very much story driven with only a few moments of what you could really consider action. These episodes are filled with exposition and explanations, given to the viewer as a way to understand more of the complex world that’s being built here but done in the easy way of having it being explained to Youko since it’s all unknown to her. But enough of it is simply said without much explanation, sort of just laid there for the viewer to take in. I do wonder if shows like this sink in much easier for those in Japan though, as with so many similar sounding proper names and words being used, it’s very easy to get lost and confused until you can put aspects of it together.
The story that gets told to Youko is very engaging. She talks of how the Ranka are born from a special tree on Mt. Hou. Before they’re born, another creature is born before them that takes care of the Ranka throughout its life. Sanshi is born early on here, and we see this curious creature that’s something of an albino skinned girl with a lion’s body and a lizards tale. Sanshi spends all her time and energy around the care of the Ranka, and she lives under the tree until it drops. While this is what normally happens, something has gone strange here and a chill wind has blown into the island, one that grows strong enough to rip the bulb from the tree and cause it to be transported through a shouko into the other world. While the child is supposed to be born to the tree and be cared by Sanshi and Nyosen of Mt. Hou, he’s instead born to a woman in Japan where he lives for the next ten years.
Named Kaname, he lives with the family he was born into but never feels quite right there. From nearly the start, his grandmother treats him more harshly for no visible reason but it is only exacerbated by his own quirks. One instance when he was ten years of age, he pushed away his grandmothers hand as she touched him on the forehead. For this offense, she makes him stand in his pajamas outside in the cold snowing night. While his mother argues in his defense with the grandmother, Kaname senses something off to the side and moves to investigate. And suddenly, he’s gone.
For a year nobody has seen him. But for us, it’s an instant later that we see him staggering through the streets of Japan, almost falling into this world. Blood streaked from his head and his hair much longer, he’s arrived at the place where his grandmothers funeral is being held. And now several years later, through an accidental meeting with Kaname’s brother, Sugimoto has found out about him and his past as being one of those spirited away. Sugimoto’s changes since coming back to Japan from the Kingdoms is interesting as she’s now more sure of herself but not conceited about it, and she’s determined to find those who cross back and forth to help them along their paths.
But most of this is simply the setup for what looks to come in later episodes. Showing what’s been going on at Mt. Hou where Sanshi and the Nyosen have spent so much time looking for their lost one is an important piece of the larger puzzle. Through the help of those that visit Mt. Hou, Sanshi is able to reach into Japan and, as we saw earlier, is able to bring Kaname back to her world. Kaname’s return to Mt. Hou is quite celebrated, but there are many obstacles that come about now. Instead of the ten years in which he was supposed to be able to learn what it means to be a Taiki, he’s at a loss as to the most basic elements of living in this world. And on top of that, he’s considered different from most Kirin as well as he’s got long black hair while all other Kirin appear to be white haired.
It’s through these episodes that we start to understand the purpose of the Kirin as they’re raised to be the ones to choose the new rulers of the kingdoms. The kingdom of Tai has been in despair since their last king died, and with no Kirin for ten years to even pin any hopes on, they’re even more desperate. But now that he’s there, the Nyosen and Sanshi begin their training with him and their instruction works to bring some sense of peace to the boy, though there are parts of him that still leave in fear. Taiki finds himself uncertain on many parts of his life, but he loves being with the Nyosen and never wants to leave them, even though he’s continually told that he will have to once he chooses a ruler for Tai that he’ll serve. But with his situation so different, the Nyosen take care of him different.
Taiki’s continuing to spend a lot of time with Gyousou during the time when everyone has come to Mt. Hou in chance of being the one that he’ll have a revelation with and choose as the new ruler of Tai. While he hasn’t had the revelation and he’s not had anything otherwise strange, he’s intrigued by this particular man and continues to do things with him. In one surprising move, the Nyosen allow Gyousou to take Taiki on something of a little trek and hunting expedition with Risai. This gives Taiki the chance to really get out and stretch a bit and be more of himself and to get to know this person that he just seems to be more relaxed with. With only the three of them, they descend into a cave where there’s something strange emanating from that almost seems to compel them to investigate.
