Adaptation Adventures: The Twelve Kingdoms

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 1: Sea of ShadowIn 1992, The Twelve Kingdoms debuted as a series of fantasy novels written by Fuyumi Ono with illustrations by Akihiro Yamada. The series has inspired an anime adaptation as well as audio dramas and video games. Between 2007 and 2010, Tokyopop released English translations of the first four books in the series (which I have previously read and reviewed): Sea of Shadow, Sea of Wind, The Vast Spread of the Seas, and Skies of Dawn.

Although I had vaguely heard great things about The Twelve Kingdoms, I didn’t actually get around to reading the novels until they had technically gone out of print. I ended up loving them and they are well-worth tracking down. (The hardcover editions were apparently notorious for quality control issues, though, so it’s probably best to stick with the paperback releases when they can be found.) Soon after reading the first volume, Sea of Shadow, I immediately sought out the remaining books as well as the anime adaptation; I wanted all of The Twelve Kingdoms in English that I could get. Directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi, the anime is a forty-five-episode series which originally aired between 2002 and 2003. In North America the anime was licensed by Media Blasters. It, too, is well-worth tracking down.

The Twelve Kingdoms is a fantasy epic with an Asian flair, the worldbuilding drawing particular inspiration from Chinese myths and legends. It’s a story about the rise and fall of kingdoms as well as a person’s role in influencing the world around them, whether for good or for ill. There is action, adventure, magic, politics, combat, court intrigue, and more. The Twelve Kingdoms is broad in its scope, but it can also be very personal with the attention that is devoted to its characters and to their development as individuals. Both the narrative and the characters of The Twelve Kingdoms are layered and complex. The Twelve Kingdoms also stands out from many other fantasy works due to its excellent female characters. They often play a prominent role, whether as a hero or as a villain, and in many cases are the characters who are the focus of and really drive the story. They are every bit as nuanced as any of the other characters in the epic.

The Twelve Kingdoms Complete CollectionFor the most part, The Twelve Kingdoms anime adapts the material covered in the first four books. So, anyone who has read the Tokyopop novels and is looking for more of the The Twelve Kingdoms story in English won’t find much new. However, there are some differences between these two versions of The Twelve Kingdoms. Some changes are inevitable due to the very nature of the new medium in which the story is being expressed—illustrated prose has been transformed into moving images with color and sound—while others are the result of deliberate choices made by the creative teams.

The anime remains faithful to the content and tone original, but it’s also not a strict retelling. Generally, the novels tend to stand on their own as separate books. They are closely related to one another, sharing the same world and even some of the same characters, but the individual stories don’t necessarily directly impact the others in the series. In the anime, the plot is treated as more of an overarching whole and is chronologically more cohesive. As a result, the anime is arguably more successful in making The Twelve Kingdoms feel more like a single, continuing story rather than a series of connected tales. There are still distinct story arcs in the anime, they’re just more closely intertwined and slightly reordered when compared to those of the novels.

One of the most notable differences between the novels and the anime is the introduction of two new characters (Ikuya Asano and Yuka Sugimoto) who play an important role in the first major story arc which largely adapts the first novel. The addition of these characters actually makes a good deal of sense. For the most part, Sea of Shadow follows Youko Nakajima, who becomes one of the most significant characters in The Twelve Kingdoms as a whole. In the first novel she is quite often alone, both literally and figuratively, and so much of the narrative as well as her personal character development are internal. This sort of inwardly-focused storytelling doesn’t always translate well in a more visual medium; the inclusion of the new characters allows the internal development of The Twelve Kingdoms to become more outwardly explicit in the anime.

TwelveKingdomsYoukoIn general, I find Yamada’s illustrations in the novels to be more refined and consistent than the anime’s visuals. (I have been sorely tempted to import Yamada’s The Twelve Kingdoms artbooks; they’re gorgeous.) There are scenes in the anime that are stunning, but there are also scenes where the animation and artwork are simply off. However, it is marvelous to see and be constantly aware of the visual details of the series’ setting and character designs in the anime, something that is more easily missed when reading the books. While the novels often allow a reader to better understand the worldbuilding and the more internalized aspects of The Twelve Kingdoms, overall the anime does provide a better visual context.

