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.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 4: Skies of Dawn

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 4: Skies of DawnAuthor: Fuyumi Ono
Illustrator: Akihiro Yamada

Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802606
Released: November 2010
Original release: 1994

Skies of Dawn is the fourth and sadly final volume of Fuyumi Ono’s eight-volume fantasy novel series The Twelve Kingdoms, illustrated by Akihiro Yamada, to have been released in English. Published in Japan in two volumes in 1994, the novel was released in its entirety in 2010 by Tokyopop under its Pop Fiction imprint, first as a hardcover and then later in a paperback edition. As with the previous volumes of The Twelve Kingdoms, Skies of Dawn was translated by Alexander O. Smith. Interestingly enough, Elye J. Alexander, who frequently collaborates with Smith on translations and who worked with him on the first three volumes of The Twelve Kingdoms, does not appear to have been involved with Skies of Dawn. Though I discovered the series relatively late, I have been thoroughly enjoying The Twelve Kingdoms and Ono’s exceptionally well-developed world and characters. Skies of Dawn is easily the longest of the translated volumes, but that didn’t at all diminish my enthusiasm.

Yoko has become the king of Kei after being chosen by Keiki, the kingdom’s kirin. It’s still early in Yoko’s reign, but it hasn’t been easy for her. Many of the ministers of her court are corrupt and the others have very little trust in Yoko—Kei has had a bad history with lady-kings. Yoko lacks confidence in her rule as well. Having grown up in Japan before being suddenly swept away to the Twelve Kingdoms, her understanding of the world in which she now finds herself is limited and her knowledge of what it means to be king is even more so. Yoko isn’t the only young woman who is struggling with great changes in her life. Like Kei, the kingdom of Hou has also recently lost its ruler and those circumstances have forced its princess Shoukei into exile. Suzu, another girl who was originally from Japan, is unhappy with her lot in life in the Twelve Kingdoms. Though they don’t know each other, the destinies of these three young women will become closely intertwined, changing the direction and fate of Kei, a kingdom still struggling to restore itself after years of turmoil and calamity.

Although Skies of Dawn is technically the fourth volume in The Twelve Kingdoms, chronologically its story follows immediately after the events of the first volume, Sea of Shadow. The two intervening novels—Sea of Wind and The Vast Spread of the Seas—serve as prequels to the series, providing more context as well as back stories for The Twelve Kingdoms as a whole and for its major characters. As with the other volumes in The Twelve Kingdoms, Skies of Dawn actually stands very well on its own as a novel. Though they provide more background, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the previous volumes in the series to understand what’s happening in Skies of Dawn. Actually, Skies of Dawn is almost like reading three novels contained in one, especially towards its beginning. It takes quite some time for Yoko, Shoukei, and Suzu’s individual stories to come together into a single narrative, but it is very satisfying when they do, especially because it happens in a way that is somewhat unexpected.

Worldbuilding has always been a major component of The Twelve Kingdoms and that hasn’t changed with Skies of Dawn. I do appreciate all of the thought and detail that Ono has put into every aspect of the series. Granted, while it is all very interesting, the worldbuilding does slow down the pacing of the plot a great deal. Much of the first half of Skies of Dawn is devoted to things like rules of governance, taxes, and marriage laws as Yoko learns more about her kingdom and the kingdoms surrounding it. It’s not until the second half of Skies of Dawn when Yoko, Shoukei, and Suzu’s stories begin to converge that events start to quickly escalate as the people of Kei come closer and closer to rebellion. The Twelve Kingdoms is an epic tale of fantasy in which the characters are required to grow and evolve, taking responsibility for themselves and for the changes in the world in which they live. Although it is unlikely that the rest of the series will be translated, Skies of Dawn and the previous volumes are still well worth seeking out.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 3: The Vast Spread of the Seas

Author: Fuyumi Ono
Illustrator: Akihiro Yamada

Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802590
Released: November 2009
Original release: 1994

The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third book in Fuyumi Ono’s series of fantasy light novels The Twelve Kingdoms. In Japan the first two novels of the series were each released in two parts, technically making The Vast Spread of the Seas, published in 1994, the fifth volume of The Twelve Kingdoms. However, in the English-language edition of the series The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third volume. Tokyopop first released Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander’s English translation of the novel early on in 2009 as a hardcover. Later that year it was released again in a paperback edition. Tokyopop’s release of The Vast Spread of the Seas retains the illustrations by Akihiro Yamada. I quite enjoyed the first two books in The Twelve Kingdoms, so I was looking forward to reading The Vast Spread of the Seas.

