Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Monday, May 29, 2017

Anime Review: The Twelve Kingdoms (I Am Going to Spoil EVERYTHING)

Okay. How to do this.

The Twelve Kingdoms or Juuni Kokuki is an anime television series based on a series of Japanese light novels by Ono Fuyumi that aired in Japan between spring of 2002 and fall of 2003. While licensed and released in English on DVD to my knowledge it never actually aired on United States television.

Which is a shame. It is the poster child of my ire that anime fans tend to ignore anything was made before 2007 that didn't air on Cartoon Network. For a really really long time, this was my favorite anime series.

To put things in perspective I only have 2 completed series of Anime shows in my DVD collection and the other one is Cowboy Bebop and I honestly think that The Twelve Kingdoms holds it's own against that classic.

Also how government should ideally be run is more or less the entire point the show and for reasons, I'm in the mood for that.  If an anime produced before the Trump administration could be an indictment of the Trump administration this is it.

Fortunately, the show has clearly delineated arcs separated by recap episodes.
  1. Shadow of the Moon, Sea of the Shadow
  2. Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Labyrinth
  3. A Great Distance in the Wind, The Sky at Dawn
  4. Sea God of the East, Vast Sea of the West
Since I saw this on DVD I kind of hated the recap episodes but they really do break up the story into understandable chunks so I'm going to be using them.
The Mandate of Heaven is Enforced

Okay, when I first got into the series it came with a glossary. They throw around a lot of fantasy words and lore but boiled down to its basics in this fantasy world the mandate of heaven is the zeroth law. There are twelve countries each gets a divinely appointed absolute monarch. When the heavens are pleased with them good stuff happens. When the heavens are displeased with them bad stuff happens which may or may not include their death and dispossession depending on just how badly they screw the pooch.

That's what you need to know. That's how all of this works.

The series spends a lot of time explaining that and they need to. But once it's established interesting stuff can happen.

So while in theory each of the monarchs is supposed to be benevolent (hint: they aren't all benevolent) they each have their own personalities, priorities, hangups, and ticks. Which is to say even the functional kingdoms and rulers are fairly diverse.

As such each of the rulers also has complex administrative bureaucracies designed to carry out their will.

Plot Contrivance and Religion
There are a lot of plot contrivances in who meets who and who winds up where. I don't mind that but I can understand why it might make others wary.

That being said, A major theme of the show, is divine providence so deus ex machina as divine intervention makes sense to me. I'm going to spend a lot of time talking about "the gods" and while they exist and are personified they rarely intervene directly to the point where I think there's only one on screen cameo of thier head honcho.(I was mistaken that is only yet another person on a divinely appointed mission, albiet a rather important one.)

They prefer to set things in motion and wait for the players on the stage to act within the parameters they set according to their own intrinsic identities.

If the gods created the land, and the people that inhabit it including those that make up the government then everything that occurs, occurs because of their will.

And dear lord, I hate that in most cases but here it works.

Foreshadowing and Hiding Information
So one of the most annoying things fiction can do is hide information that does not functionally change the story. 

This one doesn't do that.

Rewatching it I am amazed at how much information this story, that I remind you relies on plot twists and reveals, gives the audience.  It never misses an opportunity to worldbuild even when worldbuilding might ruin a later surprise.

The show has a pattern of creating a weird interesting visual spectacle and then waiting for a few episodes for someone to explain what actually was going on, and when finally they do you go "oh, that makes sense."

For instance, the ending of the first arc is spoiled in the very first episode. If you pay attention you can figure out EXACTLY what's going on well before the characters do. And it's not exactly like they are stupid.

How does that work?

Context. The story may give the audience narrative information but doesn't provide framing for why that information is important until it wants to.

There is a "blink and you'll miss it" play early in series that more or less explains an important character's entire backstory, but doesn't tell you that that character was around for that story nor that it kind of scared them for life until much much later.

