"I swear never to desert my post before your throne, I swear never to disobey your orders."
—Kirin's pledge (excerpt)
The Twelve Kingdoms is a series of Light Novels by Fuyumi Ono, which was made into an anime in 2002.The setting is a massive fantasy world with a detailed and enthralling plot. The series begins following Youko Nakajima, an ordinaryclass representative who is dragged into this world kicking and screaming by a golden-haired man who swears loyalty to her. After being given a Hinman (a creature that possesses her and gives her amazing combat skills) and a magic sword, she is left alone in this world to fend for herself. Fighting her way past hordes of youma – powerful monsters who seem to be following her – and a corrupted king who wants her dead before she can fulfill her destiny, Youko discovers why she was brought to this world and comes to accept her responsibilities.At first it bears a resemblance to Fushigi Yuugi. It has similar premise tropes (notably Ordinary High-School Student, The Chosen One, and Trapped in Another World) but with a different storyline and no romantic elements (aside from some healthy shipping). The world may be outlandish and magical but the people have a striking realism to them; very little of it is forced. The series, and even more so the books, is arguably rather more about psychology and politics than action.The anime is broken into Story Arcs, based on the novels and short stories. The first thirteen episodes deal with Youko's arrival in the kingdoms, with episode 11 featuring Enki's backstory from the third novel. Episode 14 is largely recap, arguably useful in this case. Episodes 15-20 are a compression of 1½ other novels – Taiki's coming to the kingdoms, plus a truncated version of Demon Child – Taiki as an amnesiac in Japan. Then comes a short story episode and sixteen episodes for the second Youko novel, followed by another short story episode. Episodes 40-44 squeeze in the rest of the En novel followed by yet another recap – of those four episodes. The anime stopped there, though there's one more Youko & Taiki-centric novel and a Kyou novel that remain unadapted.In the non-Kei episodes, Youko and her friend Rakushun are used as narrative frames, excuses to tell stories from books they had nothing to do with. The series mixes or even makes up characters in dramatic or foreshadowing ways, but sticks pretty closely to the novels where it matters.The anime was released in North America by Media Blasters in 2004. The first four novels were translated into English and published by Tokyopop, though the adaptation (especially of the fourth book) has a few issues. Both are out of print. Interestingly, the respective translations of the two media are wildly different, with different spelling conventions for nearly every single person/place/thing in the series.Not to be confused with The 10th Kingdom, Seven Kingdoms, The Three Kingdoms, or the trope The Kingdom.
This story provides examples of:
Aborted Arc: The story of Taiki just cuts out in both the anime and the original novels, albeit at different points.
Adaptation Expansion: Asano and Yuka were anime-only characters, added to the story to help externalize Youko's struggles (Yuka did exist in the novels, but was just a minor character; she was Youko's classmate, and never managed to get in the Twelve Kingdoms with her).
Adaptation Induced Plot Hole: Why on earth would Youko leave Yuka (who doesn't speak the local language) completely alone upon arriving in En?
Alien Sky: In the Twelve Kingdoms, the sea is in the sky. Quoth Enki, "Well, where else would rain come from?" Which might be a sensible conclusion given the setting, but Enki is from Earth and visits it casually, even in modern times. Maybe he didn't pick up on science along with the blue jeans and democracy, or else was yanking her chain.
America Saves the Day: Inverted. America actually causes problems for at least one character in this series. One old man from Nagasaki found himself in Kou just a few weeks short of the USA ending the war against Japan by nuking his hometown. Upon hearing this news, he loses it and sells out the heroes to the local authorities (specifically, he goes berserk not because of his hometown being nuked but because he couldn't cope with hearing that the war ended immediately after he left and Japan went on to recover and become an economic power, while he spent a miserable 50+ years in Kou).
Audible Sharpness: Not that badly done, however. The sound Youko's sword makes when being unsheathed most closely resembles metal raking quickly against metal, rather than anything more high-pitched.
Beauty Equals Goodness: Kirin are creatures of mercy and are all, without exception, beautiful. With ordinary humans, on the other hand, all bets are off.
One of the Nyosen (who have watched over Kirin and their selection of rulers for centuries) once mentions that she's yet to see an ugly ruler – and Kirin always select good people as rulers (how long they STAY good is another matter...). So, for human rulers, it seems that Goodness Equals Beauty, at least.
