Historical fantasy is hard to execute. The genre demands a sense of scale in its worldbuilding and grandiosity in its storytelling in order to attract the interest of audiences looking to lose themselves in its characters and lore. Adapting these stories from another medium to film is always a high-risk, high-reward game. Successes like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones reign supreme in the pop culture zeitgeist, while failures like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and 47 Ronin leave little impression while still costing studios big. Meanwhile, japanese cinema has always found success with chanbara, which by their very nature are period pieces that involve a lot of sword fighting, making for a good equivalent to western fantasy cinema that mythologizes the medieval ages. Recent manga adaptations of works like Blade of the Immortal and Rurouni Kenshin have followed in the filmmaking traditions of chanbara and were excellent modern examples of it.
Yet, even these stories feel small in scale when compared to fantasy filmmaking on the scale of something like Game of Thrones – with its massive armies, elaborate battles in expansive environments, and intricately endless world-building. That sort of cinematic experience can only be accomplished with manpower and resources that for the longest time seemed only possible through Hollywood. However, international cinema has become increasingly ambitious in rivaling Hollywood hits both domestically and overseas. Earlier this year, the Chinese sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth hit big worldwide and remains one of the highest grossing films of the year – and in fact the highest grossing film of the year not made by Disney. The Wandering Earth felt like a declaration that the international cinema scene can make blockbusters that are as massive in scope if not moreso than the best of Hollywood.
While I don’t know if Kingdom will have the same reach or international success, I believe it makes as strong an argument for the viability of fantasy films created outside of Hollywood that I felt The Wandering Earth made for sci-fi blockbusters. While my experiences with japanese cinema are admittedly far from comprehensive, Kingdom is the first japanese fantasy film I’ve seen that felt truly “epic” in the classical sense. It captures the same scope in its world-building and theatricality in its storytelling that I’d expect out of a traditional fantasy film. It’s an adventure that promises something spectacular and then delivers, only to keep topping itself again and again soon after.
The original manga it was based on has never been licensed for western release, but is a best-seller whose popularity has only continued to grow in recent years. After seeing the film, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a compelling rags to riches story about a young man born into a life of slavery working his way up in the world through blood, sweat, and tears to become one of the king’s most trusted soldiers, while aspiring for even greater heights in becoming the greatest general in the world. Entwined in his story is a classic power-struggle plot between two brothers, the rightful ruler planning to retake his power from his unworthy usurper. The fateful encounter between former slave Xin and the cast out emperor Zheng creates an unlikely friendship that helps both achieve their dreams, as they must gather bizarre allies, travel beautiful landscapes, and win a battle with the odds stacked against them 80,000 to 50. All of this is depicted in this film through incredible performances, meticulous costuming, and beautiful environments that give the world a lived-in quality and bring the story to life.
I was told Kingdom featured a star-studded cast, and I wasn’t lead astray. This movie lives on its performances, particularly Kento Yamazaki as protagonist Xin. Shonen action heroes often have personalities that feel larger than life in ways that feel out of place in live-action. However, Xin embodies all the personality traits shonen protagonists are known for – hotheadedness, overreacting when surprised, and an optimistic can-do spirit – and Yamazaki channels it through the veneer of a real person expressing these emotions while also simmering on feelings of resentment and powerless over the death of his childhood friend, which drive his decisions throughout the film. Similarly, all the film’s actors reinterpret all their roles to display more realistically human behaviors, while still retaining quirks like Wang’s “mm-hmm” speech tick and Chang Wen’s absurd childishness. There’s magic to be had when these actors as these characters interact with each other, and the central relationship between Xin and Zheng is particularly compelling thanks to the chemistry and interiority communicated by their actors.
While Kingdom offers plenty of interesting characters and a fascinating world, the action scenes are definitely one of its strongest selling points. The film borrows from Chanbara traditions, particularly in scenes involving Xin going up against assassins and enemy warriors. The action in this movie is more than mere spectacle; they display impressive choreography and stunt-work rooted in believable swordplay. This helps give the more fantastical moments, like Xin jumping high to land a finishing blow on an enemy or Wang Ki blowing back a line of soldiers with a single slash of his sword-staff, an even greater impact by providing a point of comparison to the deadliness of normal swordplay. Most importantly, these action scenes also communicate a sense of weight when the hits land, with the pain the characters feel being readily apparent and their movements being affected believably as a result. and make great use of environments. Whether Xin is maneuvering through a forest of bamboo to avoid an assassin that uses darts or moves back in forth in the throne room as he duels with a master swordsman, there is always continuity in how the characters maneuver through the environment.
