To say Juuni Kokki merely impressed me would be blatant understatement; nay, if anything, it completely awed me. Without a doubt the best fantasy anime ever to grace the airwaves, its aural sense of sovereignty sets it on pedestal far above its contemporaries. While not absolutely perfect, as far as novel-to-screenplay transitions go Juuni Kokki is the cream of the crop, as its only real restrictions arise from its inability to capture the entire breadth of its epic within the scope of an anime series.
Though to some this might sound like flagrant patronization, Juuni Kokki stands on its own two feet without the need for hype or flattery. To begin with, it oozes with layer upon layer of lore, which discounts the need for any fluff or filler material. In fact, the prime purpose of the series is not simply to tell a story, but rather to completely immerse the viewer in a strange and tantalizing world. Yet, as deep as the lore goes, come the end it feels as if the story only barely manages to scratch the surface, as it seems as if the many happenings are but an introduction to a much grander epic. All throughout the tale the viewer is lavished with the intricacies of the Twelve Kingdoms, ranging from the destinies of the mythical kirin to the immortality pacts of the revered sen-nin. Ultimately it feels as if the story itself assimilates the viewer into its workings, which culminates in the sensation that he or she, personally, is at the receiving end of its bountiful narration.
And yet, even with its profuse amount of description and detail, not once does it touch upon blandness or monotony. The story is told through two distinctly different methods: active following and passive narration. Of the two, the former encompasses about two-thirds of its content, and follows the story of a young girl, Youko, who is unwillingly swept into another world. While this premise has been approached time and time again, the primary difference with Juuni Kokki is that this proves to be an insignificant, and actually rather menial, subsection of the plot. As such, the world lacks apocalyptic catastrophes for her to prevent or grand evils for her to quell, and instead poses a much more realistic (and subsequently intriguing) array of trials for her to overcome - she must take up her duties as queen and lead her kingdom. This opens the door for a fantastic amount of character growth, as from the get-go she hardly seems fit to hold a position of such stature. From her faults to her virtues, she evolves and matures in a believable fashion, which culminates with her story bearing a remarkable amount of grace and elegance.
For the remaining third of the story, however, Youko's direct involvement is minimal. Comprised of an assortment of relatively brief narratives, it details important characters and events elsewhere in the world, and provides background to certain concepts like the aforementioned kirin. Since Youko's story revolves heavily around her kingdom of Kei, they generally touch up other nations such as Tai or En, which broadens the scope of the series quite drastically to give it its epic grandeur. In addition, being that Juuni Kokki employs a huge, custom-built vocabulary bank, they help to constantly clarify names and terminology without drifting into the realm of tedium. Despite the overwhelming amount of material presented, it's all clear, concise, and easily understood, leaving no need to ever backtrack due to confusion.
Sadly, Juuni Kokki does suffer from one fault, though: it is not complete. Even so, it does not conclude whimsically or subtly - quite the contrary. Of the series' three major arcs, the final one ends powerfully and distinctly, and is certainly satisfactory (at the very least.) Though it fails to tie up many loose ends, however, this largely stems from the fact that Fuyumi Ono (the author of the source novels) stopped writing the books; as is, the anime covers the majority of the original content, and for that I have no qualms.
Though Juuni Kokki's animation has begun to show a bit of agedness, by no means has it entirely lost its luster. A number of a scenes look absolutely beautiful, and overall the character and youma designs flaunt an enormous amount of appeal. Detail abounds in droves, especially in the gradual visual shift in Youko's appearance over the course of the first arc. While, as a whole, the visual score lacks any particular outstanding qualities, overall the animation proves enormously appropriate to the setting it attempts to portray, and that ultimately compensates for any minor quirks the series' might have in this category.
From the first minute and thirty-six seconds of Junni Kokki, I must admit it managed to grasp my full attention. The opening sequence is an assortment of medieval Chinese-styled paintings accompanied by a magnificently epic musical piece; it begins calmly and serenely by passing over a sky filled with kirin, followed by a shift to a battlefield as the song reaches its climatic overture. The very essence of the series is captured with this piece alone and, fortunately, it is but one of many to come - the entire soundtrack is awash with audible splendor. With its Chinese origins comes an abundance of similarly styled musical tracks, and each and every one fits perfectly with its thematic feel. Probably one of my favorite soundtracks to date, it easily earns all the glowing praise it deserves; it's not to be missed.
