Understanding Presence and Weight with Kingdom

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No other anime I’ve seen has even come close to mastering the idea of character presence as Kingdom has.  The best comparison point I can think of off-hand is Rider from Fate Zero – but even he pales in comparison to the top tier characters of Kingdom.  I don’t expect most people to care, most people haven’t even heard of Kingdom while Fate Zero is widely known and held in high regard, and for good reason.  But if on the off chance you’re a total weirdo like me and have a deep fascination with the idea and portrayal of a living legend, Kingdom is best there is.  Period.

Jumping back a little for the sake of context, Kingdom is a historical shounen (though some sites call it a seinen and there arguments for why it should be) battle series set in the Chinese Warring States Period in the 300s BC (not to be confused with the Japanese period of the same name in the 1500s AD).  It follows Xin, who in typical shounen fashion wants to be the best there ever was – in this case the greatest general in history – and Yin Zheng the young king of Qin, the easternmost and second most powerful of the seven kingdoms in China, who wishes to conquer all of China.  As the minor battles in this show contain hundreds of fighters (at minimum) and the important wars involve hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting over several days important people have to be able to wipe the floor with tons of random soldiers before dueling other people of the same power level.  Kingdom’s way of handling the obvious break from realism is to uphold the idea that the weight of one’s command – among important characters – is a source of strength which enables them to run roughshod over weaker foes.  Kingdom takes this very literally as the weight of one’s command directly affects the power of one’s blows and how strong a blow they can receive without issues.

This of course is not the only source of strength or skill, experience, size, muscle build, etc. all play a role and the weight is often an elusive thing to gauge as people with significantly smaller commands can fight on equal footing with those of greater commands.  Also this whole weight is power thing doesn’t apply to strategists whatsoever.  Nonetheless the idea is integral to Kingdom and does a fucking fantastic job on delivering on one of the shows overall greatest strengths, dramatic payoffs.

Kingdom does a phenomenal job of building tension and then bringing a satisfying payoff.  If I had to sum the show up in one word it would be big.  Big armies, big characters, big talk, big music, big impact.  It’s hard not to get swept up in the hype when you’re watching characters you like charge headlong into a giant army with his trusted soldiers at his back with big booming oriental orchestral swells thundering in the background – seriously Kingdom’s music is fucking awesome and it would totally overwhelm scenes of suitably less gigantic action.

Of course the scenario above will fall apart at the first hurdle if you don’t like the characters, so naturally Kingdom takes a lot steps to ensure that you do.  Everyone of note has highly distinct designs, there are dozens of specialized armor variants for noteworthy armies and special armor for important generals.  In a similar vein all the characters have different hairstyles and facial features, weapons, banners and so forth to make them all stand out.  Where the weight and presence bit comes into its own is for the older generals.  In comparison to Xin most of the major enemies or important, older allied characters are significantly physically larger, and thus can pack a lot more punch to their attacks.

Another major factor to consider is the mental side of the equation.  In typical shounen fashion Xin is kind of a dumbass, though I would contend he is somewhat smarter than he appears and his stupidity has a clear source, he grew up as slave with no education.  There is however a lot of tactical play going on and the top tier characters are capable of stunning feats of strategy -no joke some of this shit is Death Note-style complex planning – which spice up the more basic, if no less satisfying frontal assaults of more brutal and martial generals.  Moving away from a character’s intellect however the mental effects of certain strategies and actions play a large role as well.  Bloodlust/killing intent and morale have significant effects on a character’s ability to perform in battle, so how certain characters go about inspiring morale plays a large role in their tactics and actions.

