Director Shinsuke Sato, responsible for Japanese adaptations of Bleach and Death Note, tackles historical whimsy and high-flying action in Kingdom. A forgotten tale of betrayal and colonization; territorial warfare and Ginsu-deadly swordsman. Have you played the hack-n-slash franchise Dynasty Warriors? Omega Force’s button-masher based on “Records of the Three Kingdoms” where you fight your way through rival factions on a quest to unite China under one ruler? I mention the vastly popular video game franchise because it reminds one of Kingdom, from themes to fighting styles to separated factions. Sato’s direction feels indebted to video game culture, telling China’s unification through babbly cut scenes and katana masterstrokes.
Kingdom recounts the exploits of Li Xin (Kento Yamazaki), a commoner determined to become China’s most infamous general. He teams up with Yin Zheng (Ryô Yoshizawa), Qin Kingdom’s emperor, after an attempted assassination ordered by Zheng’s brother. Xin pledges himself as Yin Zheng’s bodyguard and the two travel through China to Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongô) stronghold. If Yin Zheng can defeat his sibling, he’ll be one step closer to uniting China. His conceptual coexistence is mocked by old-world chancellors.
Funimation Films is giving Kingdom a limited North American theatrical run starting August 16th, so be on the lookout for local screenings. Those fans of the manga who are curious about what to expect from Sato’s vision, here are three reasons to charge into glorious battle with Li Xin.
1) The Gorgeous Set Pieces
Japanese cinema treats period content with the same big-budget investment as Disney does Marvel multiverses. Movies like Kingdom are rich with culture, producing excessive royalties and the magnificence of bygone constructions. Xin and Yin Zheng’s combat within castle walls presents viewers with more than just turn-based attacks. 255 B.C. architectures range from mountainside dojos to marvelous temple complexes. As Wakanda modernizes rural African favelas, Kingdom’s production design is full of wondrous stone carvings and arching red rooftops, a focal point of scenic artistry.
It’s not just locations, but a complete immersion into Yasuhisa Hara’s manga world: Palaces of grandeur, heritage, and wonder. Bamboo forests where dart-blowing mercenaries lurk or battalion ranks of 80,000 stationed outside Cheng Jiao’s walls. Costumes weave fine kimono silks to owl costumes that double as body armor (worn by He Liao Diao, a mountain girl played by Kanna Hashimoto). Generals don personalized character armors, regional signatures embody standing rituals, and locales prove divinely erected as testaments to traditional local custom.
2) It’s An Energized Retelling Of Embellished History
Sato merges Kingdom’s textbook elements with a restorative coating of 2010s attitude. Maybe it’s an electric guitar helping to score swift-as-wind duels between Xin and a disgraced mercenary. Possibly Xin’s emphatic declarations as he screams lines instead of merely reading them straight. Filmmakers can easily fall into period-based traps where B.C. dates translate into cinematic drabness by minimalist designs, but Sato’s emphasis on manga energetics liven this otherwise centuries-old time capsule. Maybe a little too much when calling one particularly despicable character an “a-hole,” but the modernization keeps spirits lifted.
Soto’s adaptation of manga pages and anime comparisons is allowed to exaggerate more than your run-of-the-mill Chinese historical actioner. In what world would a petite wanderer in a full owl costume (seriously, lol) be allowed to battle against trained soldiers? Antagonistic forces wear crooked smiles and hamfist their despicableness. Xin leaps high into the air while narration states he “will fly higher than anyone.” The ratios between good and evil promote cartoonish realms, lumbering berzerker giants and all, which hypes up the entertainment factor. Kingdom is an ancient throwback set to popularized beats. It’s on the nose, but so very indulgent when chronicling Xin’s rise in a very Rocky self-gratifying kind of way.
3) Dat Incredible Action
Samurai films of this flavor are about supernatural fight choreography: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon recipes. Kingdom tosses combatants around with projectile impact but also plays with bloody brutality. It’s no gore-out like The Raid, but again Soto draws from manga designs to inject bursts of liquid red splatter when other equals might employ a clean swipe. As “Mountain” ruler Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa) promises, her people are savage and Yin Zheng’s throne will be “dirtied” throughout their warpath. It’s a promise fulfilled, and an aesthetic choice accentuates the costly dangers of blazing forward toward progress through violence.
Nothing mentioned is to downplay Xian’s fleetness of foot or aerial combos, as fighters defy gravity in signature J-Action fashion. Kingdom, like all of this ilk, favors the epic over realism, bringing fantasy into ancestral warlord standoffs built on steel and brawn. Scarves come alive and assist their feuding wearer. Larger than life generals swing scepters with enough force to send twenty advancing infantry units flying backward like the Big Bad Wolf to straw houses. The plotting is familiar, but Soto has a blast tossing military around pawns like children handle playthings during recess. No cobwebs cover this invigorated take on China’s coming to form, although there’s a bit too much setting up future installments for those of us who haven’t read or watched Kingdom’s other iterations. Still, the importance of characters is not lost nor their imposition squandered. Expect battlefield elegance and theatrical attack modes, an augmented history lesson that’s hip and gets away with it.
Kingdom is in select theaters on August 20th.