As an added bonus, too, the voice acting pans out to superb. Given that lengthy narration accompanies a fair portion of Juuni Kokki's tale, I found this to be a vital aspect of its audible quality. Each individual voice matches his or her respective personality quite well, ranging in scope to encompass every subtly Keiki's reserve to King En's charismatic spirit. Youko's seiyuu, especially, captured the shifts within her personality, as her vocal transition from hesitancy to confidence fueled much of her character's overall strength.
While on the topic of Youko, too, might I just say she is one of the most amazing characters I have had to fortune of experiencing - I don't know where to even begin. Simply put, without dwelling too much on the details in risk of revealing too much about her, her growth from start to finish proves an absolute delight to watch take place. Initially indecisive and cowardly, she hardly fits the role of a queen; quite the opposite, in fact, since she lacks a single ounce of charisma. Yet, as she faces hardships and is forced to adapt to a completely foreign set of cultures and customs, her cowardice slowly metamorphs into courage, her naïveté into wisdom, and ultimately completes her evolution from caterpillar to butterfly in glorious fashion. Her character progression flows together with enormous finesse, and for that I have nothing but respect for her design.
Yet, though even by herself she would have been great, her compliment of remarkable side characters makes for an astounding overall cast. Though perhaps lacking an abundance of innate depth due to their numbers, these characters are nevertheless wonderfully developed in the sense that they play off one another in a very symbiotic fashion. Rakushun, for instance, does little on his own; however, when paired with Youko, his simple, compassionate persona expands to showcase his tact and wisdom in a very compelling fashion. Nearly all the characters influence one another in this manner, which creates a strong sense of depth amidst them as a whole in lieu of their individual shortcomings. The resulting web of relationships makes the world come alive in a mature and believable fashion, and contributes quite substantially to the strength of Juuni Kokki as a whole.
Juuni Kokki (The Twelve Kingdoms) is best described as an epic "world-discovery" anime. Ono Fuyumi creates a vast, and richly detailed fantasy world consisting of twelve kingdoms, each governed by an immortal emperor supported by his or her kirin, a magical beast resembling a unicorn. Even from the first few episodes, it is apparent that exceptional effort is given towards the creation of this fantasy world. The system of government, the dynamics of succession, the consequences of war, the interaction between beast and human, demon and immortal are all intricately woven into one coherent world. In terms of the backdrop of the story, Juuni Kokki's is probably the most well-conceived I have come across to date.
Unfortunately, it seems that this anime's brilliance in one area comes at the cost of medicrity in many others. Though Ono Fuyumi's world is truly exceptional, it seems that the anime struggles valiantly, but is ultimately unable to overcome the many technical problems which must have arisen over the course of creating the story. It appears that all characters exist solely to showcase the wonderful histories of each of the twelve kingdoms. More than half of the events that actually occur in Juuni Kokki are recounted by someone else to Nakajima Yoko, the sixteen year old protagonist, who sits there, listening. This is a highly problematic narrative style: it distances the audience from the action, and furthermore suggests that the hero has no real role to play in any of the story.
One key problem is that the world of Juuni Kokki is so complex that much of it has to be directly explained to the audience via some sort of narrative or tutorial. The anime introduces the viewers to the twelve kingdoms through the eyes of Yoko, who lives a relatively normal life in Japan, until she is suddenly thrust into this strange new environment, where people can coach her about their histories and customs. This "solution" brings forth the other difficulty - most of the interesting stories occur in the past, and have to be told by means of third-person narration in lieu of first-person experience. All this translates into a very indirect and detached experience for the viewer, who must sift through several layers of narration in order to experience the actual story.
The visual quality of Juuni Kokki is good. The difficulty of animating a large, diverse cast of characters is further complicated by the extreme level of detail needed to bring to life a world entirely different from our own. Moreover, since the story takes place in multiple kingdoms, each with its own unique style of dress, architecture, geography and wildlife, the animators are not able to simply recycle visual ideas from one kingdom to the next. Watching the anime gives you the distinct impression of being drawn completely into another world; most definitely, the quality of the animations played a big part in making it possible.
