The Twelve Kingdoms
Any fan of fantasy owes it to themselves to watch this series. So if you've enjoyed shows like Record of Lodoss War, Scrapped Princess, the Tales series (Abyss, Symphonia, etc), Inu Yasha, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, or The Vision of Escaflowne, then this will probably be right up your alley.
The anime is based on a series of light novels by Fuyumi Ono. There are around 11 volumes which are currently being painstakingly slowly published in America by Tokyopop. The 45 episode anime series has been released in its entirety by Media Blasters, and can be bought as individual discs, a 2-part box set, and I believe I saw a recent listing for an upcoming new box set to be released this summer. I should mention right away that the anime does not cover all the story lines, and much is left out at its conclusion, including at least one major story line that is begun within the anime and left unfinished. Those who wish to continue the story (I know I do) will have to wait on Tokyopop (good luck to us with that, because it's going to take over a decade since they only put out one a year).
In The Twelve Kingdoms, 16-year-old Youko is attending high school as a normal girl in regular modern day Japan. Her most dominant, and most unfortunate, personality trait is that she feels she must please everyone around her, and rarely thinks for herself. Her out of place naturally red hair has always been bothersome for her. One average day a beautiful man with long white hair calling himself Keiki appears in her classroom and bows at her feet, swearing an oath of loyalty and protection to her. Strange giant bird-like creatures attack the school, where Youko has found herself with Keiki and two of her classmates Yuka (a girl obsessed with fantasy fiction) and Asano (a boy Youko likes early on, though he doesn't exist in the novels). Keiki states that he cannot fight the monsters himself, and gives Youko a sword, expecting her to defeat them. With danger and possible death imminent, Keiki and his youma servants transport Youko and her friends through a whirlpool in the ocean and into the strange land of the Twelve Kingdoms.
Once they arrive, they find themselves separated from Keiki, and must make their own way in this new land. They also become separated from each other, and Youko must search for Keiki on her own. Along the way she meets up with a hanjyu (sort of...beast people who can transform into human form...he's basically a giant bipedal rat) named Rakushun. They manage to find the kingdom of En together, where Youko learns that she is meant to be the new queen of the kingdom of Kei. Keiki is actually a Kirin, a mystical creature born to choose the ruler of a kingdom.
The story centers mostly on Youko as she journeys through the kingdoms, and then as she grows as a leader. She begins as a whiny, overly emotional, selfish, mentally unstable brat. But as she begins to discover herself, and takes on the responsibilities of ruling a people, she grows into a strong young woman (and a totally awesome heroine). There are several other story lines. One follows Yuka, who becomes incredibly jealous that Youko is the "chosen" while she feels that she is far more qualified, and attempts to undermine Youko's every move. Some of the other kingdoms are also explored, notably the kingdoms of En (Youko has multiple encounters with the En king and Kirin), Kou, Hou (the princess of Hou becomes a major character in the second half of the series), and Tai (which is currently missing both its ruler and its Kirin, and it is this story line that remains unfinished at the show's end). Another young girl named Suzu also plays a large roll alongside the princess of Hou in the second half of the series.
The story is fantastic, the show is well animated, well written (except for the slightly sudden ending, which, while it does tie up the story line currently in motion, leaves much unfinished), and is generally well acted (meaning the English dub). I really fell in love with it myself. The mythology is very rich, and it's explained through situational story lines, instead of slammed into you all at once. It's a land governed by a ruler chosen by a mystical creature, that prospers or decays (very literally) based on how well or how badly its ruler performs. The only real issue I had with the show is the rather large amount of terms you have to learn to understand what is going on, especially when some things have multiple titles (Kirin are also known as Saiho), and even multiple names (all the Kirin have their Kirin names which are derived from their kingdom and their sex (-ki for males, -rin for females) and a nickname given by the ruler; and the rulers have their original names, their royal title, and a nickname describing their rule).
It's definitely a good quality show, and I really recommend a watch.
Image (top to bottom, and left to right): Keiki, Shoryu (king of En), Aozaru (the spirit of Youko's sword's scabbard), Kourin (Kirin of Kou), Enki (Kirin of En), Rakushun, Yuka, Youko, and Asano.