Judging from what was happening in the first few episodes, I was somewhat expecting The Twelve Kingdoms to be an anime along the lines of the classic girl-taken-to-another-world series "Fushigi Yuugi". Turns out I was half-right. The Twelve Kingdoms is somewhat like "Fushigi Yuugi" -- minus the romance, plus a whole lot of politics.
Youko Nakajima is the quintessential unwilling heroine with zero self-confidence. After being whisked away to the world of the twelve kingdoms, Youko is forced to pick up a sword and defend herself from those who want her dead. But why would anyone want a regular schoolgirl dead? As it turns out, Youko is not as ordinary as she always believed herself to be. She is a taika, originally born in the world of the twelve kingdoms, but was somehow swept away to Japan. What's more, Youko is the chosen one, the next queen of Kei, one of the twelve kingdoms. The man she met is actually a kirin, sort of like the guardian of Kei. Each kingdom has its own kirin and ruler. The kirin chooses the ruler and pledges his/her total loyalty and submission to the ruler. Keiki is Kei's kirin, and he has chosen Youko as the queen of Kei.
If you think terminologies like taika and kirin are confusing, prepare yourself for more of these when watching The Twelve Kingdoms. A very detailed government system exists within the kingdoms, and as Youko comes to accept her destiny as ruler, she is further plunged into the world of political intrigue, betrayal, and deception. Everything is clearly explained however, you just have to make sure you're in the right state of mind when watching -- meaning this is not an anime wherein you can let your mind float off elsewhere and still get it.
One of the things I liked best about The Twelve Kingdoms was the diverse cast of extremely well-developed characters. I was amazed at how the series managed to effectively tackle and expound multiple character-oriented subplots, tying them up neatly in the end. What kept me from giving The Twelve Kingdoms a perfect rating was the non-resolution of the Taiki arc. It was as if the subplot and characters just vanished into thin air after being painstakingly shown, and until now I can't help but feel that there's a vital chunk missing in the series.
The art and animation are pretty impressive. The picturesque settings are like a cross between ancient China and Japan. Character designs are beautiful and distinct, and every scene is packed in such a way that there is virtually nothing irrelevant -- the sheer amount and detail of the events that unfold make it seem as if an episode is longer than it actually is, but you don't get the feeling that it's dragging... except maybe for the first part when Youko is still in denial with regards to her destiny. In terms of the audio aspects, the English dubbing is done nicely and the musical scoring fits perfectly.
The Twelve Kingdoms is overall an excellent and engaging series, one that will keep you popping in disc after disc just to see what's going to happen next. Now if only they would give us some closure regarding the Taiki arc...