Except for her red hair, Yoko Nakajima is a typical, obedient Japanese high-school student. Her life is fairly ordinary—that is, until Keiki, a unicorn in the guise of a young blond-haired boy, tells her that she is his master and must return to their kingdom. When the boy mysteriously vanishes, Yoko is left alone, confused, and wandering through a foreign land with nothing to help protect her save a magic sword and a magic stone. When Keiki suddenly appears at Yoko’s school, little does she realize that her life is about to change. Lost in a strange land--without a map—and demons on her trail, Yoko begins her quest for both survival and self-discovery.
Written by: Fuyumi Ono
Published by: Tokyopop
English translation by Alexander O. Smith
Yoko is a high school girl with flaming red hair, going through life trying to please everyone, but inevitably failing. She is timid, deceitful, even cruel sometimes and she just wants to be liked and stay out of the spotlight. Unfortunately, living this way has the effect of making no real friends, and her red hair makes her teachers think she is a party girl who goes out at night. But suddenly, a strange man arrives with numerous monstrous creatures, turning her life upside-down and yanking her off to a strange place, and then promptly
disappears. Yoko is left with a strange sword to fight for her survival in a world that mostly wants her dead. She is forced to deal with people without being able to hide behind social conventions, and as if that weren’t enough, a strange, blue, demonic monkey keeps appearing and playing on her fears and her despair.
The incredible richness of the fantasy world Yoko is thrown into draws in equal parts from modern realism, Japanese and Chinese mythology, and history. Yoko receives a sword with a jewel that functions also as a mirror, tying into the three treasures of Japanese mythology. Chinese mythology brings the story the Mandate of Heaven and the general cosmography.
Japanese writing in translation is typically a bit spare compared to the lavish descriptions Westerners are used to. This is largely due to the use of kanji, which convey a range of meanings, as opposed to the English language, which focuses on one right word out of many. However, Ono’s work here manages to give enough of the detail the reader wants so that the rich world of The Twelve Kingdoms comes quite alive. Few of the characters or plot points lose any of their expected vividness, and I often really did feel like I was there in the novel. The anime was routinely criticized for the confusing amount of terms that Ono made up for her world, but Tokyopop’s localization managed to balance the vocabulary well, so that when the reader is lost in the names, it is because Yoko herself is lost as well. In fact, the novel manages to remain accessible for both readers who don’t care about the Japanese language and readers who do by including kanji when a character is explaining something unfamiliar. I’m not so sure about TP’s decision to release this as a hardbound book since it might not “cross over” to regular young adult fiction like they think it might.
You don’t get the sense, fortunately, that Ono is trying to criticize modern life or government by proposing some pie-eyed return to a simpler time. This is not an allegory or even a rant against today’s society. If Ono has a point to make, it has more to do with how to live life on a personal level, that, as Shoryu says, one must first be master of one’s self before being a king…or indeed before being anything in life. Due to the blue monkey, Yoko frequently ponders moral issues and even religion’s influence on people at one point. If there is one obvious weakness in the novel, it is that the ending might seem slightly anti-climactic. Keep in mind: this is due to the fact that this is only the first book out of at least 6 that are planned by Tokyopop.
Comparisons with the anime will be unavoidable, and I certainly could not keep the images of the TV series out of my head completely, and the OST imposed itself frequently while I read. Much has been said about how the character of Asano is not expanded on in the novel, and how Sugimoto is a very minor character in the beginning, never seen again. This has the effect of increasing Yoko’s isolation and therefore increasing the dramatic impact of what she goes through. There are few other differences, however, making the question for the anime’s fans not “What happens next?” but rather, “How will Ono take us there?” Personally, I found the journey delightful.
I think that whether you are a fan of the anime or have never seen it and don’t want to, you will still enjoy this book enormously. The fact that the protagonist is a girl doesn’t, in my opinion, lessen the appeal this story would have to readers of both genders.
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(Note: This review covers only the first 4 books in this unfinished, 8-book series, as only 4 were officially translated into English).
The general consensus that “the book is always better” has a few exceptions. I recently decided, because of how much I enjoy both reading books and watching anime, to try the source novels of some of the anime I knew. Unfortunately, I was tempted to give up after the first two series I tried turned out to be only shorter and weaker shadows of their anime adaptations. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I gave it one more try with The Twelve Kingdoms. These
books even manage to surpass their anime counterpart.
