A girl becomes a hero.
That is the premise and appeal of episodes 1-13 of The Twelve Kingdoms, the anime adaptation of a series of fantasy novels by Japanese author Fuyumi Ono (1). The show runs to 45 episodes altogether, spread across four story arcs – each based on a different book and focusing on different characters. It was one of my favourites as a teenager, and after rewatching episodes 1-13 (which constitute the first and, from memory, one of the better story arcs, corresponding to book #1, Sea of Shadow), I was impressed all over again.
But that didn’t happen straight away. I’ll be honest; the first couple of episodes were a real slog. You see, this particular story arc follows Youko, a modern-day girl flung into the strange world of the Twelve Kingdoms; and while her initial terror is understandable (and believable!), her cringing passivity made me want to yell. Nor was her supporting cast any more likeable. But things don’t stay that way: over those thirteen episodes, Youko overcomes her demons, learns courage and maturity, and discovers the wonderful, imaginative world around her.
As such, while there is a little action, this is not a show about action. There is affection, but this is not a show about romance. This is not a fluffy or frivolous or ‘light entertainment’ show; it is an emotionally intense one about internal conflict and character growth. That first story arc exemplifies the show: the Youko of episode 1 is not the same Youko of episode 13, and her transformation – sometimes trying, ultimately heartwarming – would not be so remarkable if she were not so pathetic to begin with. The end result is a set of episodes that, while initially painful, are rewarding and mature – and that make a promising start for my rewatch.
(1) Sadly, I understand it is an incomplete adaptation; the anime never adapted the last book in the series, and I do not believe the author ever wrapped up the series itself.