The anime also has a wonderful soundtrack, something that I particularly appreciate as a musician. Obviously, a soundtrack is one of the elements that the novels completely lack and is therefore unique to the anime. The music for the anime was composed by Kunihiko Ryo and is a mix of sweeping orchestral pieces and pieces more reminiscent of folk music. As previously mentioned, The Twelve Kingdoms as a whole is in large part inspired by Chinese culture, legends, and mythology. This influence can be heard in the soundtrack as well; Ryo incorporates many traditional Chinese instruments and stylings into the music of The Twelve Kingdoms.

I love The Twelve Kingdoms, both the original novels and the anime adaptation. The Twelve Kingdoms has an interesting setting and exceedingly detailed worldbuilding, well-developed characters with strengths and weaknesses, and a complex story that can be engaging as well as emotionally resonant. Anyone who enjoys a good fantasy tale would do well to experience the epic for themselves, in whichever medium it happens to be that appeals to them most. I wish that more of The Twelve Kingdoms was available in English, but what we do have is great.

God’s Boat

God's BoatAuthor: Kaori Ekuni
Translator: Chikako Kobayashi
U.K. publisher: Thames River Press
ISBN: 9780857282491
Released: December 2012
Original release: 1999

One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past few years is Kaori Ekuni’s debut and award-winning novel Twinkle Twinkle. Because I enjoyed it to such a great extent, I made a point to seek out more of Ekuni’s work to read. Sadly, God’s Boat is currently her only other major work to have been released in English. The novel was originally published in Japan in 1999. Later it was selected as a part of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project—an effort to promote the publication of modern Japanese works in translation across the globe. The English translation of God’s Boat by Chikako Kobayashi was released in 2012 by Thames River Press, a publisher based in the United kingdom. Ekuni is a respected author in Japan and has won several prestigious awards for her work. However, she doesn’t seem to be very well-known among English-reading audiences, which is a shame. I wish that more of Ekuni’s work was available in translation; her writing is excellent.

Yoko Najima lives alone with her young daughter Soko. She left her husband soon after Soko was born as the result of a passionate love affair. To make ends meet, Yoko teaches piano and works at bars and restaurants. There are three things that she counts as true treasures in her life: piano, Soko, and Soko’s father. But he has disappeared and has been gone for nearly a decade, promising that one day he will return for her. Without him by her side, Yoko feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. Every few years she moves from one place to another with Soko in tow, afraid that if she gets too comfortable and begins to blend with her surroundings he will never find her. Yoko and Soko drift along together in life, but as Soko grows older she becomes weary of the process of moving and starting over again and again. She wants to make some lasting friendships, establish roots, and find stability. But her mother yearns for nothing more than to be reunited with Soko’s father. She is desperate to see him once more.

Much like Twinkle Twinkle, the narrative of God’s Boat alternates between two, not quite stream-of-consciousness, perspectives. The story gently progresses, at times seen through Yoko’s eyes and at others seen through Soko’s. God’s Boat paints a very intimate portrait of these two women and of their relationship with each other. A little at a time, their most private thoughts and personal memories are revealed, creating a framework from which Ekuni explores themes of love, family, grief, and loss. The novel begins in 1997, when Soko is nine years old, and ends in 2004, following them from Takahagi, to Sakura, to Zushi, and then finally to Tokyo. Yoko doesn’t change much as the novel progresses, but Soko grows significantly as she matures from a child into a young woman, which forces her relationship with her mother to evolve as well. In part, God’s Boat is Soko’s coming-of-age story as she learns to cope with her mother’s eccentricities while living under the shadow of a father she never knew.

