Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Twelve Kingdoms

Go To

"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 fantasy novels written by Fuyumi Ono and illustrated by Akihiro Yamada, which began in 1992 and are still ongoing. The series was adapted into an anime by Studio Pierrot that aired on NHK from 2002 to 2003.

The setting is a massive fantasy world with a detailed and enthralling plot. The series begins following Youko Nakajima, an ordinary class 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 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 from the first novel, 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; another more Youko & Taiki-centric novel, a Kyou novel, two novels of short stories and a 2019 novel focused on Taiki 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.

The Twelve Kingdoms 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. Well, Yuka did exist in the original 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 anime-only character Yuka (who doesn't speak the local language) completely alone upon arriving in En?
    • Yuka (and Asano's) presence introduces a more serious plot hole that doesn't become glaringly obvious because the anime stops just before the point where it would become unavoidable; the rules for who can travel between the worlds are much more strict in the novels than in the anime, and these sharp restrictions are one of the main reasons retrieving Taiki is so difficult. The fact that Yuka was easily sent back using the gogoukanda at the end of the first anime arc breaks all of this and leaves no explanation for why there is so little contact between the worlds.
  • 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 also from Earth and may have been yanking her chain.
  • America Saves the Day: Inverted. One old man from Nagasaki found himself in Kou just a few weeks short of the Japanese surrender. He couldn't cope with hearing the news that the war ended immediately after he left and that Japan went on to recover and become a major economic power, while he spent a miserable 50+ years in Kou. To punish Youko for telling him this, he sells her out to the local authorities.
    • She'd never gotten around to telling him that going to the Twelve Kingdoms has probably saved him from dying when his hometown was nuked.
  • Asian Rune Chant: The kuji-kiri version is used by kirin for taming youma.
  • Audible Sharpness: The sound Youko's sword makes when being unsheathed most closely resembles metal raking quickly against metal.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Divinely-granted beauty, even.
    • Kirin are creatures of mercy and are all, without exception, beautiful.
    • 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…).
    • While a good ruler reigns, even the peasantry look healthier. Peasants enduring the harsh conditions of a land lacking a ruler, or with a dark one who is under judgement, 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 Reproduction:
    • Twelve Kingdoms from Earth's perspective: The citizens have sex, but apparently it's just for fun, because their reproduction is done by growing eggs on special trees. Sometimes still-growing egg-fruit accidentally fall from their branches and into shoku (storm-induced portals to our world), where they are "somehow" transported into the wombs of pregnant women. This happened to Youko, Shoryuu, Enki, and Taiki.
    • Hourai from Twelve Kingdom's perspective: Rakushun 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.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: Although we don't see many of the details, a ruler is able to, among other things, make anyone they please immortal simply by filing the correct paperwork.
  • Changeling Fantasy:
    • Youko is taken from our world by a golden-haired man who tells her she must become the King of Kei. There's a tinge of deconstruction, however, as Youko has to massively adjust to her new circumstances and seriously dislikes having people bow to her. Yet ultimately, massive political headaches and frequent coups are still preferable to her old life.
    • In the anime, Yuka feels she is the one taken to her "real home" and wants to rule over her land. She even cites stories and games involving people traveling to other worlds.
  • Changeling Tale: All Taika are technically otherworldly beings born to human mothers, taking the place of their biological children. From the examples we see, it seems like many of them can tell that they don't quite fit in. Taiki's mother outright suspects him of being a changeling after he returns from the Kingdoms, though she's wrong about the timeframe - he wasn't swapped during his disappearance, he's always been himself.
  • 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 responsibilities 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).
  • The Chooser of the One: The kirin.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: Each kingdom's monarch has immortal absolute authority over everything and everyone within their 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.
  • Crapsack World: 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. Rulers 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. This essentially makes democracy physically impossible according to the laws of the universe. Most monarchs usually do not know how to run a government or administer a country when they are chosen, but they are the ones given a chance to save their kingdom. Most fail every 50-100 years, returning their kingdom to an extremely broken state.