In terms of the human characters in Juuni Kokki, there exists a stark contrast between the faces and hands of those who live in hardship compared to those who live in a relatively peaceful and prosperous country. This dramatic visual contrast between the citizens of a well-run kingdom and those of a poorly-run kingdom further adds to the believability of the overall world.
Combat animation was also very well done. There was relatively rare use of simplified one-on-one combat, the animators actually putting forth the effort to animate and choreograph fight scenes involving many combatants. Quick actions, such as a swing of the sword or the thrust of a spear are fluidly animated. In contrast, I found the animation of movement to be less impressive. Scenes involving running characters sometimes appeared jerky, and the animations made no attempt whatsoever to address how certain animals, like a white tiger, might have the ability to fly without wings.
The best and most memorable piece of music in the anime is easily the ending theme song, Getsumei Fuuei, which remained the outro music for all 45 episodes. To this day, when I hear that distinctive tune, it brings back fond memories of the unique and unforgettable world of Juuni Kokki. The background tracks and the rest of the OST have a distinctly Chinese influence, which is appropriate, since the story itself also carries flavours from Chinese mythology.
As far as the seiyuu are concerned, there are no particular standout performances which attract special notice. In fact, in certain dramatic scenes, one could even argue that the seiyuu could have expressed more emotion and more intensity, while in others, there were clear instances of over-acting. But these situations were not alarmingly frequent, and overall did not significantly reduce the quality of the audio portion of the anime.
Juuni Kokki's characters are both numerous and memorable, but somewhat unpolished. The huge cast includes the likes of emperors, commoners, demons, immortals, humans, beasts and half-beasts - essentially everything one would expect from a well-formed fantasy world. Unfortunately, a good portion of the characters in Juuni Kokki are somewhat stereotypical and exaggerated, while lacking deeper motives and influences. In a shorter anime, this might be acceptable, but given the meticulous detail of the background world, and the enormous potential of the story, it is lazy on the part of the writer not to spend more time on the characters.
I cannot help but feel that the main protagonist, Yoko, suffers from a design flaw. She represents all the values - justice, equality, humility, desire to do good - that any hero should stand for, yet somehow, she lacks the charisma and charm of other anime protagonists. She feels distant, and is not the kind of person everyone could relate to and would want to root for. Ironically, those very traits do exist in the series, and instead are embodied in the highly likeable duo of Shoryu, king of En, and his kirin, Rokuta. I often wonder if Juuni Kokki might have been better told from the viewpoint of either Shoryu or Rokuta, both of whom I suspect would be preferred among child audiences to Yoko. Of course, this goes back to the discussion of the unorthodox plot devices that are used to showcase the world, at the expense of marginalising the main character.
What particular qualities make a human being worthy of power? What particular qualities make a human being worthy of life? Can a person who is morally righteous and good be at the same time incompetent in leadership?
One of the many strengths of Juuni Kokuki is how it spends much of its time answering these questions. Throughout the show, these questions are not only addressed, but are tackled with exuberance. The end result is a philosophical commentary that is unexpectedly perceptive and interesting in its analysis.
Another major point in Juuni Kokuki's favor lies in its absolutely fantastic character development. At the beginning of the show, Youko (no, not "Yoko" like many people here are spelling it) is almost irritatingly pathetic. Self-centered and vulnerable, one has trouble finding any redeeming characteristics whatsoever. Gradually, however, this changes completely. By the end of the show, Youko has transformed into a wonderful human being, a person qualified to rule an entire country. Other characters, as well, undergo a similar metamorphosis. Though initially selfish, unworthy and detestable, all of them are eventually tempered into superior beings. Seeing these characters find their courage, wisdom and morality in the face of overwhelming adversity is one of the most rewarding processes that I have ever experienced
Finally, there is a lot to be said about Juuni Kokuki's overarching storyline. Though the plot initially appears to be very similar to Inu Yasha or Fushigi Yuugi, it soon changes into something completely different from either of the other two. The plot then grows and grows in complexity and depth, and ultimately achieves truly epic proportions. Not since Crest of the Stars have I seen a narrative so satisfyingly intricate and intelligent.