Shadow of the Moon, Sea of the Shadow
I've been kind of trying to dodge the plot because the point of the whole arc is a reveal but doing that is getting hard. Especially if I want to talk about character dynamics and character development, so I kind of have to.

So What's Going On Here

So in one of our Twelve Kingdoms, Kei, the queen fell in love with her advisor, Keiki. His deal is really complicated.

Really quickly, divine beasts, called Kirin,  that can shapeshift into human form are responsible for interpreting the will of the heavens and imparting that information to those in power. There are a lot of rules regarding Kirin that I don't want to get into but needless to say that wasn't going to happen EVER,

And she couldn't deal. She started killing off all the women of her court to eliminate the competition. Because the mandate of heaven is enforced in this world, that was baaaaaaad.

Remember we're living in a world of fisher kings and when they go nuts the world itself feels it.

But she really did love her advisor and started to fear that the mandate would kill him if she didn't do something. So she committed suicide before that could happen.

The advisor blamed himself for choosing the first queen and dragged his feet on doing it again. And in the meantime, a lot of really bad stuff has been happening in the background. He was tasked with interpreting the will of the heavens and finding a new queen to replace the old and he choose... an ordinary high school student.

Balanced Parallelism
As trite as that last part sounds it's actually well done. The show has masterful parallelism. For instance our main character, Yoko starts the series as wishy-washy class president preparing resign from the position rather than deal with all the responsibility and pressure being in charge brings, and that extends into when she's basically told she's queen of her own country.

 Keiki's story of guilt and regret complements her story.

Almost every major character acts as a foil to another character in some critical way.

Really, the whole thing is really a character analysis of Yoko and every other major character could be said to represent some aspect of her personality or backstory brought to the fore. In some cases literally.

Arguably what prompts her character development is that she learns from everybody else's mistakes and even her own.

Trapped in Another World

Now would probably be a good time to acknowledge the long tradition of trapped in another world stories. This is one of those or rather a deconstruction of one. As the name implies these are stories follow a young girlbut not always, finds herself in a strange and fantastical world that makes very little sense to but must journey across the land of some way home.

If you have seen the Wizard of Oz you know the basic gist how these things go.

And the point of this arc is how absolutely terrifying being in such a place would be by bringing up things like the isolation that unfamiliarity of law and language can bring.

Yeah, this is one of those. 

Trapped in another world stories are a staple of children's literature and very often are thought of as lighthearted.

This is not a nice little music filled jaunt down a merry little lane with yellow brick pavers.

The show balances world building with character development.

The Patriarchy
So there is also a strong theme in the story of self-ownership, the idea that people must take control of their lives and their being (in a series about accepting fate, eh), that's more pronounced in the third arc, which I will get to in a moment,  but in the first our heroine starts the story as a nervous wreck beholden the whims forces outside of her control. And the story is clear WHY she's a nervous wreck, beholden to the whims of forces outside of her control. Her overbearing parents. And the show is clear a lot of that has to do with gender and how she is expected to conform to those roles and expectations. For instance, in a flashback, she is rebuked because her family considers a woman wearing pants shameful. When she rebuts that she can't compete with boys athletically at a school track meet while wearing a skirt she is told shouldn't even want to compete with men.

That's about as on the nose as you can make that metaphor.

And stuff like that is peppered throughout the story, particularly how often femininity is equated to weakness and naivety. A lot of Yoko's story in both the first and third arc is about disabusing her of that notion.

A reoccurring motif is that the character, "looks masculine" its one of the few times the series tells and doesn't show because of production limitations animation is shy on character model detail (there are lots of times in the story where a character's physical appearance is important but doesn't show well in the character models.), but it comes up often enough that it is important.

I don't know exactly what the author was trying to say but it's clear she was trying to say something, perhaps in regards to how her adversaries treat her depending on how "feminine" she's being at any given moment in the story.