For entire kingdoms, in fact. Peasants forced to endure the harsh conditions of a land lacking a ruler, or with a dark one who is under judgment, naturally begin looking older, more beaten and worn down. In contrast, immediately upon Youko's ascension to the throne, the people of Kei, whether in the land or on returning refugee ships, begin looking physically healthier.
Because Destiny Says So: The ruler of each kingdom is chosen by the kirin, who receives a revelation from the Heavens regarding who to choose. It's not quite clear whether the prospective chosen one can turn down the offer without dying for it.
Big Damn Heroes: Shouryuu's people show up with bows and arrows to save his life in his final battle in feudal Japan. They're all killed immediately by the enemy archers.
Big Fancy House: The royal palaces of the kingdoms are impressive practically stupefying. They're built on their own, often sheer-face mountains and have thousands of staff members. But to be fair, they are thousands of years old, were built with the approval and possible indirect aid of the gods themselves, and can potentially retain the same occupants forever.
Bizarre Alien Biology, and specifically Bizarre Alien Reproduction: The citizens of the Twelve Kingdoms look and act just like normal humans. But babies grow in eggs on special trees. And yet there are brothels, so they do have sex but apparently it's just for fun.
It doesn't end there: Sometimes still-growing egg-fruit accidentally fall from their branches and into shoku (storm-induced portals to the real world), where they are "somehow" transported into the wombs of pregnant women. This happened to Youko, Shoryuu, and Enki.
In the novels (and obliquely in the anime), Rakushun comments on Earth'sBizarre Alien Biology. He finds being born from a womb bizarre, and children resembling their parents to be creepy.
Blade Reflection: Youko's magic sword shows her prophetic (and sometimes misleading) visions when she looks into the blade. Eventually it becomes clear that the clarity or confusion of the visions is directly analogous to the clarity or confusion of her own mind.
Took a Level in Badass: Nearly every character gets to have a crack at this trope after their Character Development, with Youko, Taiki (when protecting Gyousou from Gouran, and then taking said youma as his servant), Suzu and Shoukei being the most notable.
Character Development: Brilliantly done for most of the main characters, especially Suzu (who learns to stand up for herself and others) and Shoukei (who becomes more humble and wiser), but above all Youko (who learns that she cannot hide from her responsabilities and that she must clear her mind if she wants to live, and later sees that actually reigning requires her to work and fight hard).
Comes Great Responsibility: Each kingdom's monarch has immortal, absolute authority over everything and everyone within its borders, up to and including even what its people, from nobles to peasants, are permitted or denied, or rewarded or punished with, in their individual daily lives. The price the monarchs pay is the cosmic expectation of fair and just rule. If they fail to live up to such, they and their kirin will die.
Contractual Immortality: Literally, as stated above: the continued legitimacy of all rulers is based on their obedience to the moral guidelines of the Tentei's Mandate Of Heaven. If they continue to follow them, they will rule their kingdom forever as an ageless immortal. If they turn away, their kirin is struck, as a divine warning, with shitsudou, a disease that is fatal if the ruler does not change their ways. If the kirin dies, the fallen ruler also dies, in a year or less.
And other people in the setting can get immortality via a literal contract; at one point we even see someone canceling a character's immortality by stamping the correct paperwork.
Crapsack World/World Half Full: Kingdoms with virtuous rulers are peaceful and naturally prosperous. Kingdoms without virtuous rulers (or a ruler at all) are overrun by man-eating monsters and beset by unnatural storms, plagues, and other various calamities. This essentially makes democracy physically impossible according to the laws of the universe. On top of that, the laws of Heaven mandate that the state ultimately owns all property, and due to a lack of fossil fuels the Industrial Revolution can never happen, such that goods like cotton and jars are rare and valuable commodities. In short, the world of the Twelve Kingdoms is one big Glorious Mother China. Nonetheless, while there's still prejudice, still people willing to sell others into slavery, and still bandits and criminals, it is implied that continuing human virtue can make the world of the Kingdoms quite a nice place to live.
This can also be applied to the life in Hourai itself, which is portrayed as a dark place full of gossipers and hypocrites, and no matter if you are a nice person, everyone always will think the worst of you, even your friends and parents.
