Following the success of Bleach, I least expected Shinsuke Sato to have directed his latest rags-to-renown action adventure epic, Kingdom – a title in what would be a series of thrilling back-to-back films from a director who first landed on my radar around 2004 with a DVD copy of The Princess Blade from A.D. Vision.
Actress Yumiko Shaku starred in that one and showcased key action direction by Donnie Yen, and it aptly invoked Sato in his early growth as a filmmaker who knows action. I still have yet to see all his films, but to date, he’s never let me down; I toiled through the Bleach anime before the film and save for what you can read for yourself, I can easily say it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I’m proud to say I’m not alone in that opinion.
Instantaneously, upon seeing the teasers last October for Kingdom, I had a tremendous feeling that sentiment about Sato would resurface. The action looked among, the set pieces were epic, and the score was absolutely regal – amid which the selling point, One Ok Rock’s title track, “Wasted Nights”, lends a gripping, powerful, youthful, soulful ingredient to the film’s DNA; when you think of Kingdom, you can’t help but hear that song in your head. It was especially my first time hearing it starting late last year as teasers and trailers arose.
U.S. rights holder Funimation now lends its platform to this year’s stateside audiences and with it, a fruitful, spirited, sweeping action epic that delivers with gusto! Based on Yasuhisa Hara’s manga novel series, our story sets in Qin, one of the seven major territories in 255 B.C. during the Warring States period. The film preludes with the pivotal childhood meeting of two young boys, Xin and Hyou, children of peasants who themselves are born into slavery during the Warring States era. Their servitude together leads to friendship, and ultimately a bond as both strive to take up the sword and become the two greatest generals in the world.
After years of perpetual sparring and training together with wooden swords, the two competitive playfellows Xin (Kento Yamazaki) and Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa) have grown immensely in their craft – so much so that one of the King’s own chancellors takes notice under the notion that they’ve been trained by a master. The moment passes and the lord walks away, only to be spotted once again by Shin and Hyou on the property of their owner.
Changwen’s intentions are eventually made clear as Hyou finds himself bought and enlisted to the service of King Ying Zheng. Soon enough after their final sparring match, Hyou and Xin part ways with the latter spending each and every surmounting day, training hard to best himself with every ounce of his being, always mindful of his pact with Hyou.
One evening however, Xin awakens to Hyou’s arrival, bloodied and in critical condition. With his last remaining minutes of breath, Hyou then alerts Xin of a coup at the King’s palace before handing him a map to help rendezvous with the King who is now a wanted fugitive. Piqued with anger, Xin jets off into the night with the intent of avenging Hyou’s death, staying the course of the map’s path until he meets the King for the first time.
Upon his first gaze, Xin’s discovery of the King’s very likeness to Hyou will be the first of his many life-changing revelations and discoveries, enjoined with the ultimate choice of either condemning the King for his double’s sacrifice and returning to a life of slavery, or be free, carry on Hyou’s legacy and hopefully fight for a cause even Hyou knew was greater than himself.
Banding together with a tribal drifter named He Liao Diao (Kanna Hashimoto), the three contend with a harrowing journey to help the King take back the throne. Miles of rough terrain, assassins and bandits lie in wait, and with any luck, a meeting of forces that could not only increase their chances of victory, but also bring the King closer to his dream of a unified China after 500 years of bloodshed.
Sato’s Kingdom is all substance through and through with its sheer lensing and stunning visuals, all beautifully crafted with tremendous set pieces that truly flesh out its maximum potential in key areas. It’s an absolute plus that this template serves as the bed for the performances we get from this cast, constructed with exquisite drama and some upbeat character quirks amid the film’s peril and pathos.
Yamazaki’s Xin is self-assured and hubristic, with good intentions and child-like dreams of greatness. He’s so obsessed with a future that promises life on top of the world with his best friend that when he finally escapes the hut where he’s been enslaved, his wanderlust ultimately challenges his way of life and understanding of things. Despite his tragic loss and grievances with the King, it ultimately brings out the best in him in the process.
Part of that greatness stems from the very sight of a regal-looking Wang Qi (Takao Osawa), Xin’s childhood idol as he marches onward with his legion; For the film’s concurrent timeline, Wang Qi is said to have later retired from his position as general. Despite this, Wang Qi seemingly comes out of retirement and engages with the King’s usurped stepbrother, Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo) in an effort to up his station on palace grounds in exchange for a grim offering.
