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.
For once, I feel that an anime would benefit from having many more episodes. Perhaps this is another way of acknowledging that Juuni Kokki was prematurely discontinued before it could fulfill its potential. After all, given the incredible effort and the number of episodes devoted to laying the groundwork for a huge fantasy epic, I felt distinctly let down that I had not fully explored the stories behind each of the twelve kingdoms when the series abruptly ended.
Juuni Kokki is clearly not episodic, and as such, I would have expected the pacing to be much stronger than it was. The series had several flashes of brilliance, where I felt the need to jump to the next episode immediately, but in the majority of the episodes, the cut-off point left me rather indifferent to proceeding to the next episode or finding something else to do.
Overall, Juuni Kokki has many strengths, but I cannot overlook the fact that it was discontinued almost in the middle of a story, and with many loose ends not addressed. It is also hard to ignore the fact that the storytelling is heavy-handed and feels engineered, especially in the context of all the problems surrounding the selection of a viewpoint character. Therefore, I would only selectively recommend this anime to those who are looking to be drawn into a rich and immersive fantasy world, but are not too picky about plot design, masterful storytelling and spectacular conclusions.
Yohko is nothing but ordinary. Throughout her life she has been considered an outcast, especially with a hair color not native to many in Japan, bright red. Things change for Yohko when a mysterious man named Keiki arrives and claims that she is his empress. Yohko and two friends are then taken through a vortex, and then abandoned.. in a world of demons and magic.
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