There is also the fact that most Monarachs do not actually know how to run a government or administer a country when they are chosen. They often have to fight against entrenched interests in their own court, especially if corruption had time to sink in. This happens in both Tai and Kei, and with Hou representing what happens when a Knight Templar against such corruption takes the throne.
Monarchs who do a poor job of running their country cause their kirin to fall into shitsudou, which will eventually result in the death of both kirin and monarch. Apparently provincial governors can get away with much, much more since the Punishment of Heaven does not fall directly on them: rather enough of such officials and it will probably be the Monarch's fault for choosing or retaining such men and women. Thus its entirely possible for a relatively isolated Monarch to bring ruin to the country simply because large scale corruption has prevented any reports of wrongdoing from reaching the ears of the court and the land's ruler. Case in point: an official was hunting people for sport — but the Queen had no clue that this was happening in her kingdom, and she's not happy when she learns about it. The moral would effectively be a monarch's responsibility to actually interact in depth with his or her people.
Defiant Stone Throw: Shoukei does this to try saving a man about to be crucified. Even more meaningful because this got her peasant caretaker's son killed. and not to mention it lets her meet up with Youko and later with La Résistance.
Democracy Is Bad: Or useless. Without a divinely-chosen absolute monarch, a kingdom has little to no defense against youma, the monsters mentioned below, and/or no sure means to ensure national unity and avoidance of civil war. Even before either eventuality develops, however, suffering villagers within dilapidated kingdoms are often just as likely to devolve into lynch-mobs as find peaceful consensus on more emotional issues.
Demonic Invaders: The youma. When a kingdom starts going downhill, youma begin to spawn to terrorize the countryside. As even a well-trained military cannot often drive them out of a land, but the land's rightful monarch can, the loyalty and obedience that the monarchs are accorded is that much more extensive.
Early-Bird Cameo: Suzu shows up in episode 17 of the anime (five episodes before the major plot arc involving her begins) in a brief cameo that hints at how terrible her life is while serving her mistress.
Also, Aozaru appears when Youko is Dreaming of Things to Come at the very beginning of the anime, long before he actually appears.
Empathic Weapon: Youko's magic sword has a mind and a (bad) personality of his own. At one point, Youko's consciousness is sucked into the blade, where she meets the spirit of the sword in the shape of a talking monkey who tries to corrupt her into The Dark Side. She must beat him in a dialectical duel to break the psychic entrapping, return to her body and (finally) gain full control of the sword.
Fantastic Racism: The king of Kou hates Kaikyaku (people displaced from our world) and spreads rumours in his kingdom that they cause the destructive Shoku, so that his people will feel the same way.
Fisher King: The ruler of each kingdom is directly responsible for the state of the land. If they rule well and mercifully, the land flourishes. If they oppress the people or rule generally poorly, crops fail and the land is overrun with youma.
Foil: Kirin and the rulers they select tend to be opposite in certain aspects, usually either sex or apparent age. As a result, some of their more extreme characteristics tend to balance out in their rulership.
Genre Deconstruction: The first arc basically destroys Trapped in Another World story conventions by showing one of the most likely outcome of having a shy, insecure, unprepared teenager dropped into a medieval fantasy war zone — she or he would freak out.
God Save Us from the Queen!: Kei's three previous rulers, all women, have hardened its citizens against easy acceptance of the prospect of further queens, at the time of Youko's ascension to the throne.
Guardian Entity: Shirei, youma bound under contract to a kirin. They act as bodyguards and spies, and in return for their service, they are allowed to eat the kirin upon his or her death.
Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: All kirin, with few exceptions, are born with golden (not blond, golden) hair to further amp up their Incorruptible Pure Pureness. They are the only beings in the Kingdoms to have this coloring. Their hair tends to be called their "mane", and will not hold dye, so a unique physiology is implied.
Human Outside, Alien Inside: The natives are apparently indistinguishable from Earth humans, but instead of reproducing "normally" they are born out of large fruit that grow on special trees. They can have sex (since there are brothels and sex slaves in the world), but it looks like it's for fun and not for reproduction.