In the epilogue, Ekuni states that while God’s Boat “is simple and quiet, the tale is one of madness. Even now I believe it to be the most perilous novel I’ve written thus far.” For the most part, God’s Boat is a very straightforward narrative about the everyday lives of its characters. The madness that Ekuni refers to is subtle, more obvious in retrospect but present from the very beginning of the novel. At first, God’s Boat is fairly unassuming, but tension slowly builds as Soko matures until the novel takes a sudden and devastating turn near its conclusion when the precarious state of Yoko’s mental and emotional stability is laid completely bare. Looking back, the developments aren’t so surprising—eventually reality must invade the romanticized existence that Yoko has created for herself and her daughter. Even so, I was not expecting God’s Boat to be nearly as hard-hitting and emotionally wrenching as it ends up being. The novel is one that will stick with me for quite some time, a testament to Ekuni’s skill as an author.

My Week in Manga: April 13-April 19, 2015

My News and Reviews

Two more in-depth manga reviews were posted at Experiments in Manga last week, and once again they were both for manga. Though, unlike the week before which featured newer manga, last week’s reviews focused on a couple of older titles, one of which is actually out of print. That would be After School Nightmare, Volume 3 by Setona Mizushiro. This is the last volume in the series that I had previously read before embarking on my monthly horror manga review project, so I’m particularly curious to see where the manga goes from here. But, since next month’s horror manga review will be Mushishi, Volume 3, I’ll have to wait until June to find out. The other review posted last week was for Yak Haibara’s Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 1. Technically, it’s an adaptation of the Sengoku Basara 2 video game, but no familiarity with the games are needed and it stands alone as its own work. In addition to the incredibly over-the-top and badass characters and fight sequences, there’s actually some legitimate history mixed in as well. I find the series highly entertaining.

There wasn’t a lot in the way of manga news and announcements that I saw last week. (Granted, I was pretty busy paying attention to more pressing matters). If I missed something noteworthy, please do let me know! I would, however, like to mention Vertical’s ask.fm account, which continues provide a bit of fun in addition to excellent insight into the North American manga industry. I was particularly interested in the answer to a question about the impact of libraries on book sales since I happen to be a librarian. Also, Seven Seas has an ask.fm account, too, which I tend to forget about for some reason. Elsewhere online, Organization Anti-Social Geniuses has an interesting article about a used bookstore owner who nabbed more than 400 volumes of manga without even really knowing a thing about manga. Finally, two of Deb Aoki’s manga articles for Publishers Weekly were recently released from behind a paywall: Manga Publishing Update, Spring 2015 and Manga Publishers Try Games, Erotica to Grow Market.

Quick Takes

Karneval, Omnibus 1Karneval, Omnibus 1 (equivalent to Volumes 1-2) by Touya Mikanagi. Gareki is a fairly successful thief, but when a burglary doesn’t exactly go according to plan, he becomes the accidental protector of a strange young man called Nai and the both of them suddenly find themselves drawing the attention of Circus, a powerful association charged with dealing with criminals and situations regular law enforcement can’t handle. When Karneval was licensed, a resounding cry went up from its fans. I can definitely understand the appeal of the series. It has action and adventure, some sweetness as well as darkness, heroes with tragic backstories, mysteries and secret (and not-so-secret) organizations, quirky and attractive characters and designs (mostly men, but a few women as well), and so on. But although I thoroughly enjoyed parts of the first omnibus of Karneval, it didn’t quite grab my attention as much as I was hoping, or expecting, it would. I think this may be because the worldbuilding doesn’t feel as cohesive as I would like it to be. Mikanagi is smashing together some interesting and engaging elements and ideas, but they’re not quite meshing yet. However, I suspect the connections will become clearer as the series progresses.

Manga Dogs, Volume 3Manga Dogs, Volume 3 by Ema Toyama. The third volume of Manga Dogs is also its last. It’s an amusing gag manga, but I think three volumes is just about right for the series. If it was stretched out for too much longer, it would likely become tiresome. Manga Dogs requires a high-tolerance for shallow characters, foolish comedy, and general absurdity. Although there is something of an overarching storyline, Manga Dogs tends to be fairly episodic, relying on the jokes to carry the manga more so than the characters or plot. As for the plot, at this point in the series Tezuka’s manga Teach Me Buddha is unsurprisingly in danger of cancellation as is the school’s manga program. Tezuka and the three air-headed male students who have attached themselves to her must work together in order to stop that from happening. Anyone who has read the first two volumes of Manga Dogs probably already has a pretty good idea of how well that works. I find Manga Dogs to be funniest when the humor directly ties into the manga industry or the mangaka’s creative processes. Although it’s taken quite seriously by Tezuka and the others, I’d actually be interested in reading Teach Me Buddha as a parody of shoujo manga; it has the potential to be funnier than Manga Dogs manages to be.

