Hidden Gems: Kingdom

I’m going ahead and putting this show in the Hidden Gems series because I have literally no idea how popular the anime is.  I’ve heard that the manga was quite popular but I’ve heard next to nothing about the anime, and given the relative scarcity of clips available on Youtube, I think it’s ok to consider this show as having at least been somewhat under the radar insofar as the anime is concerned.  That said, this will be a bit longer and more analytical than Hidden Gems posts typically are and there will be some minor spoilers.  Anyway, let’s begin.

Kingdom is shounen-battle anime, it’s also a history anime, set in the Warring States Period of China aka the era of the Seven Kingdoms.  It’s main characters are Xin (Shin), I’ll be doing the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese names in parentheses, Yin Zheng (Ei Sei) and He Liao Diao (Ka Ryo Ten).  Xin (Shin) is former slave who really sucked at all the jobs slaves are supposed to do, despite the fact he is a hard worker, but was really good at fighting both in terms of strength and skill.  Yin Zheng (Ei Sei) is a prince, one of several heirs to the newly-opened throne of Qin, the westernmost of the seven kingdoms.  And He Liao Diao (Ka Ryo Ten) is a bandit dressed in the ancient Chinese equivalent of a chicken suit.  The three seemingly unrelated characters form an interesting trio as they begin on a major life changing journey.

Now before I go into what the show has to offer, I’m going to give you guys the bad news first as it were.  The reason I think the anime went under the radar was that it is ugly as hell, it is heavily reliant on CG and it’s not particularly good CG.  I don’t like attributing a show’s quality to budget alone, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything scream “low budget” like Kingdom outside of Trigger’s Inferno Cop and Ninja Slayer.  Additionally the first 3 or so episodes are probably the most boring in terms of story, it just keeps the status quo going for the most part, and it has the most repetitive dialogue within the series as far as I can remember.  Moreover, the show remains CG-heavy for all of season 1, though admittedly it begins to use some decent looking traditional animation as early as episode 4 of 39.  So I think it’s pretty easy to see why most people who might have been interested dropped this show back when it started airing.  But more to the point, with all of this stacked against it, why in the world am I putting this in series of posts about shows I recommend?

Because despite the stiff limitations placed upon this series, it has managed to deliver in all the ways I had ever hoped it would.  Let’s start with the action.  Action is the bread and butter of the battle-shounen genre, if you can’t do good action in a battle-shounen you are utterly fucked.  And Kingdom, despite the ugly CG, has good action.  Admittedly the CG makes it harder to look at, but there is a lot more to action than just the visual presentation.  Kingdom nails basically all of the non-visual elements, dramatic timing and battle noises in particular.  And even given the ugly CG, I thought Kingdom was able to craft some cool and memorable fights that made the most of what visuals they had.  I mean they still weren’t pretty, but they were imaginative and dramatic, and overall I’d say they really did a good job of drawing me into a show that my eyes usually encouraged me to stop watching.  The action was also a bit more grounded than is typical of shounen-battle shows.  Sure some characters will display inhuman feats of strength and speed, or if you’re Xin (Shin) jump height, but aside from that people behave more like real people.  There aren’t really any nakama power-ups or dudes taking endless beatings and then coming out on top.  In Kingdom if you take a hit it will adversely affect your performance, even the strongest characters start suffering from any damage they take, their attacks get slower, weaker, sloppier, or any combination thereof.  And people take days to recover from any serious wound, if they’re important they might shrug off minor wounds but for the most part the important people avoid taking wounds rather than powering their way through a fight after racking up tons of damage like how Naruto, Bleach or Fairy Tail characters do.  There are still over the top moments and some scenes which stick pretty strongly to battle-shounen tropes, but the action is usually toned down to a more realistic level.  Which brings me to my next point.