Hybrid Monster: Nyokai. Both nanny and bodyguard to their kirin, and, the more beast parts they are born with, the luckier they are considered. The results can be... interesting. An example is Sanshi, who has the tail of a lizard, the lower body of a leopard, the torso and face of a human woman, and the neck and eyes of a fish.
Immortal Immaturity: Most sennin – that is, people who are on the Register of the Immortals – tend to act the age they look like. Very obvious in the case of Shoukei, who is 46 years old, but acts like a spoiled preteen at first. Both she and Suzu (who is over 100) talk about meeting Youko, a girl of "their age". All have the apparent physical age of about 16. In fact, they simply consider themselves their apparent age.
Loads and Loads of Characters: Though only a handful are plot-vital at any given point, there are always a lot of side-characters around, and matters are made confusing by the fact that almost everyone has two or three names plus a title or nickname.
Left Hanging: The series was supposed to be much longer, but abruptly cuts off about twenty episodes before the projected endpoint. A popular rumor is that they were waiting for more books to be published (specifically for Taiki's story to be fully resolved, which still hasn't happened), but nothing is confirmed.
Magic Pants: Averted! Whenever the Kirin take on non-human forms, they're in the buff until they can find something to cover themselves upon changing back; Keiki himself uses this to explain why he doesn't immediately take human form when Youko rescues him. Ditto for hanjyuu like Rakushun.
Meaningful Name: Nearly all names in the series have some meaning. Kirin that are especially beloved by their ruler are often given a special name.
Medieval Stasis: All of the kingdoms seem to be locked at the tech level of Imperial China, or at least pre-industrial China; printing (and Buddhism) is mentioned as an import from our world, and the books have a reference to a lack of fossil fuels (though the Tokyopop book translations – which have problems – reference kerosene).
Mighty Whitey: Of the Japanese variation, naturally. The King of En is one of the most successful rulers, being intelligent, badass, wise, and fair for over 500 years, and he's a former Japanese feudal lord. Youko, the focus character, becomes a great queen and fighter - in fact, part of her problem in her first arc is that a rival king fears the power of another nation ruled by another person from Hourai. Finally, the kirin who grew up in Japan turns out to be the most powerful and compassionate of his generation.
It's played with, though; King Kou's fear of taika kings doing a better job than he has is called out as foolish (he's even posthumously known as The Foolish King) by just about everyone else in the story, native to the Kingdoms or not. Also, the longest lived (and thus most consistently good) ruler is not King En but King Sou, who is never encountered in person but is mentioned to be close to breaking the record for a king's reign.
Also technically subverted, given what taika like Youko and Shoryuu ultimately are: beings technically born in Hourai, but originally conceived (or rather, 'grown') in the Twelve Kingdoms. The conclusion of the early 'rivalry' between Youko and the fully Earth-born Yuka in fact stems from Yuka's acceptance that while she may have wanted (at least initially) to be in the Twelve Kingdoms, it is Youko's actual homeland and natural home.
No Time to Explain: Said by Keiki in his first appearance. Considering what happened to the classroom right after, he may have been right... though if he'd managed to blurt out one more sentence, the plot could have been very different.
Only Six Faces: An early plot point in the anime that Youko looks "so different" in the Kingdoms... except she doesn't look wildly different (brighter hair, green eyes, and slightly more angular features). Then again, considering that the alien language of the Twelve Kingdoms is presented as sounding exactly the same to the viewer (and specifically to Youko's hearing), the physical similarities might simply be a case of trying not to confuse the audience too much.
Off with His Head!: The only way to kill a sen'nin. Brutally (but off-screen, mostly) proven by Gekkei, when he kills both of Shoukei's parents as punishment for their cruel reign, and then beheads their kirin Hourin for choosing them in the first place.
Beheading Hourin may have also been a mercy kill, though, considering how very badly the poor kirin girl was stricken with shitsudou. She also seems to be almost happy to die, just sighing and quietly closing her eyes as her death nears.
Poor Communication Kills: If Koukan's friends, who were also friends with Youko, had communicated their reasons for inviting her to their mansion and stockpiling weapons that can kill a sennin, things would have gone VERY differently that arc.
Pose of Supplication: Kirin are only able to bow to their rulers. Their physical inability to bow to anyone else was a plot point in Taiki's first arc, where he was extremely insecure and constantly worried about either bowing in front of the wrong person or not being able to bow in front of someone who deserved it.
