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.

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Raging Rant: Fuck Nobunaga and the Shinsengumi (and Japan)

History anime are by and large a joke.  I say this not because I hate history, in fact I love history the way a normal American loves football and apple pie.  But just fuck Nobunaga and the Shinsengumi.  With only a few exceptions I’m aware of, all history anime take place during the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period) in the 1500’s and Loyalist Rebellion in the late 1800’s.  Their have been some fun, good and even famous anime from these time periods, like Rurouni Kenshin or Gintama.  But I, and many people who I’ve also heard complain about this topic, are sick to death of Nobunaga and the Shinsengumi.  They’re fucking everywhere, and even when it’s not about them specifically when I see a show like Onihei roll around I can’t help but be a little disappointed by the fact that it looks just like a show about the Shinsengumi, because the main guy has a similar job.  And Nobunaga is in everything, some of it’s good like the recent Drifters or Nobunagun.  But the stories of these figures are so well trodden and their notable traits, beahviors and even verbal ticks so popularized that they’re pretty fucking boring.  Even in a fantasy show like Drifters you can totally predict that Mitsuhide would show up as an End because Nobunaga was a Drifter, everything about these characters is predictable and that’s rather boring really.

This is why I consider most of the best history shows to be historical fantasies like Seirei no Moribito, which builds a phenomenal setting and society to recreate the feeling of a history show, or Akatsuki no Yona which is great fantasy historical action-romance-drama thing, or Arslan Senki which I’ve praised in detail multiple times, or Katanagatari, which is all about possibilities and subverting history, or Junketsu no Maria (Maria the Virgin Witch) which mixed witches and mythology into the Hundred Years War.  These are all great shows and I highly recommend them but it would be great to get a more normal, realistic history show which avoids Nobunaga and the Shinsengumi somehow.  And we just don’t.  The only example I can come up with is Kingdom, which is fantastic.  The thing that really gets me about this is that it’s not like Oda Nobunaga and Shinsengumi are necessarily the coolest figures, or their eras the coolest points, in Japan’s history.  I think the Gempei War, which completely redefined how Japan’s military, social and political organizations would function from the 1100’s to the 1800’s is far more interesting.  Which is why I was really glad they brought in Yoichi in Drifters and Himiko, a semi-mythical prehistoric queen of Japan, in the awful Nobunaga the Fool, they shed a hint of light on interesting and largely unexplored, in anime at least, periods of history.  Hell a historical fantasy anime featuring Himiko fighting monsters and/or ancient gods practically writes itself.  But what would be even better would be if Japan just branched out a little.

Kingdom and Arslan Senki, and arguably a few scenes from the Fate series are steps in this direction but if we could get a mostly realistic anime of of ancient history outside of Japan I would kill the nearby peasants and loot the local castle to pay for that shit.  There’s so many possibilities, any time period for Rome, the Greco-Persian Wars, the Hunnic invasions and the rise of Attila, maybe go for some original story set in Mesoamerica because most of their history is a mystery, or maybe some Viking story about invading Britain or discovering North America, Egypt, the famed Gupta empire and Chandragumpta of India, the great Arab conquests, the Crusades, the Mongol invasions of Europe or China, an original story featuring the Sea Peoples who suddenly ravaged most of the ancient world without warning, you could even do a Gilgamesh spin off set in ancient Sumeria, etc.  The possibilities are endless and that’s just ancient history, what about the Bolshevik Revolution, the Crimean War, the Opium Wars maybe go for the Protestant and Catholic wars following Luther’s 99 Theses, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc.  There are so many possibilities I can’t even list them all and that’s just the the shit I know, there’s tons of history I don’t know jack about that could make great anime too.  But instead we just get Nobunaga and the Shinsengumi on repeat at least dozen times each and they get mentioned in almost everything with even the slightest connection to history and historical figures.  Stop it Japan.

This leads me to my next point and if you read my Patriotism Problem post then this will sound familiar but Japan really needs to work it’s tendency to make Japan always look good.  I’m not even talking about really controversial shit like admitting to the Rape of Nanking,  I’m talking about basic shit not making the JSDF invincible when fighting dragons *cough Gate cough*.  I can’t tell if it comes from the insecurity of an inferiority complex or the ego of a superiority complex but Japan always goes way out of it’s way to make sure it’s the best.  Oh UBW you have super powered historical figures eh?  Fine be sure to give Sasaki Kojuro a technique so good it transcends heroic abilities and enters the realm of divine swordsmanship to make us look better (I’m not making that up UBW’s Assassin technique, the fabled Tsubame Gaeshi, is explained as being better than the power of mere heroes and stepping into the realm of the gods at least in the wiki, can’t remember if that made it into the show itself).  Nobunagun you have people with super powers based on their ties to historical figures? Make sure to give the girl tied to Nobunaga the all-around best abilities to make us look better.  Drifters you have a bunch of historical figures fighting in Middle Earth?  Ok make sure to have an unusually large portion of the heroes taken from Japan and make them all super badass to make us look better.  I could give examples like this for days.

Japan it’s fucking embarrassing, and more than little irritating sometimes.  Look I’m from America and I have no problem with patriotism and being proud of your heritage.  But it intrudes on the story when you say deliberately make Hannibal Barca, one of the most revered generals of all time, a senile old man to make sure he doesn’t outshine his Japanese contemporaries in Drifters for example.  Japan’s obsession with inflating it’s own image and/or worth in historical shows is a complete waste of time.  It’s a minor nuisance at best and can totally break a story at worst.  I just don’t really get why it even exists.  To me it projects an arrogant fragility more than anything else and it severely limits what most anime with even the loosest ties to history can do and where they can take place.  There plenty of western medieval fantasies or recent WWI/WWII era fantasies like Shuumatsu no Izetta but the, in my opinion of course, far more interesting ancient world is left frustratingly untapped because of Japan’s need to always look like the best.

That’s it really, just wanted to flip Japan the bird and scream ineffectually at it like a bunch of liberals at an anti-Trump protest, which is the kind of thing I can only say here because California is overrun by liberals and trying to argue with them is an exercise in futility.  I don’t expect many people to care much about this, I don’t typically envision most readers as history buffs, I just needed to get it out of my system.  On the off chance you are interested give some of those shows I recommended a shot or if you just want to talk history for a bit that’d be fun too.  Thanks for reading and see ya next time.

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.