  • Defiant Stone Throw:
    • {Caretaker of Shoukei} tells Shoukei about when her son threw a stone to stop the crucifixion of an innocent person. The guards conducting the execution grabbed him as well and crucified the both of them.
    • When Shoukei sees a man about to be crucified, she remembers the story, and decides to throw a stone despite the consequences. This action brings Youko to save her, and they both join La Résistance.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Or useless. Without a divinely-chosen absolute monarch, a kingdom has little to no defense against youma 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. Nonetheless, Enki, a spiritual agent of the divine monarchy, suggests democracy as an alternative...
  • 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.
  • Dramatic Wind: Often happens with Youko in the anime, especially when she's fighting. It also happens with most other kirin and their rulers, and Shoukei at least once.
  • 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.
    • Rangyoku and Keikei show up for an Infodump at the end of the first arc, several episodes before they become important to the story.
  • Empathic Weapon: Youko's magic sword seems to have its own intelligence, sending her visions even before she becomes Empress. And on top of this, its sheath has its own intelligence, being a sealed monkey-demon who taunts her with her darkest impulses.
  • 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. He also dislikes hanjyuu, who as a result aren't allowed to take non-human form in public and are denied basic citizenship rights.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The world of the Twelve Kingdoms is heavily based on China to the point where many characters in-universe think they have been transported to China.
  • 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.
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: In the books, the ability of Suiguutou to view the past and present is never used after the first plot volume (and its ability to view the future is never used at all, merely referenced once.) This is particularly glaring because the entire focus of the sixth book is on searching for Taiki and Gyousou; the latter one in particular drives the entire plot because Youko cannot send in search parties without violating the Way. Apparently nobody remembers that she has a magic clairvoyance sword. Suiguutou is sometimes difficult to use, but nobody even suggests that it be attempted. Averted in the anime, which added a few scenes of Youko attempting to use it in her second plot arc, and which never adapted the plot arc where its absence becomes most glaring.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The first arc basically destroys Trapped in Another World story conventions by showing one of the most likely outcomes of having a shy, insecure, unprepared teenager dropped into a medieval fantasy war zone — she would freak out.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Kei's three previous rulers, all women, represented this in one manner or another; in the novel, this has hardened its citizens against easy acceptance of the prospect of further queens at the time of Youko's ascension to the throne.
  • God's Hands Are Tied: In the novels, Gyokuyo implies that the rules that govern the shitsudou are encoded into rulers and Kirin at the moment when they are appointed and cannot be changed afterwards - they are interpreted and enforced completely automatically and will kill the Kirin (and then the ruler) if they are violated, no matter what. Heaven therefore cannot change them or allow for exceptions, regardless of the reason or cause.
  • 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.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The hanjyuu, sort of. Given how creatures are actually born in the Kingdoms, this equates more into a case of Animorphism, than anything else – Rakushun's nonhuman form, for instance, is simply a rat capable of walking on two legs.
  • Horse of a Different Color: Kijyuu, wild beasts that often have the ability to fly, and when trained, become completely loyal. They have a variety of Mix-and-Match Critter traits, especially those of big cats, horses, and deer.
  • 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.
  • Immortal Ruler: Rulers are chosen by the heavens and granted immortality when they ascend to the throne. However, the immortality is conditional on doing a good job; if a ruler turns bad and lose the approval of heaven, either they'll be killed by their own subjects or, should they renounce the throne, die soon afterwards.
  • Imperial China: The setting of the series. Well, close enough.
  • Kirin: Kirin resemble horned or antlered horses that can take human form, among many other magical properties. They're also so pure that they are greatly weakened by the smell of blood, even their own, so they have a special servant monster that acts as a bodyguard/parent/older sibling. It's complicated since the monster in question is born literally minutes before the kirin, and yet immediately knows the name of its charge. A kirin also chooses each kingdom's monarch, and then becomes his or her principal counselor.
  • Kneel Before Frodo: The entire Kei army kneeling before Youko as the new queen of Kei. Frodo hadn't become a demigod by the time he was being bowed down to, however.