The kingdom of En has fallen upon difficult times. The previous king drove the country to ruin and many of its people either died or fled during his vicious reign. Much of En became a wasteland and demons prowled the wilds. At first Shoryu, En’s new king divinely appointed by the kingdom’s kirin Rokuta, gives En’s people hope for a better life. But much to the dismay of his ministers, it soon becomes clear that Shoryu would rather galavant about the country than focus on the kingdom’s administration. Many of those in the provincial governments are also frustrated by Shoryu’s seeming lack of motivation and the slow restoration of En. Atsuyu, the acting regent of the province of Gen, plans to take matters into his own hands if the king continues to refuse to address En’s problems. With civil war brewing, Shoryu will be forced to abandon his inscrutable style of rule if he is to put an end to the rebellion and maintain the peace. But even then his decisions continue to confound those that serve him.

Although The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third novel in The Twelve Kingdoms, chronologically it takes place before the first two and isn’t directly related plot-wise. However, the volume does focus on Shoryu and Rokuta who have played small but incredibly important roles in both Sea of Shadow and Sea of Wind. Reading the first two books does provide a little more insight into Shoryu and Rokuta’s characters and what people think of them, but for the most part The Vast Spread of the Seas stands on its own. It explores their pasts, both before and after their association with En, as well as a critical period early in Shoryu’s reign as the king. Because I have read the previous volumes in The Twelve Kingdoms I knew how some of the events in The Vast Spread of the Seas would ultimately end, but it was still very interesting to see how they played out and how Shoryu dealt with them.

A large part of The Vast Spread of the Seas delves into court politics and intrigue. Atsuyu’s viewpoints are considered to be heretical and even dangerous, but his challenging of a system of authority that has failed its people is understandable and he raises some very legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, his criticisms are never fully addressed in The Vast Spread of the Seas. What is established is that Shoryu is a much keener ruler than he lets on and that he cares about his people immensely. Actions that seem to make no sense actually have significant purpose. He doesn’t allow himself to be limited or constrained by what is expected of him as a king; Shoryu is incredibly creative and shrewed in his administration of the kingdom and very few people actually realize it. It’s no wonder that he later becomes so admired and respected as a ruler despite his quirks and unorthodoxy.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 2: Sea of Wind

Author: Fuyumi Ono
Illustrator: Akihiro Yamada

Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802583
Released: February 2009
Original release: 1993

Sea of Wind is the second novel in Tokyopop’s English-language release of Fuyumi Ono’s fantasy light novel series The Twelve Kingdoms illustrated by Akihiro Yamada. The novel was originally published in Japan as two separate volumes, both of which were released in 1993 under the title Sea of Wind, Shore of Labyrinth. Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander’s English translation of Sea of Wind was originally published in hardcover by Tokyopop’s Pop Fiction imprint in 2008 before being released in a paperback edition in 2009. I very much enjoyed Sea of Shadow, the first novel in The Twelve Kingdoms, and so was looking forward to reading the second volume a great deal. Technically, Sea of Wind is a prequel of sorts. Although they are not directly related, the events in Sea of Wind take place before those explored in Sea of Shadow.

Before his birth, the kirin of the kingdom of Tai was swept away by a great shoku, a terrifying storm that rips between worlds. Although the search for him began immediately, it is an unprecedented ten years before the kirin is able to be found. Having been lost in the world Over There, Taiki’s return to the world into which he should have been born is celebrated. Taiki never really fit in Over There but because he has been gone for so long he doesn’t quite fit in in the world that is welcoming him home, either. He has much to learn about the world he now inhabits and, more importantly, about himself. The kirin play a critical role and Taiki is desperately needed by Tai. But without the knowledge and powers that should have come naturally to him, Taiki must first conquer his own inadequacies before he can fulfill his role.

