It doesn't feel like anime. Adapted from a novel series that was originally deemed too complex for animation, when The Twelve Kingdoms eventually reached Japanese television it found a unusually diverse audience. Lots of adult women and old men watched it. Its world is different. It's a fantasy world with twelve kingdoms, hundreds of years of history and realistic politics that portrays the difficulties of government. Flood, famine and violence are never far away in the Twelve Kingdoms.
Its storytelling is unusually mature. Our heroes can die, starve and make terrible mistakes. It's divided into different stories with different lead characters, each of whom on their own gets more character development than most shows give their entire casts. Anime usually tells strong but simple stories in which each episode is either a complete story or a self-contained chapter. The Twelve Kingdoms on the other hand has a richness that comes from the fact that its story and world take so much time to lay out. It's not just the worldbuilding either... the characters and their emotional journeys can be so complicated that it's impossible to guess what they'll be doing and what they'll be like in ten episodes' time.
The story starts in present-day Japan. Youko Nakajima is a schoolgirl with an emotional fragility and a lack of confidence that you rarely see in anime's lead characters. She's her class representative not because she's particularly good or noble but because she doesn't have the courage to stand up for herself and do something she doesn't want to do. She doesn't want even to be noticed. However when monsters appear, she and two of her classmates are whisked away to a land where they don't speak the language and they have to become thieves if they don't want to starve to death. That first episode grabbed me in a way few first episodes do.
The show even looks different! Fuyumi Ono's original novels had illustrations by Akihiro Yamada that were apparently beautiful but beyond anything that could be recreated in television animation. Nevertheless the show's designer's were always seeking that halfway house between fidelity and feasibility. For example the animals are more detailed than usual in anime. I don't normally notice visuals, but I noticed this. I really liked the way the Twelve Kingdoms looked and it was driving me crazy throughout the first episode as I couldn't put my finger on why.
It's realism. The people look like human beings rather than anime characters. Figures and backgrounds have a detailed solidity that can be beautiful. The sword fighting has combat styles and proper sword fighting moves; if you were up against an expert, you'd see them doing this. Moreover the first episode pulls stylistic tricks reminiscent of live-action movies, such as hand-held camera sequences, fish-eye lenses and shots with dramatic use of light and shadow.
The show's structure is peculiar. It was originally meant to run for 68 episodes but was cut short. The character designer was having health problems, but more important were problems in adapting the source material. The anime's main character is Youko Nakajima, but Fuyumi Ono's eleven novels (plus a short story collection) have lots of different protagonists. The anime is divided into four books, two interludes and four recap episodes... sometimes Youko's the main character and sometimes she only appears in a framing story, but she's always there somehow. The strain was threatening to show. What's more, the anime had run out of material to adapt. Rather than go off on their own, they chose to suspend the show and resume it at some future date when more books had been published.
This was a brave move in an industry that normally bases such decisions purely on viewing figures. Unfortunately Fuyumi Ono published the first of these eleven novels in 1991 and did one a year until 2001. It may or may not be a coincidence that the anime appeared in 2002. Since then she's been writing other stuff, so as the years pass The Twelve Kingdoms is looking increasingly unlikely to get its last 23 episodes. This would be a shame, but oddly it doesn't really hurt the anime. There's one question left unanswered, but otherwise the structure of being divided into individual books means that you could stop after any of its four "last chapters" and feel satisfied that you'd watched a good show.
It's not perfect. One problem is that emotionally mature stories about weak and morally confused heroines aren't always much fun! Occasionally this show got almost heavy going, although in fairness its corresponding high points were stunning. More importantly I get the impression that Fuyumi Ono's novels might tend to be quite linear... there's lots of depth and character development, but not always much plot complexity. Fuyumi Ono's Youko was spirited away from Japan on her own, instead of travelling with Sugimoto and Asano. As a result there's quite a long stretch in the middle of the anime in which the protagonists never meet or interact significantly. They're following their own solo paths.
The cliffhangers are rubbish too.
It can get pretty dark, with deep and sometimes depressing themes. Amusingly Fuyumi Ono's women tend to get uplifting, empowering endings while her men get screwed. That doesn't make it bad, though. Quite a few scenes have important subtext that most viewers won't spot on first viewing, because the story's asking questions that go deeper than anime usually does.
A throwaway character from a twenty-second scene can become the heroine of the next story. The different stories interweave. Even the recap episodes always have something new unfolding. This show couldn't fall back on "monster of the week" filler if it tried. The stories are rich and always moving forward, not afraid to have big developments like killing the bad guy. I've criticised the series for occasionally being stodgy and linear, but at its peak it can be awesomely cool. I tend to get bored during set-piece battle scenes in most shows and movies, but this show's military confrontations kick arse because they have so much character work building up to them.
Thoroughly recommended. Anyone who doesn't respond to this show is an eleven-year-old Dragonball fan who smells. Admittedly that's assuming that they've managed to watch the whole thing. My wife decided it was boring when she saw it on its original TV run and gave up on it after only watching the first few episodes. She doesn't believe me when I tell her that you'll realise it's brilliant if only you stick with it for a bit longer. The first story arc lasts 13 episodes, by the way.