Oh. It's an Immigration Allegory

So Yoko and two of her fri... classmates are dumped into a brave new world, without food or money. Because of the mechanics of the world, she can speak the local language but her friends aren't so lucky and they get split up pretty early. Which ends really badly for one them.

A good chunk of the first arc really is about how rough immigrants and refugees have it when the system fails them.

Our bad guy, an evil king does just about every horrible thing he does -and just to be clear he is a rat bastard who gets what's coming to him- because he hates immigrants with a fiery passion. He actively sabotages neighboring countries in an attempt to make his look better because they are run by people who immigrated to them and his worldview can't handle it.

On the other hand, the most benevolent ruler of the show (that we see) is the most benevolent ruler of the show (that we see) because he and his top advisor are functionally immigrants to their adopted homeland and as a result don't revile newcomers as much as everybody else.

After about ten episodes of abject misery, multiple characters, in this trapped in another world story cross the border and are almost instantly directed to an immigration/refugee office featuring bilingual civil servants who can actually tell them (and by extension the audience) what the hell is going on.

Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Labyrinth
I'm mostly going to ignore "Sea of the Wind, Shore or the Labyrinth" because It's mostly unfinished. Most television anime are adaptations of serialized fiction, mostly but not always and not in this case comics, so they often run up against the problem of overtaking their source material in terms of narrative advancement.  There are a couple different ways to deal with this.

  1. Accept it and do something completely different.
  2. Wait and stall, via filler arcs or hiatuses until the source material catches up. 
Something weird happened with The Twelve Kingdoms though. While the books build up this arc, the anime doesn't. At least to a point. It's clear there is a story to tell but compared to Yoko's story, which feels complete this unfinished arc is very truncated and easily segregated.

Both light novels and the anime adaptation kind of trail off. But the anime doesn't focus on it as much. It feels like they wanted to plant the seed if the author ever came back to this plot so they could do, but also didn't want to over-commit to it in case she left in hanging, which she did.

So I just like to pretend this arc doesn't exist.

That being said I don't want to be too harsh on the author because, even though it leaves this series in the lurch,  that time was being spent writing Shiki and Shiki is goddamned awesome.

As it is the anime is mostly concerned with Yoko's story and I don't really see anything wrong with that, but the books which are much more concerned about the state of the world rather than this one character.

A Great Distance in the Wind, The Sky at Dawn


More so than the first arc characters other than Yoko are mildly important. In the first arc, they mostly served to externalize her inner conflicts and contradictions so that we wouldn't get what I call Dune disease.

And while they still act as foils they have their own complete arcs and are plot relevant. I'm not going to break down each one individually there are a million wikis for that, but they all carry a central theme. They refuse to take ownership of their own lives and personal conditions, largely because they accept social hierarchies.

And each arc is about getting them to a point where they do take control of thier lives, even if it means their death.

While tangential to the plot there is a nice little bookend, that I think drives the point home.

Our story picks up some time after Yoko has taken the throne and everybody is wondering what her first law will be because it's extremely symbolic setting the tone for the rest of her reign. She elects to put off the decision until after the events of this arc.

And her first proclamation, which reflects everything she has learned from her adventures and capstones really the entire series is... that nobody is required to prostrate themselves before anybody else anymore.

She dislikes the both culture of abject subservience that it has created amongst her subjects and the culture of abject entitlement that it has created amongst her court

Let's Talk "Mandates"

So the plot runs on divine monarchies, but it's also very smart. The European and Asian concepts of the divine right are similar but slightly different. A monarch can lose the mandate of heaven by acting like a total tool and inciting popular revolt.

That allows for the concept of not a mandate of the heavens but of the people. And while I'm not going to focus on it, it happens. An oppressive dictator (who murdered a fifth of the population) gets beheaded and the heavens are more or less cool with it.  The guy who did the dead angsts over the fear of divine retribution for regicide, and it doesn't come. The opposite happens, people beg him to take the old king's place on the throne. He views that type of usurpation of divine authority as an unforgivable sin but eventually relents as time passes. This side plot sows seeds for something akin to democracy in an Ancient China analog and it is amazing.

