Definitions are Hard

I’ve mentioned before that I have a manga collection, but I haven’t reread any of it in a while.  And today’s book is not, technically, manga.  But I’m classing it there anyway for three main reasons.  First, this was published by the now-defunct manga company Tokyopop.  Secondly, because this novel was originally published in Japanese and was translated into English.  Thirdly, and probably most importantly, this novel series was adapted into an anime.  Not only that, but I was exposed to the anime years before I opted to read the books, so I will always think of the tv series first.  That’s why I’m dumping these books under the manga category.

The series is The Twelve Kingdoms, written by Fuyumi Ono, and book one is Sea of Shadows.  Unfortunately, only four of the twelve books have been translated and brought over to the US.  Even more unfortunately, the anime series cuts off at the same point as the English books, meaning that I may never be able to read the rest of the story.

In my experience, Twelve Kingdoms is not one of the best-known anime out there.  It is known, better than some of my other favorites like Blue Seed, but it’s nothing like Neon Genesis: EvangelionInu-Yasha, or even Dragon Ball Z.  Of course, it’s also a lot shorter than two of those, and doesn’t have the constant additions to its franchise to explain the ending like the third.  I think it still holds up though, enough to find myself a set of DVDs.

Let’s start with the basics.  The series (both) starts with Yoko Nakajima, an ordinary schoolgirl in Japan.  One day a strange man named Keiki comes to her school, tells her that she is in great danger and must come with him.  He also bows to her and demands that she accept his pledge of fealty.  Also a giant crow demon thing attacks her.  Keiki gives her a sword, summons up other demon things and they end up at the harbor where she kills the crow demon, thanks to the liquid demon (hinman) Keiki has placed inside of her.  Then they get on the flying demon things and fly over, then into, the ocean.  When the come back out of the whirlpool, a storm hits and they are separated. Thus begins Yoko’s adventures in the Twelve Kingdoms.  In the anime, Yoko is transported with two friends, Asano and Sugimoto, who I suppose exist to give additional perspectives.  Asano doesn’t exist in the books, and Sugimoto, while being the only classmate who actually has a name in the novel, still has almost nothing to do in her few pages of existence.

Anyway, the bulk of the story takes place in this mysterious other world.  The twelve kingdoms make a squarish map, something like a compass rose with corners around it.  It’s not easy to describe, so I’ve found you a map to look at.  The outer sea is known as the kyoukai, and it is the Sea of Shadow from the title.  That’s where Yoko ends up before she washes up on the shore of the Kingdom of Kou.

12kmapThis image found via google.

What you see on the map is all that exists in this particular world, no more and no less.  It’s a very different world from ours in many ways, starting with the kirin.  You may recognize this as the Chinese word for unicorn, and some parts of these stories are based on ancient China.  Not most though.  Anyway, the kirin of a particular kingdom will choose the king.  They are such noble creatures (who wear human form most of the time) that they can only bow before one individual, who is their true master.  That person then becomes the king, and also immortal.  A ruler can be killed, but they will not age beyond their appearance when they were chosen.  However, if the kirin dies, their ruler will die as well.  This can happen if the king loses the Mandate of Heaven, for there are laws that govern the kingdoms.  They are few, but they do exist, such as not making war on another kingdom.  There are warning signs though.  Demon attacks increase, crops fail, and finally the king’s kirin will fall prey to the sitsudou illness.  If the kirin dies, the king will follow in less than a year and the kingdom itself will deteriorate until a new king is chosen by the next kirin.

The world of the Twelve Kingdoms has a true gender parity in comparison to our world.  Gender roles here are defined based on sexual characteristics, relegating women to a childcentric life.  In the Twelve Kingdoms, however, children are born from eggfruit, which grows on special trees.  Each village has such a tree, and couples hoping for a child will tie a ribbon on a branch.  If they are to become parents, an eggfruit will grow on that branch.  In time it can be plucked, and a day later will open to reveal the baby.  However, a storm such as a shoku, a magical weather event that touches both worlds, can rip eggfruit off the tree and bring it to our world.  (Japan is known as Hourai and China as Wa.)  In that case, the eggfruit will end up as an embryo in someone’s uterus and be born in our normal manner.  However, the child is a taika, who truly belongs in the other world.  If they have a chance to return, their appearance will change to reflect who they truly are.  After all, when you are born from trees, there are no ethnicities, no rules that you must have any resemblance to your family.  You can even be a hanjyu, or half-beast, with your family all fully human.  Hanjyu have two forms: an ordinary human one and a human-sized animal one that walks on two legs.

It’s quite an interesting world from the base up, and the story may be a hero’s journey, but it’s also a fascinating psychological trip as we see Yoko go through a fairly extensive transformation.  Personally, I’m glad the books don’t including the side characters from the anime as they got fairly annoying at times, especially once their minds started to deteriorate from stress.  On the other hand, it would have been nice to see the storyline with the traveling performers, so you can’t have it all either way.  Regardless, both incarnations are good.  I’m simply more likely to gravitate towards books because it takes a lot less time to read four books of varying lengths than it does to watch 45 episodes of anime.  Even if you skip the intro, outro, and preview.

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