There always comes a point in a fantasy setting where all but the most masterfully graceful writer will have to sit the audience down and just explain stuff to them. It’s a necessity if you want to spend time actually having things happen in your story without needing to constantly stop to clarify some aspect or another of your magical setting. So eventually you’re going to get at least one sequence of the cast sitting down in a room and listening to an old guy tell them about all the pertinent history they’ll need to be an active part of the plot moving forward. The Twelve Kingdoms has managed to put this off for a while, actively utilizing Youko and Yuka’s lack of knowledge for tension and trickery, but with these two episodes it finally goes from 0 to 60 on the Expositometer.
Thankfully what we learn is actually pretty interesting, even if it does feel like a hard shift from the fraught adventure that preceded it. Like I assumed a few episodes back, Youko is indeed a Taika, originally born in The Twelve Kingdoms but washed away into ours before she could be plucked from the baby tree. The baby tree is still kinda weird, for the record. And she’s also the destined ruler of Kei, the kingdom currently in the middle of a huge civil war as an impostor queen attempts to install herself on the throne with an enslaved Keiki. This is all part of some scheme by King Kou, who’s doing a great job destroying his own kingdom along with another, giving his Kirin companion a case of soul poisoning that will almost assuredly kill both of them, so I’m really confused by what he hopes to accomplish with any of this besides just being a magic racist.
En, on the other hand, is positively flourishing. Not only has King En established governmental support for Kaikyaku and refugees from other kingdoms, he actually takes the safety of his people seriously and insists Youko come with him to keep any monstrous pursuers out of the crowded streets of the cities. In general En is presented as a model ruler – decisive, confident, and compassionate in equal measure, and apparently good enough at this whole governance thing to maintain his rule for 500 years without screwing it up and poisoning his demigod sidekick Enki in the process. It looks like we’ll be getting his backstory next episode, and that will likely inform how he came to be the man he is, and I imagine that’ll be pretty enlightening as to how The Twelve Kingdoms views what is necessary for one to be a “good” monarch.
Because frankly the whole hierarchy of distant gods sending a liaison to choose an eternal, immortal ruler raises a lot of questions about the philosophy the series may want to espouse. Obviously with people like King Kou we can see it’s far from a perfect system, even diegetically, but part of me still isn’t too keen on the idea of divine right to rule being presented as a good thing, especially when it can be thrust upon someone who never asked for it and is totally unprepared for that kind of responsibility. En insists that Youko has the makings of a proper Queen, as she recognizes her own agency and power as tools to wield for herself, but the responsibilities of absolute rule tend to be a lot more complicated than any individual act, and even if she hadn’t been mobbed by an evil rival before she arrived I can’t imagine Youko would be wild about being made a queen without her input.
She certainly isn’t wild about it now, though. She’s been searching the whole series for a way to return home, only to have an ultimatum thrust into her lap where she can go home and abandon a whole country to death and misery, or stay and fight for the crown of a country she knows nothing about. Also she gets one (1) night to think it over and that’s it. The whole setup is pretty nerve racking and it’s a credit to how much our heroine’s grown that she doesn’t collapse into a ball of anxiety and indecision. It helps that Rakushun is back (!!!) to help center her during this onslaught of information, even if I wish he’d stick to his adorable giant rat form rather than the bland human one. But regardless of appearance it’s great to see these two together again, and especially sweet that Youko actively seeks him out to join her after her queenliness is revealed. It makes me hopeful that if Youko does eventually become the ruler of Kei, the kingdom she’ll build will be even more equitable and caring to those outside the norm, especially if she keeps a Hanjyuu advisor around to help her understand their perspective.
It feels odd to call these episodes of Twelve Kingdoms slow, considering we probably learn more about the world and story trajectory here than we did in the previous eight
combined, but this definitely feels like a transition point as the narrative starts shifting towards a new goal for Youko. She’s survived the harrowing dangers of this world and come out the other side stronger, and now has the knowledge and power to choose her own destiny, but that just means she’s reached the end of the first chapter of her story.
The Twelve Kingdoms is currently streaming on
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