Actor Yoshizawa contends plentifully in his dimensions for the dual role of both Hyou and King Ying Zheng. Part of what makes this arc of the story so profound lies in its inclusive dissemination of Hyou’s story and how it comes full circle to the film’s contemporaneous timeline, and not just through third person recollections either. It’s perhaps the most essential part of Xin’s motivation for staying in the fight, doing the most for cementing his loyalty to Zheng for his cause.
It’s also prevalent how this goes hand-in-hand with the King’s worldview, and it shows when he meets the mighty chieftain of the mountain tribe. His speech to the chieftain is certainly palpable enough, even if it’s Xin whose own evolution completely steals the scene to its credit.
Masami Nagasawa’s performance is one of sheer physicality and delightful surprise when she appears. If you haven’t seen the anime or read the manga before watching this film, like me, I think you’ll be as delighted as I was. Nagasawa is someone I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing in an action role because of this, and especially given the solemnity she presents in this film.
Hashimoto does her best to make the role of He Liao Diao work, though it’s really the only, obvious point of miscasting seeing as the fact that she’s a female is inescapable for depiction of a boy. I can probably see why she was cast considering not only does she have the height and likely talent to portray a boy if needed, but she also stars in some of the biggest box office hits to date, including Gintama and Gintama 2: Rules Are Made To Be Broken.
I can’t say enough how exhilirating it is to see how Sato brings the action in his films, particularly nowadays with action coordinator Yuji Shimomura on board having worked on several of Sato’s films in this capacity since 2010. Bearing in mind the reception behind Sato’s recent two adaptations, Bleach and Inuyashiki, you get reason enough to posit these two together as a force to be reckoned with.
The action is some of the most leanest, most fantastic and energized you’ll ever see in a film. Shimomura stirs the senses with explosive action design, super-charged fight choreography and dazzling stunts that burst on the screen with sheer electricity and purpose.
Smartly lensed and coordinated with friendly action-on-film care and concern, you’ll be highly pleased with how the action in this film turns out. This is especially a point worth remembering when actor Tak Sakaguchi strolls onto the scene in the role of Lord Zuo Ci – once a general himself and now demoted, thus serving as an enforcer and assassin for the sniveling, illegitimate Cheng Jiao.
Zuo Ci’s killing methods are as cruel as they are fast and brutal, and all the more exciting to watch, especially with him being shepherded by longtime friend Shimomura; You can only imagine the level of fandom damage a Sakaguchi/Sato/Shimomura collaboration would look like. And we’re not too far off from the reception of Re:Born either.
Fans of Japanese cinema may even take notice of actor Masaya Kato and the providence of this particular project long since Ryuhei Kitamura’s Duel Project chambara, Aragami. Kato isn’t too unrecognizable here, but it helps to look carefully – I smiled after noticing him myself, and it was an total pleasure to see this trio on screen, particularly Osawa and Kato in a few key moments.
I’m gonna need some time and affordability one of these days to immerse myself in the anime when I can. In the meantime, I can earnestly conclude from any and all expectations that what you will get from a movie like Kingdom is exactly what you got from nearly any of Sato’s recent films, only ten times with as much resplendence and awesomeness.
Kingdom draws intensely from the kind of period fantasy spectacles audiences have lauded for years from figures like Zhang Yimou, Peter Jackson and even Guillermo del Toro, augmenting scope and scale to a degree and level of brilliance that makes you wish Shinsuke Sato was more well known in the Western world. The film also acclimates itself with some of the best talent by far, and certainly adds a worthwhile notch to Yamazaki’s belt after JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure and Yuichi Fukuda’s Psychic Kusuo.
There’s a dark horse in this story and it reveals itself with thunderous, cathartic repreive near the end. It does rear itself a little bit early on and you might spot it yourself if you’re not too caught up. It’s a cool little easter egg to hold onto until it hatches.
In the meantime, you’ll find yourself in great company with Kingdom when Funimation finally rolls this movie out in select showings across the country next month. If you have the means and the time, go see it and bring a friend. They deserve to witness great cinema.
Tsutomu Kuroiwa, Shinsuke Sato, Yasuhisa Hara
Kento Yamazaki, Ryo Yoshizawa, Masami Nagasawa, Kanna Hashimoto, Kanata Hongo