Though admittedly not as good as its story and characters, Juuni Kokuki's animation and sound are nonetheless quite commendable. The animation hosts a very nice and fluid feel, harkening back to animation styles of Record of Lodoss War and 3x3 Eyes. The character designs are all definitely above average; I especially liked Youko's design change early on in the series. In terms of music, the traditional arrangement of violins and wind pipes really works well with the overall mood of the show.
In fact, the only perceivable weakness of the anime lies in the fact that the story is incomplete. Production ceased at episode 45, which barely scrapes the surface of the original novels. However, this is less of a fault then one would think. Episode 39 is a very nice place to stop; nearly all of the plot lines are resolved at that point.
The only reason I gave this less than 10 was that it doesn't end. There are a lot of unexplored segues. I would like the opportunity to see a second season. I've also reviewed at my blog.
Every time I pick up a fantasy title, all the more with long ones like this, I faintly hope on a story that is as gripping as Fullmetal Alchemist was the first time I saw it, early in my anime fandom. It’s something I always know isn’t likely to happen, so imagine my surprise when, even though the story and focus were quite different, The Twelve Kingdoms was equally enchanting!
Yohko is a somewhat outcast “good girl” from Japan, trying to live up to the expectations of those around her and always trying to please her parents. One day, a mysterious man with long white hair approaches her in her classroom and bows down for her, pledging his loyalty. Bewildered by this weird and embarrassing scene, Yohko tries to get away, but as unexpected danger reaches her, she is saved by the strange man and is then, along with two classmates who were nearby, taken to a unknown world full of demons, magic and twelve kingdoms.
While the character development was one of the main reasons why I enjoyed this show so much, it wasn’t the only one. For one thing, the setting was fantastic. You really get the feeling it is taking place in a different, fantasy-filled world, rather than a bleak shell someone created in order to give his story some color. Themes like corruption, religion and politics are big topics, but are presented in a way that keeps them interesting and engaging. While conversations are an important part of the story, they don’t feel like the main focus as the story keeps progressing on a good pace.
If there is anything not to like, it’s the sheer amount of foreign terms you’ll be asked to remember. Many of the official positions in the kingdoms have their own, made up title and there are quite a few places, like names of kingdoms and capitals, which are recurring and important to the plot. I didn’t particularly mind it and thought it only reinforced the fantasy aspect, but I can definitely see people disliking this particular aspect.
The animation looks a little aged, but appealing all the same. While the animation is a bit choppy on a big screen, it’s not bad enough to be a bother (all the less if you’re watching it from your PC). The character and clothing designs work particularly well with the fantasy story, with rugged looks and cloths to go with them for the poor and prestigious dresses and accessory for the elite.
From OP to ED, the music is all good and fitting, although not awe-inspiring. Over the course of 45 episodes, I think I listened to the opening theme around 1/3th of the time, and only a handful of times to the ending song. They were just right, set the mood for the show and were pretty decent pieces of music on itself, but lacked that special factor that makes you listen to them every single time. The rest of the soundtrack was, just like the theme songs, fitting and accompanied the mood the show had well.
In terms of character development, Twelve Kingdoms is incredibly enjoyable. You are presented with a self-pitying girl obsessed with keeping face, as she gets thrown in a foreign world full of different cultures. One of the main strong points of the show is seeing her change from that old self to a much stronger and just person through all the events she experiences.
Apart from the great main character, the show also has a large range of different side characters, some more important than others (like her classmates Yuka and Ikuya), but all believable, likable or despicable as they were meant to be.
The only downside I see with this anime is the large amount of fantasy terms used that are exclusive for this show. Quite a bit of time goes in explaining the customs of the folks and there’s a multitude of words to keep in the back of your mind. If you can look past that, or find it charming like I did, I can’t see a single reason how one could dislike this series. Seeing this as a “growing up” kind of show isn’t wrong, but it is one where the main character goes beyond the regular. It makes you go from despising her to complete admiration, a rare transition. It really isn’t exclusively such a show either, with the rich and expansive world, political themes, a journey through the countries, and moments of awe. The Twelve Kingdoms is something to experience, and completely motivated me to start the books in my first take on the medium of Light Novels.