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.

A Caring Man

A Caring ManAuthor: Akira Arai
Translator: Marc Adler
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781935654179
Released: 2011
Awards: Golden Elephant Award

A Caring Man is Akira Arai’s debut novel and his first book to be translated into English. The novel was brought to my attention primarily because it, along with Fumi Nakamura’s Enma the Immortal (which I absolutely loved), shared the inaugural Golden Elephant Award’s grand prize. A Caring Man and Enma the Immortal are two very different novels, but they are both engaging. Both novels were also released in English by Vertical. The purpose of the Golden Elephant Award was to “produce and publish promising entertainment stories in multiple languages in the global arena.” With that in mind, the jurors from the first award committee were from Japan, the United States, China, and Korea. It was this emphasis on global appeal that inspired Arai, who had previously worked in the music and film industries, to submit A Caring Man. After winning the award, the novel was simultaneously released in 2011 in Japanese and in English with a translation by Marc Adler.

On August 26, 2011, Japan fell victim to an unprecedented tragedy. Without any sort of warning, bombs strategically placed within Tokyo Tower were detonated, bringing the massive structure toppling down, killing and injuring a huge number of people. The special investigation team, a joint operation between the police force’s Criminal Investigation Department and the Public Security Bureau, is treating the incident as a terrorist attack. However, no group has emerged to claim responsibility for the bombing and the team quickly runs out of leads. There seems to be no concrete motive for the attack beyond a perverse desire to destroy for the sake of destroying. Mariko Amo is a freelance photographer working for scandal and gossip magazines who captured the fall of the tower on film, nearly losing her life in the process. Soon after she is given the opportunity to write a feature article on Yoshio Iizuka, a seemingly upstanding young man who recently established the Society of Victims of Abuse for the Prevention of Abuse. Little does she know that he is the very mastermind behind the Tokyo Tower attack.

A Caring Man deals with some very heavy subject matter. In addition to the attacks of terrorism and mass murder, personal killings and more intimate violence, such as child abuse, are also present in the novel. Yoshio himself was a victim of such abuse. Mutilated and abandoned as a newborn infant, he still carries scars on his body. He uses these and his story to gain empathy from others, employing his striking intelligence to manipulate them even further. Yoshio has an odd sort of intensity and charisma; he knows just what to say and how to act to exploit and control other people. A Caring Man, which takes its title from the characters used in Yoshio’s name, in part explores the mind and nature of a psychologically dark, twisted, and damaged young man. Yoshio’s plans are terrifying, and even more frightening is the fact that he has the abilities and influence needed to actually carry them out. The bombing of Tokyo Tower is only intended to be a dramatic prelude to even greater tragedies to come.

The story of A Caring Man is largely seen from three distinct perspectives, although they do intersect at various points in the novel when major players come into contact or become more deeply involved with one another. Those perspectives also reflect the prominent viewpoints of many modern-day crises. Yoshio and the cohort of young men aiding and in some cases nearly worshipping him form one faction as the perpetrators. The detectives, police, and other law enforcement officers are the investigators and protectors, while the third group consists of Mariko and other members of the media and press. They are the observers, chroniclers, and witnesses with the power to influence the opinions of the general public. Overall, A Caring Man is a well-written and engaging novel, particularly impressive as it is Arai’s debut. A few of the plot twists towards the end weren’t as believable or as effective as the rest of the novel, but otherwise A Caring Man is a solid crime thriller with an intense psychological component.

Boogiepop at Dawn

Boogiepop at DawnAuthor: Kouhei Kadono
Illustrator: Kouji Ogata

Translator: Andrew Cunningham
U.S. publisher: Seven Seas
ISBN: 9781934876060
Released: August 2008
Original release: 1999

Technically, Boogiepop at Dawn is the sixth volume in Kouhei Kadono’s series of Boogiepop light novels illustrated by Kouji Ogata, however it serves as a prequel to the entire work. Seven Seas jumped to releasing Boogiepop at Dawn after publishing the first three Boogiepop novels in English—Boogiepop and Others and Boogiepop Returns: VS Imaginator, Part 1 and Part 2. It was a decision that made sense: the entire series wasn’t able to be translated, Boogiepop at Dawn ties in directly with the early novels, and the volume was partially the basis for the Boogiepop Phantom anime. Boogiepop at Dawn was originally published in Japan in 1999 while Andrew Cunningham’s English translation was released by Seven Seas in 2008 (two years after the first three books). I discovered the Boogiepop franchise late, after the novels and manga available in English had already gone out of print, but I have still been thoroughly enjoying the series and looked forward to reading Boogiepop at Dawn

