At a Glance: The Twelve Kingdoms
Youko Nakajima is a "proper" girl, the kind who gets good grades and never gets into trouble, in fact, she's the class president. Her natural red hair is the one thing that's odd about her. One day, she tries to warm up to a girl called Yuka Sugimoto who everyone thinks is weird. It plays out kind of awkwardly, as Yuka is simply trying to read and doesn't want to be bothered (kind of like a similar scene that happens in Evangelion between Rei and Asuka, but in that one Asuka is being a lot more obnoxious).
Later, a mysterious white-haired man called Keiki appears at their school and bows at a confused Youko's feet. He calls her his master. The school is attacked by a giant, monstrous bird. Keiki gives Youko a magic sword and tells her to use it to kill the bird, but she refuses to fight. So, he has a kind of water spirit... thing... possess Youko so she can fight. She is forced to flee, but insists on taking Yuka and a male classmate, Ikuya Asano, with her. The trio end up in a mysterious fantasy land. In it, the titular twelve kingdoms are on islands surrounding a central island.
Yuka becomes jealous of Youko being "the chosen one", especially since Youko is the only one who can wield the magic sword, and the only one among them who can speak both the local language and Japanese. People from another world are called "kaikyaku", and it is believed that they bring bad luck, so there is a bounty on their heads, and they have to keep themselves from being found out and try to survive in a harsh new world. Keiki has abandoned them seemingly, and Youko has a hard time figuring out who she can and cannot trust. And there aren't a whole lot of people she can.
The Twelve Kingdoms
Light Novel, Written by Fuyumi Ono, Illus. by Akihiro Yamada
One thing I like is, this anime is very mature in showing how hard it is to struggle to survive in a world where you have no money and don't speak the language. I expected Youko to be a kind of Mary Sue, but she actually seems kind of like a deconstruction of "Miss Perfect Anime Heroine" types. It also shows how in real life, this kind of girl has a lot of insecurity and anxiety because she's always expected to be perfect. It also seems to be deconstructing the Chosen One trope, because it seems like it's playing this straight at first, but then has Yuka fly into a jealous rage over Youko being the Chosen One. That is somewhat understandable, because it would also make me mad if I had a classmate who was chosen by some mystical other world and I wasn't. Chosen One -ness seems kind of arbitrary and unfair by nature; it usually has nothing to do with merit. The show, while having a Chosen One, does not make her perfect and infallible. It takes Youko a long time to prove herself in difficult circumstances.
Prejudice is an important theme in this story. Youko befriends a mouse-person (furry people are called "hanju" and face discrimination) and some nomadic performers, who are some of the few trustworthy people there are, as they help her not for personal gain, but because they understand what she's going through as a victim of discrimination and prejudice.
Another theme is self image. Youko fears turning into a monster, and has to not let the hardness of the world turn her into a person she does not want to become. She is tormented by a monkey-like demon. He tells her to be suspicious of everyone, to kill or abandon friends and never trust anyone, but she instead defies him by determining she will continue to trust, even if people betray her and break her heart. Youko does not become the monster that the monkey demon tells her she is. Her appearance changed when she traveled to this other world. But Youko wants to stay who she was as a person. In contrast, Yuka looks the same, but acts a lot more brash and confrontational, when she used to act more shy and reserved. Youko is trying to be strong enough not to let circumstances change her. Youko is, however, tormented by a shaky sense of identity as time goes on.
I would recommend this anime to people who like adventure fantasy, the kind of stories that involve travel, mythology, politics, magic, chases, and escapes. It's similar to Spice and Wolf, Scrapped Princess, and a few other fantasy anime. It kind of reminded me of the Wheel of Time series a bit as well. I thought that this work is character driven. The plot exists to showcase the true nature of the characters, and the characters are likeable, even Yuka who becomes rebellious is understandable. There's a lot of warm humanity and reality to these characters, though their circumstances are fantastical. I also like that the main character is reluctant to take part in violence herself, even when put into circumstances where violence would be the easier way to survive.