A Protagonist Shall Lead Them: Youko, and many other Emperors and Empresses in the world. All Emperors are chosen by the kirin, and in years when there is no ruler or a bad ruler the kingdom is ravaged by demons and natural disasters, so nearly any Emperor brushes this trope at least once.
Psycho Sidekick: Kirin are creatures that abhor violence, and become physically ill when exposed to blood or bad karma. Their shirei, or demon servants, are a lot less pacifist, and protect their masters (and by extension, their masters' masters, the rulers) from those who would do them harm.
Slightly subverted (as is wont for a Deconstruction), in that the "psycho" shirei are sometimes shown giving pause to and respecting anyone who references some link to a given monarch. When one of Taiki's shirei, during his second period in Hourai, demand of Yuka whether she's an enemy, she tells them that she is a friend of Queen Kei, i.e. Youko...whereupon the being immediately peacefully withdraws.
"The Reason You Suck" Speech: It takes a while, but Rakushun is the first one to really get through to Shoukei about how ignorant and immature her mindset is. He emphasizes the accomplishments and duties of the children of other rulers compared with her own pampered, spoiled existence before her father was killed, and reiterates how a life of privilege meant she should have done more than just stay in the luxury of the palace and not concern herself with all the horrible things her father was doing to the people of their country.
Really 700 Years Old: A large portion of the cast are never-aging immortals. The main protagonist is initially quite unwillingly their newest member.
Recap Episode: Every arc, though it is at least usually accompanied by a framing story. Notably, even the series finale is a recap episode.
Scenery Porn: With some actual scenery, but mostly of the big-fancy-castle variety. Lots of tapestries and murals.
She Is the King: In Japanese, the word translated as 'king' is gender-neutral, like 'monarch'; thus in some translations (including the Tokyopop one), the ruler of a nation is referred to as the king regardless of gender.
Shown Their Work: Fuyumi Ono clearly read up on Chinese culture, history and mythology for this series. She is also a graduate in Buddhist Studies, which contributed greatly.
The clothing, cuisine, arts and other material culture in the Twelve Kingdoms are the same as the material culture found in ancient China.
China throughout its history has been shattered and united on numerous occasions. Although the Chinese people saw themselves as the same ethnicity with the same culture, they may have belonged to different kingdoms.
People are chosen to rule kingdoms by the Heavens but lose their power if they do not govern properly. This is similar to the Chinese concept of the 'Mandate of Heaven'.
The rulers in the Twelve Kingdoms are God Emperor immortals and some manage to govern their kingdoms for centuries. All Chinese emperors are seen as divine beings and the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi wanted to gain immortality so he could govern his kingdom for eternity.
Uses of Chinese non-verbal communication is present throughout. Bowing is a common sight as it used as a polite greeting. A martial arts salute called "Bao Quan" (where an open palm is placed against a clenched fist) is used as a sign of respect by those who about to compete with each other in a fight. Those of the high status such as Kings and Lords are greeted with a kowtow (where the greeter goes down on all fours and lowers their head) by anyone of lower status. Other gestures such as the "Yi Li" (This gesture can be seen on any statue of Confucius) are used to show peace. The "Bao Quan Yi Li" is the most commonly appearing gesture along with kowtowing in The Twelve Kingdoms, the Bao Quan Yi Li is similar to the Bao Quan but with a hand wrapping against the fist, it is known as a "submissive Bao Quan" and used as a greeting towards those of similar status to wish them good luck.
Men of all class backgrounds are allowed to gain a position in the government by passing difficult tests. This is just like in ancient China, the Imperial Examination was used to choose government officials.
The series utilises Chinese etiquette, customs and values which have routes in Confucianism such as "saving face" by treating people accordingly in their relation to your status, practising humility and improving oneself by learning through constant practise and suffering.
'Kirin' is the Japanese pronunciation for the Qilin in Mandarin (The Japanese pronunciation is closer to the Hokkien pronunciation of 'Kilin'). In the series, the kirin choose and serve rulers. In Chinese legend, they are said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler.
The Twelve Kingdoms uses ideographs to write. This script bears a strong resemblance to ancient Chinese writing and oracle bone markings.
