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Kingdom (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"A fun Japanese take on China's Warring Kingdoms."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I wonder how often non-fans encountering manga, anime, and their adaptations find themselves tripped up over how the protagonists will have earnest enthusiasm, loyalty, and commitment as their best qualities, valuable traits to be sure but not as important in American stories as figuring things out. The main character of "Kingdom", for instance, is a guy who kind of blows past having wound up ignorant through no fault of is own by having grown up a slave to being kind of dumb generally, but he's the one we're supposed to identify with and root for.

That would be Li Xin, who in 255 BC is a child slave being taken to the estate of his new master when their cart passes an army led by Wang Qi (Takao Ohsawa), China's greatest general. He soon becomes fast friends with another slave boy, Piao, and they vow to train with each other and eventually escape bondage as soldiers who become great generals. Ten years later, they have honed their skills via constant sparring, and Chancellor Chang Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima) buys Piao's freedom to serve the king. Some time after that, Piao returns, mortally wounded, saying Prince Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo) has deposed young King Yin Zheng, and entrusts Xin (Kento Yamazaki) with a document to bring to the king in hiding. When he arrives he's in for a shock - Yin Zheng is a dead ringer for Piao, though the ambitious aristocrat's personality is no match. Retaking the throne may prove incredibly difficult - that more royal blood flows through Cheng Jiao's veins has him commanding the world's fiercest army, while Zheng has only a handful of loyalists including Xin and young brigand He Liao Diao (Kanna Hashimoto), and an alliance with the hill people and their leader Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa) will still leave them badly outnumbered.

I doubt that Yasuhisa Hara's manga is a particularly accurate take on China's Warring Kingdoms period, and the script by Tsutomu Kuroiwa and director Shinsuke Sato likely diverges even further, but this version makes for a streamlined movie that gives the audience a taste of palace intrigue without getting too bogged down in the details, colorful armies to do battle, and a spot at the center for a guy like Xin whose energetic nature will make it easy for younger viewers to identify with him. Like many recent big action/adventure movies, it's made in large part for middle-school boys, but perhaps more squarely and honestly than some others; Sato and company don't obviously load the movie with innuendo on the one hand or give any signs of cutting what they really want to do down to please the television networks that are paying for it.

And there's worse ways to go; Kento Yamazaki dives into Xin and gives him a passionate purity that falls short of "useful idiot"; he isn't quite so unaware that he can just be pointed at things indiscriminately to tear them down, and he's got enough sense of self and loyalty that his ambition to become a great general isn't entirely frightening. Yamazaki's big performance ingratiates Xin with the audience and seemingly with the rest of the cast, who have a little more room to play as a result. It helps a lot that he's surrounded by a strong cast of entertaining allies - Ryo Yoshizawa, Kanna Hashimoto, and Masami Nagasawa all connect on the same wavelength to make for the sort of tight-knit cast that can mix melodrama with high adventure and inspire audience loyalty, while Kanata Hongo dives into a thoroughly disreputable villain with relish.

Drop that in the middle of a big, slick movie and you've got an entertaining couple hours. Sato has made eight high-end manga adaptations in the past decade, and the switch to historical adventure from the usual urban sci-fi/fantasy hasn't led him to change his game much. He and his team have a lot more room to play with the big action scenes than usual, as the fighting can spread out and feature lots of impressive swordplay and wire-fu without it having to feel like it fits in a real world that the audience knows well, and regular action director Yuji Shimomura takes advantage, with a ton of fun swordplay and martial arts (with Masami Nagasawa a particular standout). It's big and boisterous action, and the production design crew does a fine job of either transplanting some of the manga's more peculiar designs or creating a world that feels like it could have come out of a comic. It is often downright cool enough that any worries about practicality go right out the window.

It is a bit odd to see a movie about China's warring-states period where everyone is speaking Japanese (even if I only really know this because I recognize a few more phrases in that language than Mandarin), but it's a fun example of the genre. I'd kind of like to see European and Japanese studios partner to get Sato to adapt "Vinland Saga"; it's not always easy to make this sort of comic into a film, and this one is good enough to stand by China's often more resolutely bloody takes on the period.

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originally posted: 08/21/19 12:03:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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