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.

Between the Sheets

Between the SheetsCreator: Erica Sakurazawa
U.S. publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781591823230
Released: May 2003
Original release: 1996

Between 2003 and 2004, Tokyopop published six manga by Erica Sakurazawa, some of the very first josei manga to be released in English. More than a decade later josei has still yet to establish a firm foothold in North America, though things seem to be improving and publishers continue to make an effort. Most of the josei that I have read I have thoroughly enjoyed. I wish that there was more available in English, but in the meantime I make the point to support what is currently available and to track down those titles, like Sakurazawa’s, that have gone out of print. The first of Sakurazawa’s manga to be translated was Between the Sheets, which was originally published in Japan in 1996. The volume was not my introduction to her work but out of all of Sakurazawa’s manga that I have so far read, I feel that it is one of the strongest in terms of storytelling. Between the Sheets was initially brought to my attention due to the elements of same-sex desire that play a critical role in the manga’s story.

Minako and Saki are extraordinarily close friends. They frequently hang out together, enjoying the bars and party scene where Saki, despite having a boyfriend, is constantly on the lookout for men. But when Saki and Minako share a drunken kiss in order to convince an undesirable suitor that they’re a couple and to leave them alone, Minako finds her feelings for her best friend beginning to change. Minako had always admired and cared deeply for Saki, but now her love has turned obsessive. She wants to be with Saki. In some ways she wants to be Saki. Saki views Minako as an extremely important person in her life but nothing more than a friend while Minako wants to be everything for Saki: her lover, her protector, her one and only. Convinced she knows what’s best for Saki, Minako will do anything to get closer to her and to drive others away, including sleeping with Saki’s boyfriends.

Frankly, Between the Sheets is an exceptionally disturbing and even horrifying work. Minako’s obsession with Saki creates an ominous and foreboding atmosphere. Each turn of the page seems as though it could reveal some sort of horrible tragedy worse than what has already occurred. Minako’s feelings become self-destructive and her way of dealing with them hurt not only herself but Saki and the men in their lives as well. Often in fiction and romance one person’s utter devotion to another is held as an ideal. However, Between the Sheets takes a much more realistic approach to this sort of extreme, obsessive desire. Minako’s fixation on Saki becomes all-consuming. It’s not flattering and it’s not romantic. In fact, it can hardly even be called love anymore. Her friendship with Saki has evolved into something much darker and much more dangerous. The damage done may be irreparable.

Because of its subject matter Between the Sheets can be a tough and uncomfortable read; it is not at all a feel-good story and there is very little happiness to be found. The characters are entangled in a web of lies, cheating, and betrayal. Unpleasant emotions like hatred, anger, and jealously overshadow those of adoration, love, and affection. However, Sakurazawa handles the intensity of those feelings in a believable way. That realism is probably one of the reasons that Between the Sheets is so troubling. Minako appears to be normal and innocent, her twisted way of thinking hidden safely from view. Sakurazawa’s artwork reflects this—on the surface nothing seems amiss. If readers weren’t privy to Minako’s inner thoughts, they might never suspect the unhealthiness of her state of mind. But eventually her actions and their tragic consequences cannot be ignored and make it quite clear to everyone involved how unbalanced she has become.

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.

Sweat & Honey

Sweat & HoneyCreator: Mari Okazaki
U.S. publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781591827979
Released: February 2005
Original release: 2002

Back in 2005 Tokyopop launched a short-lived line of josei manga called Passion Fruit, describing it as a collection of innovative and edgy works. Only two volumes were ever released before Passion Fruit faded out of existence: Mari Okazaki’s Sweat & Honey and Junko Kawakami’s Galaxy Girl, Panda Boy. I learned about all of this long after the fact and only discovered the Passion Fruit line while searching for more translated manga by Okazaki after rereading her series Suppli (which was sadly left incomplete in English after Tokyopop’s decline.) Currently, Sweat & Honey is her only other work available, which is a shame. Sweat & Honey was originally published in Japan in 2002 before being released in English in 2005. I didn’t realize it when I first picked up a copy—initially I was interested in the fact that it was by Okazaki more than anything else—but Sweat & Honey incorporates sapphic elements and yuri undertones which made me even more curious to read it.