What this is all building up to is the logical endpoint, the generals who are big, skilled, have tons of experience, and who are famous for their exploits, the kind of people Xin wants to be.  The two giants among men who appear in the anime are Wang Qi and Lian Po, two legendary generals who were among the biggest names in all of China during their golden age several decades ago.  They are both masterfully done characters with highly distinct designs, excellent voicework, unrivaled power, top tier tacticians and more weight and presence than anyone else in anime.  It’s hard to say exactly what grants them this quality, what allows them to so perfectly encapsulate, to me obviously, the idea of a living legend.  It could be the things described above, it could be their glorious careers from years past and how the rest of world still treats their names with awe.  It might be how, on occasion they speak of their older days and how impressive they make that era seem.  The most obvious answer is that it’s all these things – and that would explain why this ability to capture the feel of living legend is exclusive to Kingdom, as their backstories are bound to Kingdom.

But at the same time I feel like it has to be more than that.  I think I could make similar arguments about some of the characters in Arslan Senki but they’ve never captured the same appeal, certainly not to the degree Kingdom has.  All I can say for sure is that when one of the generals loses and is forced to surrender, has a less successful man from his era tell him to retire, and his response is “Don’t be stupid.  I’m on active duty til I die!”  while he charges down a small mountain and one of this big orchestral swells plays in the background I watched the scene over and over like 40 times because it was just that special, it had that much impact.

The point of a lot of shounen characters, especially major enemies like Madara or old badasses like Netero, is to be these larger than life entities which draw you the viewer into a clash of epic proportions.  It’s what makes battle’s whose scale would be derided in mainstream TV not only possible but fucking glorious to watch.  And Kingdom, for all it’s faults has mastered the art of making larger than life characters to a degree which surpasses all of the competition.  I picked up Kingdom  after the second season finished airing and I’ve yet to see anything, newer or older, which gets close to capturing that larger than life, living legend feel like Kingdom did.  And it is my sincere belief that this ability to portray such gigantic characters the way Kingdom does, is why both seasons are rated upwards of 8 on sites like MAL, where the second season of Kingdom currently sits at #88.

Personally I would count Kingdom among my top five shows with ease, possibly in the top three, and by extension highly recommend it to anyone who sounds even vaguely interested.  I’ve also written about the show before here, in case you wanted more of an overview.  This is all despite the fact season 1 is burdened with a lot of low tier-CG and physics can often be very loosely applied in combat.  It doesn’t matter, because Kingdom moves past all of it’s issues and the weight and presence of it’s best characters is one of the main reasons.  Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Let’s Talk About Fate

So Fate:Grand Order – First Order came out recently and it was alright I guess.  It had great digital effects, cool Heroic Spirits and well that’s about it really, and it got me thinking about why it is that, contrary to most people, I’m getting less and less excited for anything Fate-related and by extension Ufotable in general as it’s becoming a Fate factory.  There will be scattered spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.

Few things in the anime world sadden me the way Fate does.  It should be right up my alley and I should be drooling over each new entry.  I mean it’s got magic (awesome), famous historical figures reincarnated as super-powered badasses (especially awesome for a history buff like me), action (always a plus), and convoluted lore I can dig into for hours (because lore is my drug).  That said since Fate Zero I’ve gotten less and less enthusiastic about anything Fate and I think First Order highlights some of my issues with the Fate franchise rather nicely.  Though to it’s credit at least First Order seems to be something of a progression from the prior series, which is more than I can say about the coming Heaven’s Feel movie Fate fans have been hyping for months.  One of the main problems I mentioned in my review of Unlimited Blade Works is that the Fate anime are adapted as if they’re still visual novels, they have several different routes and Ufotable is doing work on multiple routes.  If you’re a fan of the games this might sound cool but stop and think for a second about how weird it is in a film medium.  Did you ever see a Lord of the Rings where Aragorn shacks up with Eowen instead of Arewyn?  Or maybe a Harry Potter where Harry and Hermione are a couple?  Discounting any fanfic you’ve read or seen, no you haven’t because that’s not how storytelling works.  In anime it’s mostly standard practice to blend all the route of the visual novel together and have the guy settle on whichever girl and thus keep the series as single definitive story, like in Clannad for example.  As far as I’m aware the Fate anime are the only series to just do straight adaptations of the visual novel routes separately, without regard for the other shows.  It feels weird and out of place, like if they rebooted a Marvel movie a year after it came out to swap the romantic pairings and change a few battles.