It's a side story tangential to our plot but it's an interesting moment where the show lampshades its contradictions between taking responsibility for one's life and acceptance of one's fate as divne providence and as well as thier intrinsic identity as the same.

Really the entire arc is like that, trying to reconcile notions of divine providence with modern ideas of free-will and self-determination.  Admittedly it doesn't always succeed but it's a noble attempt especially considering how badly that can go.

Still features an evil atheist though.

Rage Against The Heavens
So one the reasons why our villains does what he does is, a crisis of faith. He doesn't believe in divine providence and decides to prove the matter by doing EVERY DAMN EVIL THING HE CAN THINK OF and daring the gods to strike him down.

He's actually kind of grateful that his divinely appointed monarch decides to take it upon herself to dispense justice unto him for his crimes.

It restores his faith in the cosmic order.

The Law

So central to the arc is how do we form a just government and by extension what should be the priority of law and the punishments for breaking it.

  • Rehabilitation of Evil
  • Deterrence of Evil
  • Reparation To Victims of Wrong Doing
  • Societal Stability and the Maintenance of Public Order
  • Provision for Emergency Services
  • Provision of Education and Services that Allow for Social Mobility
  • The Self Preservation of the Government and It's Ability to Act
  • The Protection of the Vulnerable From Those Who Would Exploit Them
What is the purpose of law and how exactly does it facilitate justice. There are many different characters who have different ideas regarding this and once you scrape away all the plot stuff this is the central conflict of the arc. What makes a law or government just?

An Outsider is In Charge of Government And Reality Ensues
Anyway, while Yoko is divinely appointed to the throne she still knows jack all about, administration, geography. culture, law, politics, history, and pretty much anything having to do with this brave new world and EVERYBODY KNOWS IT, including Yoko herself.

This causes her to make stupid decisions, overcompensate for her recklessness and lean on her very very VERY corrupt court to keep her government from falling apart.

Ha ha hah ha ha

Eventually, realizing that her erratic behavior is untenable Yoko decides to take some time off to get her head straight and her advisor, Keiki, who is the only person in the palace contactually obligated by the cosmos not to be an evil dick, recommends she stay with an old friend of his.

Okay while definitely of the archetype, Enho is actually a pretty laid back guy and uses the time to teach her the barebone basics of how her kingdom actually works. He's a hippy.

In an unrelated to cover up their wrongdoing, low-level officials kidnap the guy and we're are off to the races.

Let's Rewind

I've been trying to dumb down a really complicated plot that hides what the hell is going on for most of the show but it all of a sudden matters.

So remember how I said the previous arc's villain, the King of Kou was trying to sabotage the kingdom of Kei.  Well, he did this by setting up a puppet Empress and since this is a world where the greatest factor in producing a functional society is whether or not a divinely appointed and righteous monarch sits on the throne that was bad news.

But this is the aftermath of that story. See, Yoko's court is worried about reprisals for anybody who followed the puppet queen, WHICH ALMOST ALL OF THEM DID.

Make no bones about it most of these guys knew what they were doing. She was cosmically barred from taking the throne by the rules of the universe. They just didn't care. In addition to the wrath of the very displeased gods, which manifests itself as plague, earthquakes, floods, famine, and goddamned demons roaming the land they also caused a bloody civil war as everyone else had to take sides.

Once the dust settles on the first arc they start wanting to cover their own asses for that move. And they start doing more and despicable things to that end which culminates in I kid you not the murder of children.

Anyway, Enho, the guy they eventually kidnap was a loyal personal friend to just about the only military general who didn't immediately relinquish his army to the false queen and remained loyal to Yoko and her throne even before he knew who she was.