After the initial chaos surrounding Taiki’s disappearance, Sea of Wind begins fairly benignly. Taiki’s welcome home is a warm one and he is treated very kindly. But as the novel progresses danger and darkness are introduced to the story. The portrayal of Taiki’s growth as a character is particularly well done. His fear, confusion, and distress is almost palpable as he struggles with his newly discovered obligations and responsibilities. Taiki is plagued by doubt and guilt. He wants to please those around him and is terrified of making a mistake. He can hardly be blamed—the fate of an entire kingdom rests on his tiny, inexperienced shoulders. Most of the other characters aren’t nearly as well developed as Taiki, but Sea of Wind really is his story more than anything else.

Although Sea of Wind is the second book in The Twelve Kingdoms, it stands quite well on its own. However, there are some scenes that will be more meaningful to someone who has read Sea of Shadow as well. In particular is the appearance of Keiki, another kirin who was introduced in Sea of Shadow. He plays an important role in Sea of Wind, too, and his interactions with Taiki are wonderful. A few of the other characters from Sea of Shadow also make their return in Sea of Wind, which I was very happy to see. As for the story itself, Ono still has the tendency to infodump from time to time. However, I find the world of The Twelve Kingdoms to be so fascinating that I usually didn’t mind too much. I am still thoroughly enjoying the series and am looking forward to reading the next volume, The Vast Spread of the Seas.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 1: Sea of Shadow

Author: Fuyumi Ono
Illustrator: Akihiro Yamada

Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427802576
Released: February 2008
Original release: 1992

I don’t remember exactly where I first heard about Fuyumi Ono’s fantasy light novel series The Twelve Kingdoms, illustrated by Akihiro Yamada, but over time I’ve gained the impression that the books are quite good. And so when I came across the first volume Sea of Shadow, which is long out of print and somewhat hard to find, at a used book store I nabbed it. The English translation was executed by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander. Tokyopop first published Sea of Shadow in hardcover in 2007 before releasing a paperback edition in 2008. The first volume of the English edition of The Twelve Kingdoms actually collects the first two volumes of the series as released in Japan, published in June and July of 1992. The full title of the two part novel translates into English as Shadow of the Moon, Sea of Shadow. The Twelve Kingdoms ran for eleven volumes in Japan. The first seven books were released by Tokyopop collected as four volumes in the English edition.

Yoko Nakajima is a fairly normal high school student who wants to be liked and accepted by her peers. She tries to appease everyone and acts as the perfect good girl, good student, and good daughter. But when a strange man comes looking for her at school and she is whisked away to another world she can lo longer be any of those things. Soon separated from the man who swore his protection and allegiance to her, Yoko finds herself alone with no idea where she is or what is going on. Pursued nightly by demons, she is painfully aware that her very life is in danger if she doesn’t figure out something soon. All she wants to do is go home, but with no one to help her she must learn to depend on herself.

While I enjoyed the first part of Sea of Shadow, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book that I knew for certain that I wanted to read the rest of The Twelve Kingdoms. It is at that point that Yoko has sunk to her lowest as a person. She is aware of the changes in herself, but she can no longer bring herself to care after being repeatedly betrayed. Yoko’s character development in Sea of Shadow is by far the most complete. She significantly matures over the course of the book and for very good reasons. It is chilling and almost scary to see how she adapts to her circumstances even if it is understandable considering how she must struggle to survive on her own. Her experiences are harsh and emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically draining. It is no surprise that Yoko is a very different person at the end of Sea of Shadow than she is at the beginning. Ono captures her development magnificently.

Ono’s world building in Sea of Shadow, heavily influenced by Chinese mythology, is solid. Occasionally the narrative falls prey to infodumping, mostly because the reader is limited to what Yoko knows about her environment. If she hasn’t learned something yet, the reader is also left in the dark. But as the novel progresses and Yoko finds people she believes she can trust, more and more about the world in which she is now living is revealed and explained. And it is absolutely fascinating. The political structure is particularly interesting and the system of checks and balances establishes very real and often dire consequences for rulers and for their kingdoms. Even with divine aid, people will continue to be people with all of their faults and thirst for power intact; nothing is perfect. I definitely want to learn more about the world Ono has created in The Twelve Kingdoms and look forward to continuing the series with Sea of Wind.