If one looks at Japan’s most recent action-narrative productions, one name seems to pop up frequently: Shinsuke Sato. Having directed the enjoyable Gantz (2011), the amazing zombie-narrative I Am a Hero (2016) and most recently the popcorn worthy Bleach (2018) and Inuyashiki (2018), it should not come as a surprise that Sato received to honour to bring Yasuhisa Hara’s award-winning manga Kingdom to the silver screen.
When war-orphan Xin/Shin (Kento Yamazaki) is sold as slave to a local farmer, he accidently meets Piao/Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa). As both want to escape this life, they see but one way, the way of the sword. In order to change their fate – to realize their shared dream of becoming world’s greatest generals, they start dueling each other.
Many years later, Lord Chang Wen (Masahiro Takashima), one of the king’s chancellors, accidently sees the two of them sparring. Impressed by Piao’s fighting, he approaches the owner of the farmstead, Li Dian (-), and offers to buy Piao’s freedom. Piao accepts the offer, leaving Xin, who promises to catch up and join him in the future, behind.
One night, a mortally wounded Xiao – mortally wounded by a mutiny lead by the king’s brother Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongō) at court – returns to the farmstead, in order to give a map to Xin. Before he dies, he asks him to go to a certain place, a place where King Eisei (Ryô Yoshizawa), who is now a wanted man, awaits.
Kingdom presents, within the epic setting of the warring stated period, a rather typical zero to hero narrative. Xin, our hero, is driven by a phallic dream – becoming one of the greatest generals that ever lived. Nevertheless, there are also other sides to the narrative. When Piao dies, for instance, the narrative infuses a revenge tale into the mix, a revenge that eventually turns into desire to realize the dream in order to honour his friend, a desire to realize his end of the promise so that the death of his friend was not in vain (Narra-note 1). But Xin’s phallic quest is only made possible, due to the background-tension that structures the narrative: the strife between paternal brothers. It is this question of royal blood, of being of pure blood, related to one’s right to ascend the throne, that forms the precondition for his phallic quest.
Let us note in passing that while the nodal point, i.e. Piao’s death, in Xin’s personal journey is emotional by nature, it is not entirely able, the first time around, to communicate the emotional impact of this event on Xin to the spectator – partially because it comes so early in the narrative. Nevertheless, due to a lingering of his vengeful desire – a desire coming to full bloom at the moment he faces Piao’s murderer, the lingering anger concerning his untimely death, and the various flashbacks revealing Piao’s speech, Kingdom does succeed in sensibly evoking the Piao’s importance for Xin and reveal in a believable way the impact Piao’s death has on the path Xin will take.
It is in Xin’s path, his fight to realize one’s dream not matter what, his enduring power to rush headlong into battle for the dream he has, that we have to situate the narrative’s main message: even if all odds are against, you one should always try to realize one’s dreams. In other words, Kingdom reveals, by way of Xin’s touching speech and by Eisei’s stating his dream, the necessity and the beauty of having a purpose in life.
The production values of Kingdom are top-notch. While we can’t be sure if everything that defines the narrative space is historically accurate, the narrative spaces do not fail to evoke the atmosphere of the warring states period in a believable and exciting way. The detailed visualization of a farmer’s life – the life of being owned as slave – as well as the beautiful visualization of the rooms at court, the architecture of the palace buildings, and the unique carved-out city of the mountain clan, give the narrative a pleasing visual attractiveness (Staff-note 1).
A pleasant touch to the narrative, one that might not be that sensible for people who have no knowledge of Japanese language, is the radical difference between the refined and highly polite speech at court and Xin’s rude speech. This divide, a subtle source of lightheartedness, is especially sensible in the interactions between Xin and king Eisei. Another interaction that generates subtle lightheartedness is the interaction of Xin with Heliao Diao (Kanna Hashimoto). While Diao’s role is not that important for the narrative’s unfolding, a deeper exploration of the unfolding of this relationship would have, on our opinion, benefitted the narrative.