Even setting aside the inherent off-ness of Ufotable’s current approach to the various Fate routes and series, the real nail in the coffin is the characters.  Fate Zero was written by Gen Urobuchi, not the creator of the mainstay Fate-verse aka the Nasuverse, and his style is I think vastly superior to Nasu’s in terms of characters.  Fate Zero’s characters were mostly grounded and realistic in comparison to Nasu’s, who are generally more archetypal and tropy.  Even if we focus on the only teenage character in Fate Zero to make things more fair, he’s still leagues ahead of his Nasu counterparts.  Waver Velvet was a kid, a weak and unimpressive kid in the magical world, who desperately wanted to show the arrogant old guard of the wizard world, who dismiss him out of hand because his family’s magical lineage isn’t long and distinguished enough, that he was worthy, that his ideas and existence held weight.  He had no journey or path, he just wanted his worth to be recognized.  And he’s one of the few survivors of the Fate Zero Holy Grail War that leaves both alive and with a hopeful road ahead of him after Rider acknowledges his worth and shows him a new path to take.  By comparison Rin is a bossy tsundere, Shiro is borderline retarded, wrapped up as he is in his ideas of heroism and justice, and Shinji is a cartoonishly awful and pettily arrogant bully.  The only characters who were cartoonish in Fate Zero were Caster and his master, and they were fucking hilarious because their insanities complemented each other so well, and the story made it explicitly clear that they were outliers.

And let me stress again because it can never be stressed enough, fuck Shiro.  Shiro’s inane monologues about how his ideas are fake but they still hold worth or how Archer’s (he’s Shiro in the future in case you weren’t aware) conclusions are correct too, but he’s going to choose his own path because it’s right and- Jesus. Fucking. Christ.  Shiro is like half of everything wrong with Fate, and no, Archer being badass for a few fights doesn’t save him because Archer is by far my least favorite Heroic Spirit since he’s actually a Counter Guardian.  If that makes no sense you then congratulations you’ve seen the next big problem I’m going to get to in a minute.  One of things I think should be cut from Fate entirely is any emphasis on romance whatsoever.  None of the romantic interests are particularly interesting characters and the guy they all want to fuck is the most annoying thing Nasu ever created, the only romance worth a damn was Kiritsugu and Irisviel because it had more relevance to course of the Fourth and Fifth Holy Grail Wars and was actually interesting conceptually given that Irisviel was a Homunculus and by the time Fate Zero rolled around, in the process of dying before becoming the Holy Grail vessel, which her husband later destroyed.  The high school romances are boring as hell and the Fate Stay Night ShiroxSaber route legitimately pisses me off, in comparison.  Speaking of Saber, she was a weaker character in UBW than in Fate Zero, even though she should be getting more complex and nuanced, and therefore a stronger character.  But the main reason I think all the romance shit (sans Kiritsugu and Irisviel) should be cut is because we need spend that time on things that actually matter, like explaining the lore and mechanics of the Holy Grail War and some character development.

The single most common argument you get from anyone defending any Fate anime is that the games were better, that the games explained everything that didn’t make into the anime and made the characters better.  They may well be right, maybe the games are perfect masterpieces, but that doesn’t save the anime.  This isn’t a problem in Fate Zero because if anything that conflict was too drawn out and the only thing left unexplained was how exactly the Holy Grail had become corrupted (an important plot point for future works).  By contrast UBW doesn’t even explain that the reason Shiro’s magic gets so powerful so abruptly in the series is because it’s derived from his Origin, like how his adoptive father Kiritsugu had special bullets that could destroy a mage’s magic circuits thanks to his Origin, Cut and Bind.  I still don’t get how Caster (UBW’s Caster) was able to summon and command Assassin though a few Fate fans have tried to explain it to me.  The Counter Guardian thing from above, basically a human that makes a pact with the world and becomes a time travelling hero-figure, introduces new complexities into the lore that the anime has not yet fully addressed.  Likewise the character development in UBW is lackluster at best, because A, it barely happens and B, the archetypal characters are boring.  Why not cut the romance and used the added time to bring some more nuance to the characters, to make them grow more over the course of the conflict?  Anyway that’s enough bitching about Fate in general, time to look at First Order.