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, Volume 1Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, Volume 1 by Miki Yoshikawa. I first learned about Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches when it was added to Crunchyroll Manga. I heard very good things about it at the time, and it sounded like something that I would enjoy, so I was very pleased when Kodansha Comics picked it up for print release. I’ll admit, I tend to enjoy body-swap manga, especially when there is some gender-swapping involved. (Which, now that I think about it, is probably more often the case than not.) Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is one of the most entertaining examples of that particular subgenre that I’ve read recently. At this point, the series is definitely being played as a comedy. The trigger for the body-swapping is kissing, and there certainly is plenty of that in the first volume. Girls kissing guys. Guys kissing other guys. (Perhaps later on in the series, there will even be girls kissing other girls.) There are kisses for everyone! Not unexpectedly, there is also a bit of fanservice. However, for the most part it doesn’t tend to be overly sexualized and generally makes sense within context of the manga. Yoshikawa used to be an assistant to Fairy Tail‘s Hiro Mashima; some of that influence can easily be seen in the artwork of Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 1

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 1Creator: Yak Haibara
U.S. publisher: Udon Entertainment
ISBN: 9781926778334
Released: April 2012
Original release: 2007-2008

Sengoku Basara, an outrageous reimagining of the people and events of Japan’s Warring States period, is a franchise that started out as a series of video games but expanded to include manga, anime, and radio shows among other media. Although I have been aware of Sengoku Basara for quite some time, I’ve somewhat surprisingly never actually played any of the games. Instead, my first direct experience with the franchise was through Yak Haibara’s manga series known in English as Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, an adaptation of the second game, Sengoku Basara 2 (which is also the Japanese title of the manga). The first volume of Udon Entertainment’s Samurai Legends was released in 2012. It’s actually an omnibus collecting the first two volumes of the Japanese edition, published in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Normally, I tend to shy away from video game adaptations, often finding them to be less than satisfying, but I liked Haibara’s artwork and so made an exception for Samurai Legends. I’m glad that I did, because the manga is a tremendous amount of fun.

June 2, 1582. Akechi Mitsuhide leads a rebellion against Oda Nobunaga, setting fire to Honnou Temple and burning those inside alive. With Nobunaga dead, Japan’s temporary peace is disrupted as warlords once again battle to gain control over the country. The power vacuum is quickly filled by Hideyoshi Toyotomi with the aid of his impressively skilled strategist Hanbei Takenaka. Currently, they’re in the best position to seize complete control, but they aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the recent upheaval. In the east, the young and brash Masamune Date is itching to make his move, his chance encounter with Shingen Takeda’s protegé Yukimura Sanada spurring him on. Meanwhile, further to the west, Takeda is locked at an impasse with the “God of War” Kenshin Uesugi. While the balance of power is shifting swiftly and dramatically, the appearance of the vagabond Keiji Maeda on the field of war only seems to hasten events.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings, Volume 1, page 87The Sengoku or Warring States period was an extremely tumultuous time in Japan, lasting from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Conflict was nearly constant as alliances between military factions were repeatedly forged and broken, making for an exciting setting for a franchise like Sengoku Basara. While fairly loose with its interpretation of historical figures and events, one thing is for certain: the action and fighting in Samurai Legends is almost nonstop. It’s also ridiculously over-the-top and over-powered. Characters are incredibly strong and resilient. They each have their own style of fighting and distinctive weaponry that, frankly, are often absurd. I mean, Date fights with three swords in each hand and Takeda’s battle-axe is as big as a horse. And that’s only two examples. Samurai Legends includes anachronisms and is hardly realistic, but the manga’s badassery is bombastic, dynamic, and highly engaging as a result.