That's character motivation. Why the bad guys do all the evil stuff they do.
Ha ha ha ha.

Again the story is mostly about Yoko slowly becoming less naive and getting wise to all of this which takes her a while but is immensly satisfying when it happens.

Everybody's Coming to the Party

For the sake of brevity (which hasn't really worked), I've been trying to avoid talking about any character who isn't Yoko unless I absolutely had to. But the reason why I really love this show is roughly a 10 episode stretch right before the end of the series, which is much faster paced than everything else and gives almost every main character a satisfying moment of badassery and they just keep coming concentrated into distilled awesomeness.

Most of their arcs can be summed up as life sucks and is unfair but there is nothing you can do about it at least not without appealing to some higher authority and hoping for the best.

One of the many complaints about this series is how much the characters wallow in self-pity.  But that's kind of point of the show, which views self-pity as useless at best and disgusting at worse and spends pretty much 35 episodes beating that point into the characters, until they get pissed off enough to do shit.

And they do get pissed.

Alright, the coverups require the bad guys to capitulate to the demands lesser officials who believe it or not are even MORE corrupt than those at the palace.

This results in
  1. The reckless murder of a blind child in broad daylight by a public official.
  2. The kidnapping of Enho, who while not a public official is probably the most respected dude in the immediate vicinity by the general public. 
  3. The murder of a young woman, and the near mortal wounding of a child both of whom who were staying with Enho under his protection.
Now, people were already kind of pissed off at the government for the general state of their shitty lives but that business creates IMMEDIATE fervor for justice to be done and if the government ain't willing to hold itself accountable for THE MURDER OF CHILDREN well then.

Oddly enough, while the rebellion is really really well organized, and has been planning this a while they didn't want to launch the attack just yet, but kind of feel obligated to rescue Enho, who runs the local school house and is functionally thier really chill soc prof.

A reoccurring theme in the series is that education is the foundation for a functional society. Almost every character who isn't a royal or doesn't start the show on the brink of insanity is a student, and the solution to almost every major problem including this little rebellion is kick started by them.

These guys are not exactly for overthrowing the monarchy. That's how you piss off the gods and nobody wants to piss off the gods. And in all fairness, they're sympathetic to Yoko who's only been on the job by this point maybe 7 months if that. They, for the most part,  don't blame her for the state of the screwed up the government which was pretty broken before she even got there.

They mostly us just want to cause a big enough stink that she has to respond and perhaps even intervene on their behalf by holding her corrupt officials accountable for their actions, which along with the flagrant abuse of the law and suppression of dissent also includes massive and gratuitous graft at the expense of a destitute public, that's basically being held hostage to the laws which are supposed to protect them.

What they don't know is that Yoko wants to rescue Enho just as much as they do and views them as her best chance to do that before the bad guys decide to screw it and just murder him for the hell of it. She sends a letter ordering her court to stop this nonsense but they disregard it, and she gets the message loud and clear.

If she wants to fix things she's going to have to do it herself.

Remember when I said there were other characters. Well, EVERYBODY is pissed at this shit and multiple characters decide enough. So we end up with three smaller rebellions that eventually coordinate into a single larger one causing a more and more escalated response by Yoko's corrupt court, culminating in a multi-episode siege and it is awesome.

While yes there is limited animation, which is less fluid than modern audiences might be used to it's extremely well edited and paced. While there is some spectacle what makes it so engaging it that the audience always knows where everyone is, why they're there and what they're doing.

Moreover, it's set more for drama than action as the culmination of the 15 episode arc. While yes you get swordfights what it really excels in is satisfying character moments.

Which is to say there is a lot of standing around and talking. I find it engaging but if you're expecting Attack on Titan you'll be disappointed.

Sea God of the East, Vast Sea of the West
There is one more arc but it has nothing to do with Yoko and is mostly concerned with the backstory of supporting characters. It's good but this thing has dragged on long enough.

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