First Order introduces a ton of new material and a metric ton of nonsense magic and science words to get it’s rather straightforward scenario rolling.  First Order is basically the beginning of mankind’s desperate attempt to stave off extinction, which was decreed by some being, potentially the metaphysical consciousness of the world (which yes is a thing and it’s what allowed Shiro to become a Counter Guardian).  This simple premise is obscured by mountains of mumbo jumbo about Chaldea, a system which I’m honestly a little confused about because it’s function is supposed to be ensuring mankind survives in top form for a hundred years, but it’s unclear whether or how Chaldea actually does anything beyond being a display/warning system.  There are all kinds of new magic-tech babble concepts like Rayshifting and Spiritron Dives to accompany the use of Chaldea and the people sent to fix the anomalies which appears to be what kick-started the mass extinction of mankind.  I admit that the end goal, fighting a bunch of screwy Holy Grail Wars to save mankind is interesting but it took wading through a lot of nonsense to get to the good stuff.

In addition, two of the new concepts that are actually interesting are Demi-Servants and the Shielder class.  Mash the main girl of First Order becomes the first, and going by the wiki, only Shielder class Servant and a Demi-Servant.  A Demi-Servant is a human who merges with a Heroic Spirit, presumably a weaker one that couldn’t manifest otherwise though that’s just speculation on my part.  The Shielder class raises a few questions though.  Have Shielders always existed and just not been allowed to participate in Holy Grail Wars?  Were they not deemed worthy to compete for the Grail? Or are the Shielders a newly minted class because the anomalies have screwed with the rules of the Holy Grail Wars?  Is the Shielder perhaps a manifestation of mankind’s collective will to survive (not that much of a stretch by Fate standards) and not a true Heroic Spirit at all?  Is that the reason Mash is the only Shielder or is it just coincidence?  If it’s a Heroic Spirit who is it?  The shield doesn’t match any real designs as far I know, though it’s closest to the Celtic and Norse Cross shields, but the symbols on the shield as well as the Wall it can summon suggest Eastern origins though I can’t say for sure where, so where the hell is her Heroic Spirit from?  Thus far all of the above are unanswered but I hope Mash will get addressed in more detail later.

Unfortunately First Order seems to be closer to UBW in terms of tone and writing.  It has its own Rin, Director Animusphere (which is an awful name), to play the generic tsundere, the main guy is a cookie cutter nice guy but at least he’s not as annoying as Shiro.  An interesting thing to note is that is that the main guy has Rin’s face, I’m not kidding save for the fact that First Order’s protagonist has a more angular jaw-to-chin compared to Rin’s rounded jaw-to-chin its the same fucking face, it’s weird and lazy on Ufotable’s part.  The other characters are quirky, Leff in particular looks like he’s cosplaying a leprechaun before he becomes an edgy cackling villain at the end, and the mostly lighthearted quirkiness doesn’t at all fit the overall tone the premise and Fate franchise in general has set for itself.  For whatever reason UBW’s Lancer is reincarnated as Caster, which makes no sense because why does he know magic?  I can’t say I’ve dug deep into his, Cu Chulainn’s, legend but what research I’ve done doesn’t suggest he learned magic at all.  Regardless of how he became Caster, him using a Wickerman was in keeping with his Irish origins but his other magic was based on Norse runes which obviously aren’t from Ireland so what the fuck’s going on there?  Poor attention to detail.  Other than that it was alright.

First Order isn’t great, hell it’s not even particlualarly good, but it’s mildly entertaining and pretty to look at.  If nothing else it seems it’s taking the Fate franchise in a new and possibly interesting direction, and there’s no Shiro so that’s something to look forward to.  This was mostly an excuse to bitch about Fate and Ufotable though, hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.