Single-Stroke Battle: In a case of almost shocking realism, fatal wounds swiftly kill people (for sen'nin, this requires decapitation).
Sitting on the Roof: Youko and Keiki meet when they're in Youko's classroom, but then they have to go to the roof when they're under attack. Yuka and her boyfriend Asano were on the rooftop already, and then...
Sketchy Successor: Subverted as the next king is not necessarily the son/daughter of the previous king, but rather has to be chosen by the Kirin each time the previous one dies, as the fact that they are given nigh-immortality when they become kings/queens means that the king will live forever as long as they don't screw things up, so usually they don't have to worry about who'll be the successor for a few centuries. However, as the last three of Youko's predecessors (all queens, in turn) ruled for comparatively short periods before falling, in comparison to En-Ou who has ruled for more than five centuries, great uncertainty continually exists as to whether new monarchs will find and maintain the strength to live up to their callings.
Stupid Good: All kirin are explicitly Stupid Good by nature, as supernatural beings of mercy and compassion. One of the primary challenges faced by every ruler in the Twelve Kingdoms is learning when to listen to their kirin and when to ignore them.
Supernatural Elite: The elites are immortal, can speak any language, and the kings and queens are so strong that killing demons is child's play to them.
To Win Without Fighting: Yoko riding on Keiki and flying out to meet the army at the end of Skies of Dawn results in this.
Translation Convention: Most of the series takes place in the Twelve Kingdoms, which speaks a completely different language from Japan. As a sen'nin, Youko has a magical auto-translate for herself, but normal kaikyaku who get accidentally swept over are out of luck.
Being in a world based on Chinese mythology, they write using Hanzi (Chinese ideographs). Youko is not completely illiterate because kanji is one of her best subjects (including the pre-spelling-reform versions that are very similar to Hanzi), but has quite a hard time reading the complicated treatises on ruling philosophy that she is given to study and usually has to ask Keiki to read them to her.
Translator Microbes: Becoming a minor god/immortal sen'nin allows one to understand any language; even that of animals. Hinman also serve this purpose in the anime.
There seem to be different levels of microbes, as well – Suzu, a kaikyaku, cannot speak the language until she's taken in by one of the sennin. As a low-level immortal, she can only understand the gist of what animals say, but she can understand the mumblings of a child with brain damage, which regular mortals cannot do.
Weaksauce Weakness: The kirin have incredible powers, but they are deadly poisoned by blood, to the point where even the scent can incapacitate them, and continued contact can kill them. Their status as creatures of pure goodness, kindness, and mercy is also specifically played up as a major weakness; it means they are inherently Stupid Good, even when they know better. At one point, a villain is able to force one to do whatever he wants by threatening a baby, even if it endangers the entire kingdom.
Who Wants to Live Forever?: It is stated in the books that most rulers fall around the time when they (and all the friends and family members they left behind when they took the throne) would have died of old age, as most are incapable of coping with the strain and loneliness.
Characters often give up their status as a sen'nin without a second thought, going from ageless immortals to plain old mortals without caring about the implications that they all of a sudden have an expiration date.
What Happened to the Mouse?: The plot involving Taiki and Gyousou's disappearance from Tai was never explained or resolved in the anime. Granted, it also still hasn't been resolved in the novels, but Youko at least arranged an international search squad and brought the amnesiac Taiki back from Japan. That book, in turn, ended with a massive cliffhanger that still hasn't been resolved.
It's not actually difficult to travel between the worlds, at least for Kirin, as a character explicitly offers to send her home at one point. However, in practice this is impossible because as Enki explains, crossing between the worlds creates storms called Shoku, the strength of which are directly relative to the innate power of what is being carried over. So when a baby or debris drifts between worlds, it's probably hardly noticeable, but when someone as powerful as a King crosses the borders, it causes cataclysmic storms all along the coast they left from/arrived at, in both worlds.
You Can't Fight Fate: Played depressingly straight. Once a new monarch accepts, even if unknowingly, the subservience of their kirin, they are the monarch of their kingdom for the remainder of their existence. Any attempt to abandon the title is punished by a quick death, at least in immortal terms (a year or less). Whether a prospective monarch has any option to instead reject the kirin's fealty, and/or whether such a rejection would also result in capital punishment, is not entirely clear, but the latter wouldn't be surprising.