Kingdom’s filmmaking stood out to me for its anachronistic stylizations. It employs wipes as transitions between scenes and lingers on moments in ways reminiscent of the likes of Star Wars, but emphasizes spectacle and stunts through sweeping shots showing dozens of people fighting at once and dramatic slow-down moments that have become more popular in recent years thanks to films like Lord of the Rings. The costuming is incredibly detailed and feels authentic, and despite some similar wardrobe choices, the main characters dress in unique ways that reflect their personality and these nuances help make the film’s world feel a bit more real. There are also special effects that feel like excellent throwbacks to 80’s-style costuming and makeup work; I have no idea whether the massive, Frankenstein’s monster-esque Lan Kai was created through practical effects or CGI, but he looked like a creature you’d find in an old horror flick and, most importantly, looked like he really lived in the film’s world. In the same way that Zheng’s army is comprised of soldiers from different paths of life, Kingdom is a mashup of influences that at once hearkens back to blockbusters of eras past while still retaining the sensibilities that modern audiences look for when it comes to fantasy storytelling and action sequences.
I was very lucky to be invited to the North America premiere screening hosted by FUNimation during Anime Expo. It was hosted at the Regal L.A. Live, a big theater next to the JW Marriott and just a short walk away from LACC, where Anime Expo is held. We were sent the invite just two days before, and only received our Eventbrite confirmation the night before. Despite this being a last minute addition to our schedule, we were incredibly excited to see the film and raced over to the theater immediately after the Mewtwo Strikes Back – Evolution screening ended. Upon entering the theater we were greeted by FUNimation representatives who gave us a voucher for a free small popcorn and soft drink and directed us upstairs. We were a bit confused about where to go at first, since one of the staircases upstairs was blocked off, but we made our way up to the second floor. There, FUNimation’s team had a photoshoot set up with standees of the characters and a big backdrop to take pictures against. They interviewed us about our preconceptions of the film and what we expected going into it, and I replied that, as someone who has followed the manga industry for a long time, I was looking forward to finally getting a chance to experience this story for the first time. FUNimation actually included a clip of our interview with them for their Anime Expo Instagram story, which you can find here (we’re on the 10th slide).
After embarrassingly spilling my popcorn (I was holding too many bags, so something was bound to slip), we made our way to the third floor, and headed to Auditorium 8 – where the film was being screened. While most attendees sat in seats in the top half of the auditorium, we decided to sit in the back rows of the bottom section, which was as close to the screen without being overwhelming. I would say that the theater was about half-full if not less – but the enthusiasm of the crowd filled up the room with boisterous laughter and applause throughout the film. I couldn’t gauge how many attendees were already familiar with the source material, but that didn’t matter, because everyone would laugh at Xin’s unflappable snark in the face of danger or when he finally cut down his enemies in a badass display of power of skill. It felt like everyone left the theater satisfied and excited about the film – I heard several “that was so good!” conversations as I exited the theater. When the credits started rolling, my brother whispered in my ear “I think I need to go binge-read 50+ volumes of Kingdom ASAP,” and I heartily felt the same.
While self-contained and satisfying in its own right, Kingdom still felt like a prologue to a larger story about the dream of a unified China, and with the manga having run for over a decade without losing steam I can only imagine the things to come. The film’s been a big hit in Japan, and I’m hoping it does really well during FUNimation’s limited theatrical release beginning on August 16th. I was able to talk with FUNimation representatives after the screening, and remarked to them that I think Kingdom has great points of appeal that is comparable to the likes of GOT, which could help it hit big with audiences outside of anime fans or even fans of japanese cinema. I also speculated at length why Kodansha hadn’t licensed it yet (forgetting that it was actually a Shueshia title, oops!), and I truly believe a great adaptation like this, if it garners enough buzz, could inspire interest from Viz Media or another party to finally bring over the manga for an english release. Great historical fantasy that isn’t based in medieval European mythology is hard to come by, and I’d love to see more Kingdom films be made with this same level of excellence. Kingdom reigns supreme as an example of a great manga-to-film adaptation and as an incredible historical fantasy film that can be enjoyed on its own without any preexisting knowledge of its source material. It can be readily shown to and enjoyed by fans of fantasy epics like LOTR and GOT, and is highly recommended to anyone who wants to expand their horizons and see an example of how international blockbusters are catching up to, and even surpassing, their Hollywood counterparts. Kingdom’s come, and I hope it continues to push boundaries and take fantasy filmmaking to the next level.