SEA OF SHADOW - Score: 9/10
This first book, like the anime, starts out rather wobbly. The writer repeatedly reverts to the amateur practice of relating Yoko’s feelings in ridiculous and sloppy metaphors. The scenery is described in Yoko’s equally unnatural misinterpretations as things slowly come into view. Whether this is actually the fault of the original Japanese author or that of the translators, I couldn’t say. Regardless, things start to clear up after about 100 pages. The events of the novel pick up, becoming too interesting to be dampened by the cloying renderings of Yoko’s thoughts and feelings, which become less frequent as the writer has more important things to say.
That being said, Yoko’s inner journey as she struggles to live in and escape from this strange world she has been dragged into is truly captivating. Her transformation is not so tidily rendered in the novel as in the first section of the anime, and she deals with her struggles and fears in a human way that sometimes doesn’t end in clear resolves.
What struck me most in either version were the thoughts expressed in this story. There is no usual overarching message about friendship, love, determination, sacrifice, etc., but rather a natural, disorderly struggle with her even more bewildering circumstances that provides much to think about. Yoko’s decisions, resolves, motives, and thoughts are not always easily and immediately understandable; however, they can be very relatable, and when they are not, it further defines Yoko’s individuality. She is not a character simply created to be as plain and usual as possible so that any reader might relate to her.
Nor does Yoko possess some secret skill or quality that sets her above those around her. This is not a typical “Chosen One” story, though Yoko is chosen to be the ruler of a kingdom. Secondary characters do not stand back in awe, wonder, or jealousy as Yoko bedazzles them with unheard of power that causes the masses to crown her in unison. Being forcibly chosen as the ruler of Kei is, in fact, shown to be hardly desirable under Yoko’s circumstances, and ascending the throne is no easy task.
Lastly, this novel lacks the anime’s clumsy attempts to improve on the story. Yoko’s development is not hampered by the accompaniment of two friends from her school. There are pages of lone travel for Yoko, and we can view the story and the other characters through her eyes alone, which helps the story make that much more sense overall.
SEA OF WIND – Score: 10/10
Abandoning the sometimes halting and awkward narrative style of its predecessor, Sea of Wind is almost lyrical in the telling. This tale is woven in natural confidence, with slow but easy pacing.
It was so refreshing to read this book that is otherworldly in more ways than one. This novel finds no reason to follow the common story patterns. Making no apologies for its own strangeness, it treads calmly forward along new paths of its own making. The writer does not disparage monarchy, expresses no resentment of religion and spirituality; in this strange other world where this story takes place, these elements simply are.
As a result of its originality, the book can at times become almost alienating. Taiki himself is odd, while his circumstances even more so. Some of the characters’ feelings and motivations make sense only distantly, without the possibility of comprehension from even a slightly similar personal experience. However, there are also many themes that easily cross the barrier between that world and this such as indecision, guilt, grief, and joy.
Sea of Wind surpasses by far the section of the anime that is based on it, without the incessant interruption of scenes foreshadowing the next installment of Taiki’s story, with much clearer explanations of events, and with the inward perspective that is only possible in book format.
VAST SPREAD OF THE SEAS – Score: 10/10
Vast Spread of the Seas goes where neither of the previous novels ventured and asks questions anyone would naturally want ask upon reading this series. Rokuta questions the religious and political laws that govern his world, and for the first time these strange ideas are discussed intelligently and controversially. And yet, the writer ultimately makes no attempt to answer them. These issues are brought up and contemplated, but the focus is drawn more to the characters and their choices in their present circumstances, and any debates are left for the characters to ponder at some later date. There is no easy answer, and time doesn’t stand still for the contemplation of these questions.
In reading this book, I realized that the real triumph of this series is how enjoyable it is to just spend time with its characters. Their journeys, struggles, and adventures can be so illuminating and entertaining at the same time; it’s so much fun to just relax and read about them. Fuyumi Ono has the ability to bring to life even the most minor characters that appear for only a few pages.
SKIES OF DAWN – Score: 9/10
Telling more than one story at once is no easy task, and most of the time a reader is bored with one and waiting for the other to continue, which often leads to abandoning the book entirely. However, Fuyumi Ono manages this three-in-one story surprisingly well. I was never bored reading any of the stories, and right when I was becoming less interested in the one at hand, it switched to another, which I was looking forward to by that time. Once again, it is just enjoyable to journey with the characters in this series, and the three lead characters in this novel are no exceptions.