Kingdom is a realistic show both in the literal and literary sense.  To clarify this a bit I’m bringing in another history battle-shounen for comparison, Sengoku Basara.  You don’t even have to look past Sengoku Basara’s cover art to figure out it is in no way a realistic portrayal of Japan’s Sengoku Jidai.  It’s action is outrageously over the top, it’s not even remotely within the realm of human ability.  Likewise the characters are less nuanced and look suitably ridiculous, because realism was not something Sengoku Basara was ever going for.  For Kingdom realism is given more consideration.  For example, back in the day kings had to be wary of powerful nobles because nobles had their own private armies and if their armies were better and bigger than the king’s they could try and take the throne.  That’s an extreme and blunt example but Kingdom has this sort of thing, two of the most dangerous characters within royal court are one of the major ministers and the kingdom’s most legendary general.  Both characters have the potential to stand against Yin Zheng (Ei Sei) and either undermine or usurp his rule.  This principal also extends to the nuance in the characters.  Sure Xin (Shin) is the typical loud, strong and stupid shounen hero, but he’s also a slave and he can better connect with, and therefore lead more effectively, his fellow soldiers because even if he outclasses them in terms of ability he knows what it’s like to be a peasant thrown into a war.  He also isn’t actually stupid, so much as he doesn’t know a lot, because being a former slave doesn’t exactly help you get an education, and he doesn’t have a head for grasping situations of a certain scale.  This applies to a lot of real people, some people are great at managing massive companies with legions of employees, others at better at running a mom-and-pop store.  This is not to say there are no fantastical elements or characters, just that they are fewer and farther between.  In fact the main conceit Kingdom wants you to buy into is that major generals are capable of superhuman feats, both physical and mental, because of the weight of their command and the experience it took to get it.  Which is a conceit I’m more than willing to buy into because it’s type of military romanticism, which I like, and the show really knows how to employ the conceit for the purposes of drama.  It may not be totally realistic, but it sure as hell isn’t a weakness for the show.

Next up sound.  What Kingdom lacks in the visual department it makes up for in the audio.  I already mentioned above that the battle noises are fantastic, as you meet more characters you can often tell who is fighting just by the sounds their weapons make and that is not an easy thing to do.  The voice acting is spectacular, Ying Zheng (Ei Sei) reminds me of Lelouch, Xin (Shin) is the loud shounen hero but the voice actor does a really good job of selling the character to me because he communicates Xin’s (Shin’s) passion very well and has a surprisingly good range so that Xin (Shin) isn’t always sounding the same in every fucking scene.  One of the major characters is voiced by the same guy who did the Deep Sea King from One Punch Man and by god that man did a phenomenal job.  And last but certainly not least is the soundtrack.  The soundtrack is full of grand, sweeping tracks made to give the story the feel of an epic.  And importantly the music fits the time period of the show very well, the epic pieces have an Oriental character to them that separates them from the works of more popular composers of epic tracks like Yuki Kajiura and Hiroyuki Sawano, which generally are more Western in terms of instruments used and composition style.  Seriously this soundtrack is to die for.

So Kingdom has a lot going for it, but I think one of the more interesting things about the show is that you can literally see that it does something right between seasons 1 and 2.  I mentioned that season 1 was heavily reliant on bad CG.  Season 2 on the other hand has hardly any CG, it uses almost entirely traditional animation and really good animation at that.  As I said above I think it’s foolish to attribute quality solely or even majorly to budget, but to see Kingdom show such a drastic improvement in visual quality one season later tells me that it was a financial success and had more budget to work when season 2 rolled around.  This is a first for me, I’ve never seen a show make such huge leap in visual presentation, I’ve never seen a show where you almost see it’s financial success story from season 1 to season 2.  It’s just one of those things that makes the show a treat, it makes it worth slogging through the ugly CG so you can bask in awesome traditional animation.  Anyway, I highly recommend this show especially for those of you enjoy shounen battle and/or history anime.  And that about wraps this up.  Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I will see you in the next one.

 

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