Sweat & Honey collects five short, unrelated manga, most of which focus on the close, personal, and intimate relationships between women, ranging from friendship to love and even more complicated bonds. The volume opens with “After Sex, A Boy’s Sweat Smells Like Honey,” from which the collection draws its name. In it, a young woman is staying with her cousin; her attitudes toward and dislike of men has her cousin reevaluating her own romantic relationships as the two women grow closer. In “About Kusako,” Moeko stumbles upon a girl literally growing out of the ground. It’s a curious story and the most fantastical one included in Sweat & Honey. “Sister” follows Chinami, a highschool girl, and Kayo, her 35-year-old neighbor who leads a much more fulfilling life than most realize. The longest story, “The Land Where Rain Falls,” is told in three parts. It delves into the intense and twisted connections between Kumi, her classmate Kaya, and Kaya’s older brother. The volume closes with “Iced Tea,” in which a young man looks back on one of his first crushes, his seventh-grade teacher.

Sweat & Honey, though occasionally lighthearted, is a manga that deals with very mature themes—death, coming of age, self-discovery, nostalgia—and can frankly be disturbing from time to time. Okazaki’s artwork aids tremendously in creating this atmosphere in the volume. Her illustrations are sensuous and provocative, with a languid heaviness to them. They are beautiful, but also somewhat disconcerting and ominous, too. The page layouts in Sweat & Honey are also interesting, often featuring a large background panel which sets the scene with smaller, overlapping panels that focus a reader’s attention on a particular detail of the people who inhabit it. The elegant line of a neck, hesitant glances or a sly smile, an exposed breast, shifting legs and feet, entwined fingers or tightly clasped hands, all are accentuated. Because of this, the young women in Sweat & Honey seem to exist both in their world and apart from it. Okazaki reveals their personal and private thoughts and feelings while at the same time exposing their physical selves.

Although the short manga collected in Sweat & Honey aren’t related by characters or by plot, they all share an emphasis on the inner and outer lives of women and their relationships with each other. Even “Iced Tea,” which is told from the perspective of a young man, is focused on his female teacher. Although the ties between the women in Sweat & Honey are the most crucial, their associations with men and how those associations impact their other relationships are also very important. The older cousin in “After Sex, A Boy’s Sweat Smell s Like Honey” has a boyfriend, but she isn’t able to connect with him in the same way that she does with her younger relative. Moeko drifts away from Kusako when a boy enters the picture. Kayo’s seeming lack of romantic involvement is one of the things that bothers Chinami the most. And in “The Land Where Rain Falls,” the nearly incestuous relationship instigated by Kaya is one of the key elements of the story. But in the end, while the men have their place in the manga, the true focus of Sweat & Honey is on its young women and their experiences.

Guest Post: Shrine of the Morning Mist, Vol. 1

I am very pleased to introduce Jocilyn Wagner to readers of Experiments in Manga. Jocilyn doesn’t currently have a platform of her own, but she was still interested in occasionally writing about manga. And so, I’m happy to offer up some space here and welcome her to Experiments in Manga as a guest.

Greetings and Salutations! Some of you might know me from my love of yuri and occasional manga and light novel translations, but that’s not what I’m doing this time. Instead… I thought I’d introduce you to some of the most forgotten and/or unappreciated (usually for good reason) manga I own, which have, in all likelihood, never before been reviewed on a Manga Bookshelf blog!

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I’d like to begin with a title that was so under-sold and under-appreciated it literally debuted at number 92 in graphic novel sales. The year was 2006; it was the end of an era. I’d just wrapped up my undergrad and year-long stint as president of the Western Michigan Anime Addicts and my heart was still full of some of the incredible anime we’d enjoyed: Paradise Kiss, Madlax, Last Exile, Read or Die, the list goes on. In my youthful vigor and utter boredom I was working on one of the many anime subtitling teams (in the days before Crunchyroll a great many of these existed if you can believe it!) editing scripts for #Ishin, when I was asked to finish up work on a silly series no one was watching. It was bizarre, ugly and ridiculously cute, and the episodes were so short it would be a breeze. I’m speaking of course of Asagiri no Miko (朝霧の巫女). You may now groan and pinch your noses in despair and hopefully save yourself the trouble of reading the following review of TokyoPop’s 2006 edition of the series they called “Shrine of the Morning Mist.”