It follows the stories of three separate girls, one of which is Yoko, the protagonist of the first novel. Gradually, perhaps a little too much so, their stories start to converge. Each character is developed wonderfully throughout the series as they each respond to their circumstances and sufferings, often with self-pity, as they learn how to live with their own mistakes. This book, like the other three, has many wise and quotable ideas.
One of the ways in which this book shines is the immediate dive into all of the stories. There is no long, slow filler near the beginning. Certainly anime and books are very different things, and developing a setting is different in each one. But I think that it is easier to stick with this rather long book from the beginning when it immediately plunges into the stories and develops background later. The anime took its time getting to the meat of the story, which is perhaps more suitable to the medium, but still rather dull.
Even so, the story did seem a bit long overall and I found myself finishing it very slowly. Of the four books in this series, this one was the most difficult to get through because of the sheer length and slowness of the story.
OVERALL – 10/10
In short, these books are well worth reading regardless of whether or not you have already viewed the anime, and it was worth it for me to go about finding the four available books in this series. I’m looking forward to the sequels, and I hope that more of this series will be officially translated.
Well like the review said she's a student read hair and stuff,now then If you like to see growth in character then this is the book for you.The book in my opiniong is better than the anime in the character growth because Yoko ALONE goes though a lot of hardships and she goes through a lot worse things or it feels worse than in the anime.Also I love how little minor details you don't pay attention to end up solving some mysteries.This book is the introduction to other stories,you do have to be patient though because stories or questions that weren't answered are going to
be in the rest of the book,unfotunately only 3 out of 11 books have been published so far in the U.S. so you have to be patient.Also there is little romance and it is quite long and it had small text but I believe the story itself will make up for and remember don't be annoyed by the main character in the beginning,that is the whole point of the story her growth.
Juuni Kokuki is one of my favorite series--not just among manga and light novels, but among fiction in general. If you are coming here fresh from watching the anime, you'll find the novels even more enjoyable. Here I will be reviewing the entire series, not just the first novel.
Unfortunately, Juuni Kokuki is not a complete series. But according to recent tweets on the author’s twitter account, Ono Fuyumi is working on another novel, which is exciting as the last one in the series, released in 2001, ended with a cliffhanger of sorts. Don’t let it’s incomplete status deter you from reading it, though–Juuni Kokuki
is a truly excellent series. In some ways, it reminds me of the Narnia series, as it is a kind of spiritual fantasy, but instead of promoting a Christian worldview it explains the Buddhist/Daoist worldview of Chinese religions. Unlike Narnia, the characters have to undergo intense personal trials to reach their goals, and the novels ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of human suffering?’. Youko, the main character for much of the series, is one of the most dynamic characters I have ever read, and it is amazing to watch her transform from a self-centered schoolgirl into a powerful leader who listens to others.
The first novel, Sea of Shadow, follows Youko Nakajima, a Japanese schoolgirl, as she enters the fantastical world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Unfamiliar with the world and entirely alone after she is abandoned by Keiki, the one who brought her to the world, Youko must fight to survive from the many creatures chasing her, as well as attempt to find her way home. Along the way, Youko discovers her true destiny and grows into an admirable character.
I don’t want to spoil too much, so I won’t go into depth about the later novels about Youko. My favorite parts of the series are the novels about Taiki, the kirin of Tai. Taiki isn’t human, and Ono makes it clear that he isn’t, yet she still draws the reader into identifying with him as a character. Sea of Shadow is a good choice for beginning the series, but it is also possible to begin with Demon Child, the first novel published in the series, or Sea of Wind, which explains how Taiki came to the Twelve Kingdoms. Don't feel constrained to keep to the order used in the anime when you begin the series.
Demon Child was originally written as a stand alone horror novel, but was later worked into the series. It is told from the point of view of Hirose, a student teacher who has returned to his alma mater to teach before he graduates. On his first day teaching, Hirose notices that one of the students, Kaname Takasato, is different from the others. The other students believe he is cursed, and never speak to him. As Hirose begins to learn more about Takasato, and becomes closer to him, the strange occurrences around Takasato began to strike more fiercely and rapidly towards those connected to him. As Hirose tries to understand Takasato, he begins to identify with him as someone who feels he does not belong in this world.
Both Youko’s and Taiki’s arcs coincide in the most recent novel, The Shore at Twilight, The Sky at Daybreak, which explains what happens after the end of Demon Child.
If you have any interest in Asian fantasy, ‘another world’ fantasy, or just fantasy with personal growth, you’ll enjoy Juuni Kokuki.