Updated Impressions: Kingdom 3

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After giving Kingdom 3 a few episodes to really get in its full swing, I figured it was time to discuss my initial impressions and how closely they matched the episodes as they’ve come out. If you want to look at the first impressions before getting started, it’s linked here.

Ever since I was aware that Kingdom 3 was coming out, i.e. a few days before the new season started, I’ve been slowly re-watching the first two seasons. I’m currently in the early stages of season 2 and sadly it has already confirmed my biggest concern regarding Kingdom 3 – the audio. For starters the audio seems quieter across the board, I have no idea if this is a recording issue, a source rip issue or what but seasons 1 & 2 are significantly louder at the same computer volume, especially the soundtrack. Which leads me to major problem two, the audio balancing. The soundtrack of Kingdom 3 is so quiet that I keep forgetting it’s even there and have to re-watch episodes with extra attention given to listening for the music to even try and identify and remember it.

Because even when the tracks pick up a bit to reflect the intensity of the battles and such, they are frankly completely overpowered by the sounds of the action. A great example is the Qin charge at the start of episode 4/ end of episode 3. There is a decent, tense battle track playing during the charge but fuck me it so hard to hear over the noise generated by the damn charge.  The earlier seasons were not like this at all. The music was just as immense as the charging noises and you literally can’t miss the soundtrack regardless of what’s happening on screen. The only time Kingdom 1 & 2 are quiet is when there is no music and no action or dialogue. This is a gigantic failing because as I’ve detail over the course of multiple posts, the audio of Kingdom is what really makes the anime worth it. There is nothing in the anime you can’t get in the manga besides color (a nice touch but not essential), movement (let’s face it Kingdom’s animation is extremely inconsistent with large stretches where it looks great and equally large stretches where it some of the ugliest animation ever put to film) and sound.  And sound was where the anime shined the most. The voice-acting was amazing, the soundtrack sounded like a good approximation of period appropriate and it was epic enough to match a story with scale and scope of Kingdom – the unification of China with battles a hundred thousand strong.

Moving right along, though if you can find the focus to listen to the quite-ass soundtrack of Kingdom 3 it is in fact noticeably Sawano’ed. Now I like Sawano’s work but his predilection for electronic sound, especially for tension builds, just does not mesh with the setting and character of Kingdom at all. I’m hoping that when we get to the really big moments the music will improve somewhat but it’s honestly really disappointing that the soundtrack is so different from the earlier seasons. Kingdom 1 & 2 were so unique when it came to sound, I’ve never come across any anime that sounds like it and the music choices were so much better reflective of the story’s location and time period. Listening to the soundtrack of earlier seasons of Kingdom alternatively brings a big old smile to my face or makes my hair stand on end.  It’s iconic and gave Kingdom such a distinct character, and watching all the seasons of Kingdom simultaneously, I think that character came as a result of the love poured into Kingdom by the creative teams of the first two seasons, which had way more overlap than either team has with the new team.

Now far be it from me to claim Kingdom 3 is a cynical cash-grab, it’s nowhere near bad enough to merit that label, but I do think it’s safe to assume Sawano was chosen to do the soundtrack for Season 3 because it was seen as a “safe” move from the corporate end of productions.  That because the man is individually very popular and has a good track record, putting him on the job would make the show more marketable to people in the know.  And not to knock Sawano too much, again I love his work on other shows, but I think he made a significant mistake to let his usual style dominate the composition rather than leaning on the soundtracks of the earlier seasons – like at least use them as an inspiration or something. Maybe the soundtracks will improve as things go on but I do not have high hopes on this front.

Last but not least the voice-acting is, well I want to say abysmal but I mean abysmal compared to Kingdom 1 & 2, overall it’s more like passable.  Minor characters being voiced by different people is annoying if inevitable but far more jarring is the drop in quality by the major players – all of whom have the same voice actors.  Again no idea if this is a recording issues, source rip issue or a directing issue, but almost everyone sounds worse than before.

The calmer strategist types tend to be minimally affected if they even sound worse at all but any character with a louder, more extreme personality and character is basically fucked.  Even Xin has taken a big hit here, with his yelling sounding somehow quieter and yet more grating than it was in earlier seasons.  Huan Yi, Wan Ji, Biao Gong, Lu Buwei and newcomer Ordo all have been it very bad.  I feel like this has to at least partially come from an audio recording/balancing problem because these characters in particular sound quieter and less full than they should.  Go back to the earlier seasons and listen to Huan Yi, Wan Ji, Biao Gong or Lu Buwei for a bit and see what I mean, as for Ordo I would use Lian Po as a point of reference for what Ordo should sound like. And listening to the banter between the two main harem girls is very eye-opening, it’s like night and day between Kingdom 2 and Kingdom 3, with the new season sounding seriously inferior.  I think the director is at least partially at fault here because, looking at both the anime and the manga many of these characters have the most personality in their dialogue and mannerisms and it may just be that the new director doesn’t have the experience or vision to bring that aspect of their characters to life or recognize its value.

Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom.  Now that battles are underway and characters have cuts and sweat over their faces and arms, the characters no longer look even vaguely plastic.  Unfortunately I still think Kingdom 2 with it’s thicker outlines and more emphasis on shading and linework looks better – but Kingdom 3 is now looking very solid.  Kingdom 3’s art has its quirks, particularly how it seems to fade out lighter colors while overemphasizing darker colors but it’s at least been very consistently solid so far and there’s no sign of Kingdom 3 dropping back into the horrible CG of Kingdom 1.

And of course the story is as good as ever, dropping us right into one of the biggest events in the story without any kind of rehash of the earlier seasons was a great idea. Kingdom 3 cuts any waiting time and drops right into the big time, the largest battle in the story where the stakes are as high as they can be and the odds of victory are as slim as we’ve ever seen them.  I do somewhat miss the more frequent narration and directing tricks that slowed earlier seasons of Kingdom down for dramatic effect and build-up, but I can’t really complain with how the story has progressed thus far because this is arguably the most complex arc of the manga in terms of the sheer number of characters, soldiers, number of battles and so forth that need to happen.

Overall Kingdom 3 is looking fairly good and I will be along for the ride, it only really stumbles when you compare it to Kingdom 2.  And that is a shame but nothing about Kingdom 3 indicates that will fall apart or end up being a shit sequel like some other high-profile sequels to old properties.  Thanks for reading, see you in the next one.

First Impressions: Kingdom 3

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Man is this about to get messy.  On the one hand as soon as I bothered to check the season charts and saw Kingdom 3 I raised my fists to the sky and cried out in manly victorious joy.   And on the other I found some things about first episode of the new season somewhat off-putting and a casual glance into the comment sections revealed that not only was hardly anyone being critical but the few who were not getting a great reception.  Fuck it, here we go.

Just to appease any naysayers and set the groundwork for anyone who hasn’t read my prior reviews of Kingdom, let me start with this: I love Kingdom.  It’s probably my favorite manga with Berserk being the only real competition and even the anime, maligned as it so often is for the so-ugly-it-hurts CG of season 1 is still in my top 5.  Any criticisms that follow do not come from a place of hate, they come from a place of passionate love for this series balanced against the cautious cynic in me who had nothing but hope for the similarly long-awaited D Gray -Man sequel only to be brutally disappointed, so much so that I’d honestly rather D Gray Man never got a sequel than get D Gray-Man Hallow.  As of episode 1, Kingdom 3 does not have any serious indicators that it will be bad or will fail, but there are some noticeable changes from Kingdom 2 – and while many in the comments sections seem to see this as a pure upgrade I am not among them.  To me Kingdom 2 was the high-water mark for the anime adaptation, and seeing how it held that position for 6 years a lot of the stylistic choices of Kingdom 2 are what I mostly strongly identify Kingdom with.  And while I’m not against change per se, I am wary whenever a long-awaited sequel comes around and starts changing things that I didn’t have a problem with or even loved.  With that in mind let’s address the most noticeable change fight off the bat shall we?

The visuals of Kingdom have long been a contentious issue.  The first season is rightly mocked for being pretty hideous, Kingdom 2 saw massive visual improvements and now Kingdom 3 is bringing a new visual style into the mix.  It’s immediately and very noticeably different from Kingdom 2 but it’s not necessarily a major downgrade – in fact many commenters think it’s an upgrade.  However the new artstyle has some bizarre quirks.  Certain colors, most noticeably the armor and clothes colors are more vivid than in earlier seasons but other colors seem faded by comparison.  For example Li Mu’s hair looks dull light brown in season 3 despite being golden-brown blonde in earlier seasons.  However it’s the skin and facial expressions which have taken the biggest hit.

In season 2, which I think was when Kingdom looked the best, there’s not a lot of shadows cast on characters’ faces.  Instead they give more definition by adding extra line work, usually in form of dirt smudges and cuts.  Same goes for the bodies, you tend to see the muscles lines in Xin’s arms whereas Season 3 doesn’t have that thus far.  Season 3’s artstyle seems to be replacing linework with shadows and it’s not quite as good.  Perhaps the best example of the problems with this style are faces of Changwenjun and Changping in throne room.  Their faces are brightly lit as though they are outside or as if there’s a big torch flickering in a dark room – but neither is the case, and there are shadows all over everyone’s faces which present the suggestion of not only lighting where there isn’t any but also the of lines and shading to give the facial expressions more definition, structure and character.  However it makes them look kind of plastic when compared to the artwork of season 2, where there were fewer shadows used but colors tend to be less vivid.  Maybe this will end up working out since it seemed like less of an issue when characters were outdoors and thus would have more natural lighting but frankly I just preferred the duller and more grounded colors of Kingdom 2 and I seriously hope they bring back more line work to add detail to the faces during the course of battles and so on.  Moving on.

