For the uninitiated, watching the trailer for director Shinsuke Sato’s (Inuyashiki) Kingdom will be confusing and potentially befuddling. Frankly, it’s just a whirlwind of content as text lays out the plot amid rapid images from the film all while “Wasted Nights” by One Ok Rock plays. Only if you’re familiar with the original 2006 manga by Yasuhisa Hara or the 2012 anime which followed does anything you witness make sense. This alone will likely draw in pre-existing fans in droves, but the shame is how it’ll drive away potential new audiences who if given the chance, would discover that Kingdom is an exciting action/drama filled with intrigue, treachery, daring fight sequences, and incredible heart.
Set within the Warring States period of China, the fictionalized story of Kingdom focuses on two war orphans, Li Xin (Kento Yamazaki) and Piao (Ryô Yoshizawa), growing up together on a farm. Desiring better lives for themselves, the pair spar every day in hopes of becoming great swordsman, which would then lead them to glory and freedom. One day, as the boys are sparring, Lord Changwen Jun (Masahiro Takashima) happens upon them and purchases Piao from his owner so that he may take Piao to serve in Xianyang Palace. Though heartbroken that his friend is gone, Xin sets about training even harder in his absence so that he will be ready when Piao returns. What Xin doesn’t expect is for Piao to return bleeding to death and with a mission, placing Xin in the epicenter of a war between King Ying Zheng (also portrayed by Ryô Yoshizawa) and the king’s young brother Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongô), a war which will do more damage than merely remove Zheng from the throne. With Jiao in control, the wars that have plagued the land for 500 years threaten to become endless. Forming an uneasy alliance, Xin and Zheng gather the forces they can in a desperate attempt to take back control of Xianyang and, with it, the fate of China.
The Warring State period of China is one which has been mined repeatedly with varying degrees of success. Two wuxia films which tackled the subject wonderfully are 2002’s Hero and 2019’s Shadow, each offering a differing viewpoint on separate aspects of the period. Though the bulk of Kingdom doesn’t involve the typical wire-work which wuxia films are known for, Kingdom utilizes the period setting and ideals for which the genre is recognized. Xin is the atypical hero, someone of a lesser station seeking to rise above through honored battle, and Zheng is the king seeking to serve his people. With this as the framework, the story is free to explore notions of service, honor, and family which often come into focus within wuxia stories. Impressively, with so much content to cover (the history, the characters, motivations, and more), Kingdom never feels like a slog. It continuously builds momentum, even in the quieter, character-focused moments. Considering the source material is contained within 55 volumes of manga (or two seasons of anime, if that’s what you prefer), nothing about Kingdom feels specifically crafted for the fans (though it does possess spot-on recreations of characters and their gear). Sato and co-writer Tsutomu Kuroiwa (Gantz: O) manage to distill the content into easily digestible portions via Xin. Through him, everything is easier to track and understand as more and more is introduced into an ever-complicating story. Gratefully, Kingdom never reaches a moment of incredulity or absurdity, merely tipping its hand toward these notions where aspects of the anime are required but never so much so that the audience feels taken out of the story. Frankly, due to style and execution, if audiences didn’t know that Kingdom is inspired by a manga, there’re be no recognizing it as such. It’s that fully-formed, wonderfully constructed, and seemingly complete in its story.
The previously mentioned wuxia films — Hero and Shadow — are, by their nature, incredibly serious films. Both deal in metaphors, both metaphorical and textual, giving them enhanced meaning beyond what’s simply observed or heard. Kingdom is nowhere near as serious as those films, yet it still examines the same concepts with a similar gravity. Xin and Piao are introduced as surrogate siblings, whose separation is bittersweet and reunion filled with pain. Upon Piao’s death, Xin’s grief powers him as much as his dreams of being a great warrior. In combination with his upbringing as a slave, Xin lacks the refinements of privilege, so the characterization is crass, vulgar, and without the temperament to suffer fools. In contrast, Zheng survived a death attempt by his half-brother and is driven by the desire to serve his people, and all of China, with honor. Where Xin is vibrant and pulsing with energy, Zheng is perpetually tranquil and still, even as his words reverberate through his audience. Xin lost a brother in Piao as Zheng lost his in Jiao and they find new ones in each other. Only in trusting each other do they find the ability to push on and do what needs to be done. This is where the heart of the story comes in, along with many authentic laughs. Their discordance in approaches is less “odd couple” as it is an examination of class, high born versus low born, and the troubles and privileges attached to both. Through subtle choices by the characters, a common thread of arrogance appears as a trait of the wicked and compassion mixed with contrition the mark of the honorable. That said, Sato and Kuroiwa don’t shy away from the aspects of Hara’s story which are darker, even if possessing good intent. The willingness to acknowledge the complexity of war and the horrors which befall the citizens of a country locked in strife is undoubtedly refreshing. So often the heroes of a tale are painted with a sinless brush, yet Kingdom does not hide from its bloodshed nor does it glorify it.
Few films are without their issues. Those entrenched with the original manga, or even the anime, may find issues with the speed at which Kingdom moves as film possesses far more constraints than literature or, to some varying degrees, television. Those new to the series, however, will likely find themselves entranced by Kingdom from beginning to end if for no other reason than it never seems to rush even though the whole film flows at a steady pace. Time is spent developing relationships at the start so that the audience feels the loss Xin carries with him from beginning to end and understands the struggle Xin feels working with a man who looks just like his brother. The complexity doesn’t end there as the audience is introduced to rival generals, tempered allies, and uneasy partnerships, all the things which add a little danger to an adventure and, in the hands of Sato, begin to feel more and more epic. This isn’t just a story Sato brings to life, but a world in which honor matters more than station or gender, where the just are not pure, yet they are not completely profane. Another aspect which may potentially prickle some viewers is the Japanese cast telling a distinctly Chinese story. For their part, the entire cast absolutely delivers, making their respective characters seem like more than real-life conscriptions from a manga audiences expect. Audiences will root for Xin, Zheng, and their allies all the way until the end, swept up in a quest that is not their own but will feel a part of anyway. Whether you’re a fan of history, wuxia, action dramas, anime or manga, Kingdom delivers all that you desire and a little more.
In select theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada beginning August 16th, 2019. For locations and times of a screening near you, head to the official Kingdom website. If you’re interested in watching episodes of the Kingdom anime, Funimation has you covered.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.