While the cinematography of Kingdom, a cinematography consisting of a mix between fixed, moving shots and following shots, does not offer anything fresh or new as such, its beauty should be situated in its success to visually impress the spectator. In other words, the sole purpose of Kingdom’s cinematography is to seduce us with its visuals, impressing us by framing the narrative’s unfolding with an epic touch. Therefore, the cinematographical brush touches, whenever possible, upon the epic proportions of the narrative – be it by using slow-motion, e.g. to highlight the impressive nature of a certain general or to underline the coolness of a certain action-move, or by using extreme long shots to reveal the beauty or the epic proportions of certain landscapes, e.g. the shot of the stairs to the main building of Xiangyang palace, and the shot of Cheng Jiao’s impressive army (Cine-note 1).
One can highlight epic elements within the setting as much as one likes, if the framing of the action fails to touch the fantasy of the spectator, it is all for naught. Luckily, Shinsuke Sato does not fail to frame the action in a highly dynamic and visually pleasant way. Due to this cinematographical dynamism, Sato is able to show the splendid and at times over-the-top action-choreography, courtesy of Yûji Shimomura, in all its exciting beauty. As such, the inventive choreographed action becomes, as it should be, the main vehicle for enthralling the fantasy of the spectator (Narra-note 2).
But despite the successful framing of the action-sequences – the final-action sequence in particular, we do feel the full potential of the action was not realized (Narra-note 3). As we immensely enjoyed the framing of the action and the over-the-top moments, we were ultimately left wanting for more. In one way, we felt that the action in Kingdom was just a enticing teaser for the epic extravaganza yet to come.
The epic scope of the narrative of course benefits from musical accompaniment, which is, as one can presume, also somewhat epic in nature. The excitement of the violent action is also empowered by fitting musical pieces – even if some of these pieces have a modern sound, they fluidly blend with the emotional rhythm of the narrative. The excitement of the action-sequences are furthermore supported by a subtle sound-design. While the sound-design is great for the greater part of the narrative – sounds of swords swishing through the air, sounds of clattering metal, the sound of a sword slitting one’s throat and so on, we cannot but feel that certain sword-action sequences could have been even more powerful if there were more supporting noises or if the present noises were less subtle.
Kento Yamazaki (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (2017)), who plays a general-in-the-making, brings the youthful ambition in a seducing way to the fore (Acting-note 1). While slight provocations provoke him, one can sense that his initial anger is function of his friend’s death and the impossibility to realize the dream they shared together. His thirst for violence, for that matter, is violent thirst for proving himself worthy, proving himself phallic enough to be worthy of becoming a general. While one could call Xin’s lack of respecting hierarchy bravery, there is a certain dangerous simplemindedness that underlies his straightforwardness in life. While one can already see the manga origins in the very framing of the assassins and the executioner, the manga origins of Kingdom are most clearly betrayed by the characterization of Xin as such.
Kingdom is a very decent an epic semi-historical action narrative. In a beautifully framed setting, the measured unfolding of Xin’s quest provides enough thrills and enough tension to please the spectator. But while the action in the narrative is able to please, Kingdom could have used even more visually impressive action-moments to fully quench the thirst of the spectator. Nevertheless, Kingdom lays out a solid groundwork for future installments.
Narra-note 1: Eventually Xin hears that Piao, albeit for a short time and in an unofficial way, could realize the dream of becoming a general. This revelations acts, for Xin, as a motivation to realize, without any regrets, the dream too.
Staff-note 1: The visualization of the narratives spaces is supported by Masae Miyamoto’s marvelous costume design and Nobuhiro Akitaya’s detailed set decoration.
Narra-note 2: We also want to highlight that there are various fantastical elements present in the action sequences.
Narra-note 3: It is also in this final sequence that the leader of the mountain clan, Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa), is finally able to shine. While she is able to shine in the few moments given to here, we still would have liked to see her shine somewhat more.
Cine-note 1: Let us note that the slow-motion highlights, first and foremost, the impressiveness of the general Wang Qi (Takao Ohsawa) for Xin. It is an evocation that aims to enable us – successfully we can say, to identify with Xin as lead character.
Acting-note 1: The performance of Kanata Hongo (Gantz (2011), Inuyashiki (2018)) as the evil brother claiming the throne and Takao Osawa’s performance as fighting girl is also very pleasing.