Pete rags a bit on 12 Kingdoms (not entirely undeservedly). He notes that the system of rule (divine powers enforcing a strict and literal connection to the rulers of each kingdom) is a giant straight-jacket, but that’s entirely the point and in fact the only logical outcome of taking the Chinese theology literally. When you blur the lines between heaven and earth, then heaven’s decrees become part of daily life – and by their very nature, divine will means law. None of that pussyfooting around with interpretations, ijtihad, or whatnot.
In a nutshell, 12 Kingdoms is an attempt to create a “perfect” system of governance, wherein the rulers of a kingdom are held directly accountable not to the masses, but to the higher powers from which they derive their authority. He that giveth also taketh away.
As far as being too-epic-y, I think that 12 Kingdoms is less guilty of trying too hard than Escaflowne (which after my initial disenchantment with, I am now 3 discs in and thoroughly enjoying). The epic layers of 12K get added slowly, as Youko’s horizons slowly expand with her travels. In Escaflowne, Hitomi is dropped right into the thick of things and the first disc is like a firehose of information about Gaea. Hitomi hooks up with the movers and shakers of the new world right away and is at the literal center of action, whereas Youko ascends gradually, from pawn to player. In a lot of ways I am more free to enjoy Escaflowne because having seen the atrocious movie, I know much of the backstory already, and so am not floundering trying to get my bearings (a problem that never went away with Serial Experiments Lain. Now there’s a series that might benefit from a movie treatment…).