As an agent working for the secretive Towa Organization, Scarecrow is responsible for finding other humans who, like him, have extraordinary psychic and physical abilities and strengths. The Towa Organization is very interested in these remarkable people; by controlling them it hopes to control the course of human evolution. Scarecrow’s search is made easier by the fact that he poses as Kuroda Shinpei, a private detective; he is able to continue his primary investigation while working more mundane cases. Scarecrow meets Kirima Nagi, a young woman who has been hospitalized with an undiagnosed but painful condition, while searching for evidence against another Towa agent whose loyalty has been called into question. Nagi has the potential to become one of those exceptional, highly-evolved people he is searching for, but instead of reporting her to the Towa Organization, Scarecrow decides to go against his orders, saving her life by risking his own and triggering a sequence of events that will leave multiple people dead.

Boogiepop at Dawn, page 7Although Boogiepop at Dawn is a prequel, it really is intended to be read by those who are already familiar with Boogiepop in general and with the first few volumes of the series specifically. But for those readers who are, Boogiepop at Dawn is spectacular and a very satisfying addition. Ostensibly the volume is the origin story of Boogipeop—a supernatural entity in conflict with the Towa Organization who is also keeping watch over the super-evolved humans, destroying them when necessary—and to a small extent it is. But Boogiepop actually makes very few appearances in the volume. However, Boogiepop at Dawn does provide an extensive background for another of the series’ primary characters, Nagi, and explains the purpose of the Towa Organization. Many of the other protagonists and antagonists from the earlier Boogiepop novels make a showing as well, which ties everything together very nicely. I was particularly pleased to learn more about Nagi’s father, Kirima Seiichi, an author of peculiar importance to the series whose story hasn’t been fully revealed until now.

Boogiepop at Dawn is a collection of four closely connected narratives with an additional framing story that bookends the volume. Most of the stories focus on Nagi, either directly or tangentially. Much like the other Boogiepop novels, Boogiepop at Dawn employs elements from a number of different genres, but it may safely be called speculative fiction as a whole. All melded together in the volume are bits of mystery and detective work, horror, action and martial arts, the supernatural, and science fiction. Boogiepop at Dawn is engaging and at times chillingly dark with heavy psychological components. The individual stories are seen from different perspectives, at various points following Scarecrow, Seiichi, a serial murderer, and an assassin. Boogiepop is mostly a presence in the background, but an important one nonetheless. Boogiepop at Dawn is also similar to the earlier volumes of the series in that it does not adhere to a strictly chronological structure, but it’s fascinating to seen the beginnings of the plot threads that will become so entangled in the other novels.


GauntletAuthor: Ellery Prime
Illustrator: T2A

Publisher: Chromatic Press
ISBN: 9780993861123
Released: December 2014

Although Ellery Prime has been writing for years, Gauntlet, illustrated by the talented T2A, is her first original novel to have been published. Gauntlet is also the first novel to have both started and finished in Chromatic Press’ multi-media online magazine Sparkler Monthly before being released in print. Gauntlet began serialization in the very first issue of Sparkler Monthly in 2013 and was completed in 2014, after which it was revised and complied into a single volume. The finalized version of Gauntlet also includes additional material not found elsewhere: “Square One,” a short prequel to the main story, as well as a few amusing yonkoma-style bonus comics. Gauntlet has been very accurately described as a “survival horror romance novel” by the publisher. I’m actually kind of glad that I waited to read Gauntlet until it had been finished; the number of twists and cliffhangers would have made the wait between chapters torturous.

Twenty-two-year-old Clio has recently moved to the big city. Embarking on her new life as a responsible, independent adult, Clio is largely enjoying living on her own. After three months she has grown more and more comfortable as a resident of the city and with finding her way around its streets and alleyways, but that all changes when she makes a wrong turn and puts her trust into the wrong people. Suddenly Clio finds herself a reluctant participant in a game of survival, trapped inside the Gauntlet—an incredible and expansive system of interconnected buildings at the heart of the city. Clio doesn’t even know the rules she should be following, nor does she know who is responsible for the game or why she was chosen as a participant. Each person she encounters in the Gauntlet has their own reasons for being there, and many are playing by their own rules. Clio may be in even more danger than she realizes. The other players she meets are just as likely to manipulate or betray her as they are to help her.

Gauntlet -T2AOne of the things that makes Gauntlet particularly engaging and enthralling is its setting—the Gauntlet itself. The complex is logic-defying, a constantly changing labyrinth that presents very real survival concerns: finding food, clean water, and safe places to hide and rest, not to mention avoiding capture and falling into the hands or under the influence of people who, intentionally or not, mean harm. But the Gauntlet is also insidiously seductive. At first Clio desperately wants to find a way out and to escape, but there’s an underlying fear that she will lose her will to do so. Some people, perhaps most, never leave the Gauntlet after entering it even if they survive. Clio discovers many who are mindlessly shuffling through its halls and corridors as well as participants who have simply give up, content to be controlled by others. But most dangerous and terrifying are those people who have made deliberate, conscious decisions to remain within the Gauntlet’s depths.