Shrine of the Morning Mist, Volume 1

The name has always been something of a sticking point with me since a literal translation would be closer to “shrine maiden of the morning mist” but then, I suppose TokyoPop didn’t want to confuse people with the bull in a china shop, Kannazuki no Miko, for which they’d already used the term (never mind the fact that the miko in Asagiri no Miko actually resemble real miko and Himeko and Chikane are rather infamous, but not for their pious purity), but I digress.

Ugawa Hiroki’s story is usually seen as a seinen action comedy, but I always thought of it as a supernatural slice-of-life romance. In the fine tradition of early 2000s dating sims, the story revolves around a loner teenage dude (Amatsu Tadahiro, usually referred to as Hiro) who returns to the home of his childhood and some of the girls he left heartbroken in his wake. In this case, the brokenhearted is his cousin Yuzu who is painted to be a fiery but loveable tsundere, as well as his closest childhood friend. Yuzu is the middle child of three girls: Kurako, the eldest, is quiet, thoughtful and spiritually driven and has made it her goal to bring the two star-crossed lovers back together. She reminds me of a cross between Belldandy and Toudou Shimako. Yuzu’s younger sister Tama-chan is the fun rascal who dotes on “Hiro Onii-chan” but often speaks with a maturity beyond her years. Actually she very closely resembles Yukino’s sister Kana from Kare Kano, except she isn’t a manga geek. Their father, in his insane knee-jerk reactions to everything, sketchy behavior and extreme unpopularity could easily be mistaken for Shimura-sensei of Azamanga Daioh! fame. A chapter or two into the series, we’re introduced to the girls’ mother Miyuki. I’m not at all sure how to describe Miyuki since she isn’t given a lot of dialogue in this volume. She’s really rather unlike other manga moms: she arrives on the scene with a samurai-like speed, agility and appearance, wielding a bouken and saves Hiro from becoming breakfast to a giant cyclops. The reader’s told she’d been sent to Izumo, so one might infer she’s a gifted Shinto priestess, but it’s not at all clear at this point. Finally, we’re introduced to Koma-san, a mysterious short-tempered but otherwise solemn woman who claims to have known Hiro’s father, though he had died before Hiro was born and this woman looks to be in her mid-to-late 20s. The way Koma is drawn, I can’t help but be reminded of Yumura Kirika, except Koma is endowed with some rather annoying feline qualities. No doubt inspired by a little known game at the time, Tsukihime.

The plot is tragically somewhat thin. Hiro has been traveling, searching out his way in life and has finally come home to the quiet town of his childhood (Miyoshi, in Hiroshima Prefecture). His cousins, the Hieda sisters put him up for the night but are hesitant to let him go since it’s obvious Yuzu still has feelings for him. From the moment he arrives, Hiro is hellhounded by a mysterious sorcerer who wears a tengu mask and summons a host of cruel-intentioned spirits to eliminate Hiro and his spiritual potential before it upsets the balance of something or other. Tengu-san and Hiro have many annoying random encounters in which Tengu-san is always easily defeated by the sisters, and a thoroughly incompetent yet nevertheless unappreciative Hiro is saved from certain doom in the nick of time. One might compare Hiro to Morisato Keiichi, except Hiro’s not all that nice or mature. He’s also unmoved by Yuzu’s total red-faced embarrassment (which comes into play whenever he’s around), though he obviously remembers what transpired between them five years ago. Yuzu’s mom and sisters are constantly trying to push Hiro and Yuzu together. That’s basically the entire plot.

Tune in next time for another segment of The Manga That Time Forgot/Was Hoping To Forget. ~jocilyn