While Taiki has faced challenges before, some under the guidance of Keiki, his experience under the mountains where the trio encounters one of the rarest of Youma, a Toutetsu, which is seemingly like a giant spider of some sort, brings him to a new level of self confidence and mental mastery since it forces him to accept a situation and to actually deal with it himself since those he had thought could do anything are unable to do so. This works some changes in his own thinking as he goes along, though he’s still very dependent on the attention and company of Gyousou. So much so that when he learns that Gyousou and everyone else is getting ready to head back to the Gate so that they can return home before the autumn season really arrives, he convinces himself to lie and pledge his loyalty to Gyousou so that he’ll stay with him on Mt. Hou while undergoing the first stages of becoming the new king of Tai.
While we get to see much of the final phase of Taiki’s life here and where those elements then lead to, we also jump back and forth to his time in Japan as well. While we’ve learned some about him, most from his younger brother via Sugimoto’s inquiries, the one thing he’s held back is that there’s something not right that’s been going on since his return. Over the course of the years since his return from wherever he was, those who try to do wrong to him in any way are often found having accidents or getting in trouble. As the wrong increases, such as bullying and more, the perpetrator often finds themselves being severely wounded or even killed. Some force continues to protect him in this world, but there seems to be much more to it as he doesn’t seem to remember something terribly important to him that he feels he must uphold. The mystery of his return to Japan is left just as that, something that may be explored later.
When Youko’s story takes the center stage again, it begins the arc known as “A Great Distance in the Wind, the Sky at Dawn” that brings Youko and Keiki more to the forefront but forces her to share the time with two other women around the same age as herself. And by bringing in these two other women, it allows the show to expand greatly as each of them is in their own respective lands so we get to see more of kingdoms we hadn’t seen much of before.
Which, with a series as richly detailed as Twelve Kingdoms, means that we get several episodes that feel like exposition. Now, mind you this isn’t a slam in the least, but a good chunk of these four episodes really do feel like pages out of a novel where passages of a countries history are given to you to bring you up to speed on why the place is the way it is in the present time. Since we’re covering three kingdoms here, even though we do know more about Kei than the others, it means that we’re really given a number of history lessons that are tied to personal stories. These are highly engaging and fascinating to watch, almost like watching something on one of the history or discovery channels, but it makes for a very difficult descriptive review.
The thrust of this arc in the beginning is the tying together of the three women. Youko is now fully in charge in the Kingdom of Kei and is struggling with all the rules and customs associated with it. Since the Kingdom was previously ruled by something close to a madwoman, there’s all sorts of problems with various ministers and provincial leaders who are wary of Youko’s ascension to the throne. So there is a good amount of court intrigue associated with Youko’s plight but it’s made worse due to the fact that she has to learn it along the way as well. This is really problematic since she doesn’t want to seem indecisive or leaning too heavily on any one minister and insulting the others, or with Keiki himself. At the root of the problem though is that Youko starts to realize her life is being lived the same was at it was in Japan, by the expectations of others. Her struggle here is fascinating and it really helps bring more of what the Kingdom of Kei is like to the fore after it had been nearly ruined by the previous ruler.
To complement her story, we’re given insight into two other kingdoms. The first starts ninety years prior to the present as we see another young Japanese girl swept from her lands and into this new world of the twelve kingdoms. Suzu finds herself lost in this strange new land without the ability to communicate with anyone since she can’t understand the language and unlike some of the other kaikyou, she can’t seem to learn the language of the land either. For three years she travels around with a group of performers before she’s placed before a rather elegant looking woman. Since she still can’t communicate, she sings a childhood Japanese song, something which the woman recognizes and finds a certain amount of distaste over since it’s something she considers beneath her station. But when she says this, it’s something that Suzu can understand since Lady Riyou is a Sein-en and can understand any of the languages. Suzu ends up making a deal with her to do anything if she takes her in as she can’t stand the life she’s living.
Of course, when you make a deal like that, it won’t end well and Riyou renames Suzu to Honma, which literally means pathetic woman. She becomes a servant of Lady Riyou in her mountain home along with other servants. Her life there is harsh and brutal and something she deals with for most of the ninety years of her time there as she’s been given status as a Sein-en as well, so she doesn’t age at all. The only thing that starts to help her survive her days is when she learns of the ascension of a young queen, someone her own age and from her own lands, in the Kingdom of Kei. She begins to use Youko’s title as something of a prayer and a sliver of hope of finding a future that doesn’t involve her near torture at the hands of Lady Riyou.