Surprisingly enough, there actually is some legitimate history mixed into the raucousness that is Samurai Legends, but the manga was never intended to be a primer or to be taken too seriously. Though I will admit, I do find it much easier to remember who was who historically having been exposed to their highly-fictionalized counterparts. The manga has a very large cast of important and memorable players. Though Date is arguably the lead in the series, every faction involved in the conflict has at least one moment in the series in which it takes precedence. Samurai Legends isn’t particularly subtle or nuanced with its story or characterizations—more often than not it’s just one spectacular fight scene after another—but the manga’s humor and intense drama, exciting action, and sheer audacity have their own charm and appeal. Honestly, I never expected that I would like series as much as I do, but I get a huge kick out of Samurai Legends and find it to to be extraordinarily entertaining.

After School Nightmare, Volume 3

After School Nightmare, Volume 3Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617244
Released: April 2007
Original release: 2005

After School Nightmare is a ten-volume manga series created by Setona Mizushiro which has prominent psychological elements and an unsettling atmosphere. The series is currently out-of-print in English, but fortunately most of the volumes are still relatively easy to find. I initially read the first few volumes of After School Nightmare after borrowing them from my local library and made a point to collect the entire series based on the impression left on me by the early part of the manga alone. However, I never actually read any further than the third volume, in part because I found the series to be so effectively disconcerting (which I don’t necessarily consider to be a bad thing, especially for what could be considered a horror manga) and because some of the themes in the series are pretty hard-hitting and true-to-life, even if they are explored in a fantastic way. After School Nightmare, Volume 3 was originally published in Japan in 2005. The sadly now defunct Go! Comi released the English-language edition of the volume in 2007.

Every Thursday, Mashiro and a small group of other students attend a special class after school required for their graduation. In it they enter one another’s dreams, taking on forms representative of their true selves and forced to face the darkness that resides in their hearts. Many of these forms are so unlike the students’ appearances in their waking lives that it’s often impossible to know for certain who is who. At least that was true before Itsuki Shinonome joined the class. The youngest student at the school and a genius with an incredible intellect, he is prepared to leverage that privileged information in any way that he can in order to leave high school behind as quickly as possible. Knowing that Mashiro is desperate to uncover the identity of the student who takes on the form of the Black Knight in the dreams, Itsuki makes him a deal. In return for Mashiro helping and protecting him, as well as closely following his orders, Itsuki will reveal the name of the student who is the Black Knight, but only after he is able to complete the class.

After School Nightmare, Volume 3, page 130Over the last few volumes of After School Nightmare Mashiro has become increasingly obsessed with the identity of the Black Knight, and with good reason. He was assaulted by the Black Knight within the dreams and suspects that the knight may be the same person as Sou, another student who has been very forceful about his feelings for Mashiro. Mashiro wants to confirm whether or not his suspicion is correct, but he hasn’t really completely thought through what he will do with that information once he knows the truth or fully considered exactly how having that knowledge will change him. Already Mashiro finds himself thinking more and more about Sou—the thin line between hate and love becoming blurred to an even greater extent—and this has had major impacts on Mashiro’s other relationships, particularly on the one with his girlfriend Kureha. Something that Mizushiro has done especially well in After School Nightmare is capture the complexities and turmoil of interpersonal relationships and how they affect one another.

Through the genre of dark, psychological fantasy, After School Nightmare touches upon issues related to identity, gender, and sexuality. Although all three can be closely intertwined, gender specifically is frequently at the forefront of Mashiro’s mind since his body has both male and female characteristics. He is so concerned about being seen as a man by others that he immediately rejects anything feminine about himself, blaming that side of him for all of his weaknesses instead of taking full responsibility for his actions and feelings. But as Itsuki points out, girls have to deal with plenty of challenges and unfair situations every day of their lives; simply existing within society requires and demands incredible strength from them. Mashiro’s attitude towards gender roles in the first two volumes of After School Nightmare was very traditional, so I’m glad to see his rigid assumptions and beliefs being shaken up a bit. Of course, this will force him to completely reevaluate who he is as a person, which will be a difficult and perhaps even traumatic process, especially as he was already struggling with establishing and accepting his own identity.