The characters in Gauntlet are just as intriguing and complex as the novel’s setting. In the beginning Clio isn’t nearly as independent as she believes herself to be. Very early on she attaches herself to Britt, another young woman in the Gauntlet, which will have significant ramifications later on. Again and again Clio comes to rely on others and again and again she is taken advantage of by those very same people, all of whom have their own motivations and desires. But she grows and becomes stronger, impressively so. In some ways, Gauntlet feels like a dark homage to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland—the Gauntlet and the people within it operate by their own logic with surprising, unexpected, and sometimes curious and peculiar results—and there are frequent nods to other stories and fairy tales as well. After finishing the novel, not only did I want more of Gauntlet, I also wanted to immediately read it again to see how all of its individual pieces fit together from the beginning. That, to me, is a sign of a great piece of fiction.

Boogiepop Returns: VS Imaginator, Part 2

Boogiepop Returns: VS Imaginator, Part 2Author: Kouhei Kadono
Illustrator: Kouji Ogata

Translator: Andrew Cunningham
U.S. publisher: Seven Seas
ISBN: 9781933164236
Released: October 2006
Original release: 1998

Boogiepop Returns: VS Imaginator, Part 2 is the third volume in the Boogiepop light novel series written by Kouhei Kadono and illustrated by Kouji Ogata. It is also the third out of four Boogiepop novels to have been released in English. Translated by Andrew Cunningham, the second part of Boogiepop Returns was published by Seven Seas in 2006. In Japan, the volume was released in 1998, the same year as the first two books in the series. Boogiepop Returns is actually a two-part story, and so after reading the first novel in the arc I was particularly anxious to read the second. With all of the setup and steadily increasing tension in the first part, the story needed a conclusion and the final volume of the arc promised to deliver just that. Boogiepop is kind of an odd series which freely mixes the surreal with the real, making use of multiple genres in the process. But it’s also a series that I find peculiarly appealing because of that and because of its willingness to explore the more troubling aspects of the psyche.

A year ago a young woman committed suicide under the influence of an entity known only as the Imaginator. Her life was ended when, being pursued by Boogiepop, the Imaginator failed to change the world through her. But now the Imaginator has returned to inspire yet another person, this time with much greater success. Asukai Jin, with the Imaginator as a catalyst, has begun to use his unique abilities to not only read the hearts of other people but to manipulate them as well. Meanwhile, the mysterious Towa Organization also has a vested interest in the direction humankind is taking. Spooky E, a synthetic human and one of its agents, is actively hunting Boogiepop in order to prevent the spirit’s interference with the organization’s affairs. In an effort to draw Boogiepop out, he has arranged for the love-besotted Taniguchi Masaki to serve as a decoy by impersonating Boogiepop. Masaki didn’t initially realize he was being used as a pawn, and even if he had there was very little he could do to stop the developing crisis.

Despite the title being Boogiepop Returns, the real Boogiepop actually plays a very small albeit very important role in the two novels and is mostly relegated to the edges of the narrative while the other players take center stage. Granted, when Boogiepop finally does make an entrance during the second volume’s finale, it’s pretty spectacular. But until then the story largely follows the more mundane characters, the seemingly normal teenagers who have been caught up in the battle over the fate of humanity and who frequently are the victims of the supernatural and superhuman forces at work. At the same time, they are also dealing with their own personal issues and troubled relationships. In many ways I actually found these smaller struggles to be more emotionally immediate than the novel’s grander schemes, probably because they’re more relatable and the more realistic elements help to ground the stranger aspects of the Boogiepop series.

The doomed love story between Masaki and the girl he likes, Orihata Aya, has always been an important part of Boogiepop Returns but it become especially prominent in the second volume. It is because of his love for her that he “becomes” Boogiepop, his feelings and the burgeoning romance becoming closely entwined with the larger events of the novel. The second part of Boogiepop Returns has some fantastic fights and action sequences, but the  novel also has deeper contemplative and philosophical aspects to it as well. Employing the trappings of science fiction and the supernatural, the Boogiepop novels explore thought-provoking themes of free will, personal identity, the individual’s place within society, sacrifice, and what it truly means to be human. The characters are all damaged or suffering in some way but it’s how they choose to live their lives despite that pain that makes them who they are and makes Boogiepop Returns such an interesting and at times even compelling story.