The other arc we follow is that of Shoukei, the daughter of the King of Hou. She’s the jewel of her fathers eye and the most beautiful young woman in the palace. But Hou is one of the most desperate kingdoms around at this time due to the way her father is enacting the laws of the land. Finding that peace and happiness can only be found through the law, he has enacted laws that are so restrictive that just about anyone can be called a criminal. And there looks to be only one penalty and that’s execution by beheading. The King has had thousands and thousands executed over the years since he’s gone in this direction and it’s only gotten worse. Tales of mothers executed for staying home to help a sick child, executions for stealing a slice of bread due to extreme poverty and more are commonly told, but the tales don’t reach up to the palace. All we see are the massive lines of people tied up and being lead to their executions.
It all falls down though when one of the Lords of the Kingdom of Hou decides that he cannot wait for the heavens to strike down the King and he leads a rebellion against the King. With nearly three hundred thousand executions in the last year alone, many are with him as he and the military storm the castle and take control of things. This is all a huge shock to Shoukei who can’t imagine why anyone would want to rebel since she believes that people that don’t break the laws should be happy and those who do break them ought to be punished. Her life goes for a massive change with some really brutal moments here, but moments that make this series as strong as it is.
While things like the beheadings are done off-camera, it’s the straightforward nature of such events and the unflinching way those who lead others in this series do what need to be done. The usual wishy-washiness of other shows doesn’t apply here as the leaders don’t have time for that, which gives it again more of a historical feel and something like a documdrama almost. There is so much going on in these episodes and so much that the viewer has to take in and learn, particularly with Youko’s court as the hierarchy of the ministers and aides is critical to her making decisions, that it can get a bit overwhelming. But the payoff for it is simply beautiful, and much like Youko, you wonder how it will all play out.
Of the various tales, a couple of them are really keeping my interest as it gets closer to the end of the set and the series itself, though I know that they’ll all likely be coming together more in the next collection. The main one that continues to be the most interesting is with Youko and her dealings with the kingdom of Kei. Since she’s dealt with the problem of her ministers, though not as well as she could have, she’s come to understand that her basic problem with ruling the kingdom is her simple lack of understanding it. She has this great little conversation with Keiki about it and the morality of things and how they’re different between the two worlds and does it by talking about the length of skirts and the color of stockings. With this in mind, she’s decided to leave much of the daily business of the kingdom in the hands of her advisors, which worries Keiki, and take on a new name and live among the citizens for awhile to try and really get a feel for things.
She ends up going to where Enho is and spends time there after a Youma attack to try and get in touch with it all. When the two finally do start talking about things, the realization of just how little of the basics she knows becomes all too clear. While we don’t get a lot of explanations of things, what we do is fascinating. In particular, time is spent detailing how land is given out to the people of the kingdom and how they adjust during the various seasons in the communities that are built from it. It’s a fascinating exercise in how they do it, though one has to wonder what changes will be put in place the day the population grows too big, but even then there are those that are more likely to live in the bigger cities than the agricultural communities.
With the way Twelve Kingdoms adapts the novel works, it’s definitely doing something that even most light novel series don’t do by moving away from what’s largely considered the leading character. After fourteen episodes focusing on Youko, she’s given more of a peripheral role here that allows other characters with very engaging stories to have their time in the sun. Getting a greater understanding of how the Twelve Kingdoms works, seeing more of those drawn from Japan and how they ended up here and how it messed things up, it’s the kind of show that definitely takes advantage of its roots and avoids being just more of the same. There’s a complex world here and not making it all about Youko goes a long way towards exploring it. I really liked Taiki’s story and all it entails and so much more, but there’s a lot to say for Youko’s tale as it picks up again here as well as she struggles with being the Queen of Kei and what it really means, a difficult proposition for a young woman who hasn’t had much exposure to the world. With nineteen episodes here, it covers a huge amount of ground but still leaves you craving more, more more.
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: B+
Packaging Grade: A-
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B
Released By: Media Blasters
Release Date: October 11th, 2011
Running Time: 475 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
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.