The pacing seems faster than before.  Maybe this will only apply to episode 1 because it needs to get so much information across so quickly but the 3rd person narration was minimal and it felt like the episode flew by.  That may continue in the long run or it may just be a quirk of this episode but earlier seasons of kingdom definitely slowed themselves down with lots of narration.  And while I can certainly see some people preferring this faster pace, I kind of liked the slow methodical rhythm of earlier seasons because it gave the show a lot of character and helped to add to the weightiness of conflicts and characters, which is frankly one of the strongest selling points of Kingdom – its ability to imbue individual characters with so much weight and history as to make them feel overwhelming.  No other anime I’ve come across has been able to generate such palpably powerful living legend type characters as Wang Yi and Lian Po.   Maybe I’m being paranoid but it could also mean this will be a much shorter season and so they have to cut down on narration and speed things up, which would be a real shame.  Sadly the issues of episode 1 only get more serious from here.

The music is barely noticeable, seriously when I was gathering my initial thoughts I realized I had no recollection of the soundtrack at all and re-watched the episode with special focus on the music, and let me tell you it was unimpressive and forgettable, so much so I actually did totally forget to pay attention to it for a few minutes in the middle which I had to go over that part again.  This is a huge issue because the massive swelling tracks from the earlier seasons were one of the main attractions of the anime over the manga.  Despite the terrible visuals of earliest episodes of Kingdom the soundtrack was immense and overpowering – it truly helped to sell the sheer scale and scope of the action taking place.  Now I like Sawano and his work but episode 1 is severely lacking on the music front and it needs attention.

It would be much better for the soundtrack to be loud, omni-present and possibly overshadowing the events on screen than for it to be quite and easily lost in the episode.  Because Kingdom is about a colossal conflict with hugely important figures of history – if anything the music needs to be so grand and epic that it would feel out of place or overdramatic in any other series, that’s the level of sound that made the Kingdom anime worth coming back to.  And frankly my biggest concern here is not that Sawano can’t perform, but that the new director and the creative staff do not see or understand the vision and design that made the prior seasons so good.  Because while all 3 seasons have different directors, seasons 1 and 2 had a lot more overlap in the creative staff – at least for the people who are listed so far.  And after the immense letdown that was D Gray Man Hallow, I’m painfully aware of how badly a new staff with a different vision can botch a great IP.

Even more off-putting to me though is the voice-acting.  While the main cast is still voiced by the same people some of there performances felt a lot weaker.  Meng Tian, Teng and Lu Buwei are most noticeable in this regard.  They all come off as much more serious than before.  Part of this was no doubt to do with the seriousness of the crisis at hand, and is therefore defensible – but the paranoid part of me is worried that this a bad call on the part of the new director.  Meng Tian and Lu Buwei both had a great deal more playfulness in their delivery in prior seasons and that is sorely missed here, especially from Meng Tian since his only lines in this episode come before the crisis unfolds.  Teng is also a huge disappointment.  Part of the charm of his character was how he sounded and behaved a kinda goofy, contrasted by his unstoppable power when he goes beast-mode.  There was none of that prior goofiness in his delivery in episode 1 and having read the manga, he will need it for future scenes and conversations.  They also switched out the voice actors of some relatively minor but frequently recurring characters, which is understandable given the time-gap and the ludicrous size of Kingdom’s cast but it’s also a disappointment because we see a lot of these characters later down the line.  Shi Shi is a good example as are Lu Wuwei and Gan Yang.

Now despite the doom and gloom predictions, I don’t think this is a massive downgrade or anything, nor is it enough to make me stop watching – I sat through season 1 so I can handle worse animation in the name of a good story.  But rather than lose myself to the hype I want to be cautiously optimistic.  The last time I was this hyped for a sequel was when D Gray-Man Hallow came out and that was a fucking tragedy, a massive downgrade on every possible front made watchable only because of the good plot.  Now Kingdom has not shit the bed already the way D Gray-Man Hallow did in its first episode but I’d rather worry and be proven wrong than charge into this uncritically and end up disappointed.

The biggest worry for me is the audio.  If all I cared about were visuals and story then I would just read the manga where Kingdom is concerned.  But the music and voice-acting in seasons 1 and 2 were so strong that I felt it was worth watching the anime as well as reading the manga – the sounds of Kingdom were the most crucial component of the anime experience and right now they are not looking so hot.  That may yet change as we get to the actual battles and hype moments but probably my biggest concern with Sawano’s music is that I don’t know if it’s the right fit for Kingdom.  I mean don’t get me wrong the man is amazing but I think his music shines the most when it’s going for the big hype moments or big emotional moments but is relatively unimpressive in between these moments.  Kingdom’s soundtrack should be powerful all the time, because frankly most of what’s going on is hype.  Sure the big duels between important characters are especially important but underselling the drama of the clashes between armies a hundred thousand strong would be a massive mistake.

That’s about all I’ve to say on the subject for now.  Hopefully I didn’t kill too much fanboy hype for Kingdom 3 and truth be told I sincerely hope future episodes prove all my concerns to be unfounded.  I’m so glad Kingdom is back, especially now that it’s tackling possibly the biggest arc of the manga.  I want this to be the best, 10/10 show of the season that beats the fuck out of me for ever doubting it.  But for now, I’ll be holding on to those doubts until I’m proven wrong.  Thanks for reading.  See you in the next one.