  • Lady-In-Waiting: As this anime involves royal courts, more than one is seen around. The unfair executions of Princess Shoukei's lady-in-waiting and her mother on false charges of corruption is what leads the nobles of Hou to turn against King Chuutatsu and Queen Kaka, executing them as well as the kirin Hourin, and to Shoukei becoming a Fallen Princess.
  • 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.
  • Loophole Abuse: The rigid rules that heaven places on rulers cannot be changed, but there are loopholes that can be exploited to get around them.
    • Gyokuyo advised Shoryuu on how it was safe to send his army into Kei as long as Youko was technically in charge of it; in all other circumstances, a nation's king sending his army into another nation leads to near-instantaneous death.
    • Later on, in the novels, she advises them on how they can grant Taiki the level of immortality he needs to cross between worlds in his weakened state. This requires very briefly appointing him as, effectively, the prime minister of En, which in turn requires exploiting another loophole - normally ministers of that rank cannot be foreigners, but Kirin are technically not listed on the census of their home country because they're born on Mt. Hou in the center of the Yellow Sea, which is part of no nation.
  • 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.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Gahou behind Shoukou, and Seikyou, the prime minister, behind Gahou.
  • 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).
    • Metals, aside from Gold and Silver, also seem to be scarce. Aside from tools and weapons, almost nothing in the anime is made using metal. The armour people wear looks like it's made using hardened leather or laquered wood.
  • 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.
  • Mirror Reveal: After Youko is pulled into another world, she undergoes a transformation that is subtle, but apparently significant enough that her schoolmate Yuka doesn't recognize her. When Youko asks what's wrong, Yuka silently pulls out a compact and shows it to her.
  • 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. This turns out later to just be a common problem for Keiki, though - even when he has ample time to explain himself, he tends to cut off one or two or half a sentence before he should.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: In the novels, Seishuu points out that she and Suzu are not actually that different - they're both lonely and embittered, and have let that bitterness turn them into such unpleasant people that it drives off anyone who might actually be able to relate to them.
  • Oathbound Power: Rulers are chosen according to the ineffable will of the gods, giving them immortality and authority over the kingdom, including command of a cadre of supernatural creatures who can give them other enhanced abilities such as uncanny martial prowess. Yet if they rule poorly and the country suffers, their royal beast the Kirin comes down with a divine illness and both die. Once this begins, the only ways to stop it are through abdication or through a change of heart; however, the latter is so rare as to be practically mythical.
  • 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 two terrible rulers in a row.
    • 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.
  • 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, orange-y skin, 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.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: Youko's magic sword is a royal treasure of the kingdom of Kei, and can only be wielded by its rightful ruler. When its scabbard is working properly, only the ruler can even draw it, but even once it's drawn, in the hands of anyone but the ruler of Kei it does no damage.
  • Ordinary High-School Student: Youko and Taiki, and (in the anime) Yuka and Asano. Youko even invokes this trope by name when objecting that she can't possibly be the queen of Kei.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Youko is seen cradling Rangyaku's lifeless body in her arms.
  • 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 sen'nin, things would have gone VERY differently that arc.
    • Especially in the novel, it's made clear that Keiki knew from the start that Koukan was innocent and Seikyou was corrupt. He vaguely expresses his displeasure with Youko when she sides with Seikyou, but doesn't tell her enough to make the problem clear, leading to most of the problems in that arc; she calls him out on this later on.
  • 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.
    • Youko, having been raised in Japan, is very uncomfortable with full prostration on the part of her subjects as she sees it as demeaning to them; her first proclamation as Empress is to ban it altogether, except during formal ceremonies.
  • 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, demands 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 – if in a milder fashion than is usual for such speeches. He brings up the accomplishments and duties of the children of other rulers, such as being involved in governing their respective countries or running hospitals, compared with her own pampered, spoiled existence before her father was killed; her life of privilege meant she should have done more than just stay in the luxury of the palace and pay no heed to all the horrible things her parents were doing to the people of their country. He also points out how embarrassing it is that he, a peasant from practically the other side of the world, knows more about the state of Shoukei's country than she herself does.
    • Seishuu gives a comparable one to Suzu, calling her out for her endless self-fulfilling self-pity.
    • Many of Aozaru's speeches to Youko are backhanded versions of this, highlighting where her current thinking will lead her.
    • Shushou loves to give these to everyone, especially Suzu.
    • Genrou Shinkun attempts to give one of these to Shushou in her own novel, berating her for daring to believe that a mere twelve-year-old girl like her can be queen, but she isn't having any of it and is able to give an Armor-Piercing Response that shows that she's thought things through more thoroughly than he has.
  • 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, new animation, and new information. 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.
  • Shout-Out: Youko makes several references to The Chronicles of Narnia when thinking about her situation, specifically comparing it to a novel she read about children who stepped through a wardrobe into another world.
  • 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. It is similar to the Bao Quan but with a hand wrapping against the fist, and it's known as a "submissive Bao Quan" and used as a greeting towards those of similar status to wish them good luck.
    • People of all class backgrounds are allowed to gain a position in the government by passing difficult tests. This is just like in ancient China, where the Imperial Examination was used to choose government officials, though the Kingdoms are a lot more gender-equal.
    • 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.
  • Silence, You Fool!: Youko, when being confronted by Kei soldiers.
  • 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 (in fact, is required to not be closely related), but rather has to be chosen by the Kirin each time the previous one dies. As they are given nigh-immortality when they become kings/queens, they will live forever as long as they don't screw things up, so usually kingdoms 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.
  • Staring Down Cthulhu: Kirin actually use staring to earn the respect of youma. If the Kirin wins, the youma serves him for the rest of his life; if not, the youma will either flee or attempt to eat the kirin.
  • Stock Sound Effects
  • 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, since ruling well requires compassion but a nation cannot be run effectively with compassion alone.
  • 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.
  • Talking Animal: Hanjyuu, who are Shapeshifters as well. They are subject to Fantastic Racism in most of the kingdoms.
  • Technology Uplift: Averted. In the novels, Youko thinks to herself that she doesn't actually know how to build anything important from her world, while the king of En notes that the Twelve Kingdom's gods severely limit the materials available in ways that make it hard to import technology from earth. Both of them do, however, make some efforts to bring social improvements from their worlds.
  • The Chains of Commanding/Royals Who Actually Do Something: Being directly responsible for the welfare of an entire nation would make you stressed too. Aside from royalty, about half the military commanders in the series can be seen at some point on the front lines of a battle directly leading their subordinates.
  • 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 those 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.
    • The fact that there seems to be only one language spoken in the kingdoms makes the translation power a bit odd. Unless you meet a kaikyaku or taika from Earth it won't come up much.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The novels were written before the current wave of Isekai novels became popular (and was part of what sparked the light novel boom that led to it); as a result, many of its takes on it come across as more deconstructive than they may have been intended. To the extent that it's a deconstruction, it is aimed at much older examples of the genre (the novel makes several references to The Chronicles of Narnia.)
  • Unicorn: The magical Kirin.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The kirin have incredible powers, but they are deathly 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. To be fair, however, immortality in this series appears to come with a dose of stasis, so it's not quite as large of a loss as it might be otherwise. Suzu spends a full century as a servant to a cruel master, and in all that time she never grows or changes as a person.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: A major theme. Especially the former rulers of Hou, Kou, and Kei.
  • 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.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Near the end of the first arc, when Youko is alone, she says that she can't possibly accept the throne, because no one knows the dark and hidden parts of herself. Jyouyu, the Hinman who Keiki placed in her at the very beginning to give her her combat skills, disobeys his orders to emerge and tell her that he has been watching her the entire time and believes she has the qualities needed to become a great Empress.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Throughout the first arc, Youko is looking for a way to return to Japan. But, as she is the new queen of Kei, she cannot return home to Japan without dooming Kei to starvation and destruction… and, as her life is now intertwined with Kei's well-being, she would die within a year or two. Eventually she accepts the responsibility and becomes queen.
    • 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 outright devastating, if not impossible, for specific kinds of people, Youko especially. 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 probably causes a light drizzle for a few minutes, but when someone as powerful as a King crosses the borders, they cause 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.