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Fantasia 2019: ‘Kingdom’ Unites Chinese Lore and Japanese Talent for a Good Time

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There exists a plethora of wuxia films depicting either relatively accurate or highly fictionalized eras of China’s storied past, tales of kingdom unifications, uprisings, and many other ups and downs painted with the blood of famous warriors. Action movie fair highlighting more recent eras in Chinese history have had no trouble reminding audiences again and again and again that they and the Japanese have not been the best of friends for some time. As far as casual wuxia film fans are concerned, Kingdom comes out of the proverbial woodwork. As the movie opens and the Chinese characters begin to converse in what sounds a lot like Japanese, one would be forgiven if the projectionist erroneously chose to play the dubbed version.

Not so! Kingdom, despite being steeped in Chinese lore, is in fact inspired by a manga — essentially what people name comics from Japan (though the author is admittedly a comic book/graphic novel/manga layman, so please reserve hate mail for a more worthy topic if the nomenclature causes feathers to bristle). As such, director Shinsuke Sato embraces the opportunity to bring said manga to life with all the buoyance one can expect from a comic that takes a look at a period war piece from a swashbuckling angle. 

Kingdom transpires during the Warrior States period (about 221 BC) at a time when China was as divided as can be, with chieftains and state leaders willingly engaged in battle either to protect what they owned or get their mittens on more land. Li Xin and Piao are young boy slaves toiling away on a farm, each with dreams of one day becoming the greatest generals China has ever seen. They practice with wooden swords for years into early adulthood until Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) is suddenly purchased by the Qin Emperor for undisclosed reasons, whilst Xin (Kento Yamazaki) is left behind to continue farming away. Xin’s chance to play a role in the great battles comes knocking one night when Piao unexpectedly returns, bloodied and exhaling his dying breaths. Piao reveals that his highness Ying Zhen’s dastardly brother set in motion a mutiny, overthrowing the rightful leader and now ruling with an iron fist. Just before joining his ancestors, Piao hands Xin his swords and demands that he make the trek to a nearby village to meet someone of special importance. A distraught, tearful Xin agrees to honour his friend’s wishes, and thus begins an unforgettable journey of self-discovery, action, and new friends.

And so with Kingdom we have the sort of picture traditionally handled by the Chinese being adopted to the silver screen by the Japanese. Perhaps it is unfamiliarity with the deep ins and outs of each country’s film industries, but the effect is a little bizarre during the first few minutes. Nevertheless, it ultimately makes for an interesting cinematic experience, both because the movie as a whole possesses some very Chinese qualities, as well as the injection of some typically Japanese qualities. Regarding the latter point, the acting is arguably what stands out the most, especially with regards to star Kento Yamazaki as Xin. It isn’t a question of the actor delivering a poor performance per se, although it’s safe to say that that Yamazaki is taking a page out of the Toshiro Mifune book of thespianism. Not the High and Low variety of performance, but more like his Seven Samurai work — enjoyable for sure, if a little histrionic, with some moments that might have been served with a modicum of subtlety that are instead blown up with emotions worn loudly on the character’s shoulders. 

A second quality of Kingdom that stems from yet another great Japanese master makes its presence known in the form of the wipe transition from one scene to another. Although made recognizable in western cinema by George Lucas’ Star Wars, the American was inspired by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, who regularly made use of the technique. Whether wiping up, down, left to right or vice versa, it’s a nice, clean, visually pleasing aesthetic that allows the viewer to keep the final shot of one scene in mind as the transition to the next occurs. This happens frequently in Kingdom, which itself feels very à propos, since Kurosawa dabbled in great war epics often during his career.  

As far as wuxia epics go, Kingdom is a winner for multiple reasons — most notably, its reliance on simple (but no less effective) character relationships. At the risk of spoiling part of the film, albeit for something that’s revealed very early on, the individual Xin encounters at the local village to begin his quest is in fact the destitute Ying Zhen (also Ryo Yoshizawa)…who looks exactly like Piao. Having put the pieces of the puzzle together, Xin understands that Piao had been purchased by Ying Zhen to act as his double, ultimately paying the price such a risky role entails. Xin must therefore come to the aid of the one person that made use of his non-blood brother for an ultimate sacrifice, that person resembling his deceased brother to a tee. It makes for an amusing dynamic, one which sees the former slave and emperor become friends through trial and error — the irony being that Xin is gaining a friend that looks exactly like the friend he just lost. 

Another colourful character is He Liao Diao (Kanna Hashimoto), a young bounty hunter of sorts who treks the land wearing a large bird costume. She stumbles on Xin and Ying as they flee danger, offering to help them if Ying, once back on the throne, pays her handsomely. How she became a bounty hunter is never explained given her youth and relative lack of efficiency when the going gets tough, but her charm and comedic timing serve the film well, resulting in a trio of personalities that form a somewhat wobbly party of heroes. 

Lastly, the picture’s action is engaging largely because it presents itself as a hybrid between old-fashioned sword fighting with realistic physics, and heightened, fantasy-style acrobatics. There is certainly some wire work at play to aid the actors, and stunt performers commit death defying feats, with a dash of computer generated magic to bring certain non-human characters to life for more outlandish fisticuffs. It’s a mishmash of styles that in the hands of a less capable filmmaker would crumble under the weight of self-created expectations. Luckily, Shinsuke Sato has a firm handle on the proceedings.

Funny, never lacking in ideas in amusing action set pieces, and brilliantly costumed, Kingdom is at a times wildly entertaining. The baddies are very bad, the goodies are kind and noble, and there is the crazed Xin smack in the middle of it all. It’s loud (sometimes too loud), and it’s also crazy (sometimes too crazy), but as the end credits begin to role, it’s nearly impossible to leave the theatre disappointed. A lot of love and energy have gone into the picture, and said qualities shine off the screen, infecting the audience in the process. 

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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How Rimuru Tempest Changed the Game for Isekai Protagonists

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime shines within the vast sea of generic isekai thanks in no small part to protagonist Rimuru Tempest.

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that time i got reincarnated as a slime

The core premise of the isekai genre–a character being transported from their everyday life on Earth to a parallel universe–has become wildly popular for a reason: it’s an immensely appealing fantasy. Just as audiences everywhere fell in love with the seminal Spirited Away in the early 2000s, it’s still exciting to fantasize about discovering a new world and going on all manner of crazy adventures. However, the incessant flood of new isekai every season to capitalize on this trend has resulted in some of the most generic, overly-manufactured protagonists in any genre.

Though this sea of formulaic main characters is vast, it makes it all the easier to recognize when one bucks the typical conventions and actually proves that there’s room for unique takes on the genre. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime adheres to a few cliches, but it also manages to set a new bar for what a captivating isekai protagonist can be.

Rimuru in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

Breaking the Mold

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as wholesome and optimistic an anime as they come. The tone can be deceptive at first; when Satoru Mikami is suddenly stabbed when trying to protect his junior, his dying wish is for his computer’s hard drive to be destroyed. But after being reincarnated as a slime–and gaining the new name Rimuru Tempest–his true desires become clear: world peace and a simple, comfortable life with friends.

What’s immediately striking about Rimuru as the main character is that he starts off as an average 37-year-old man. He spent his life working hard and appeasing his higher-ups to climb the corporate ladder. Shady hard drive aside, he lived a respectable and long life compared to the vast majority of protagonists in the genre. This significant age difference is evident in nearly every action and major decision Rimuru makes; he looks at situations practically before jumping headfirst into conflict.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

When Rimuru gets a drink poured on him by a noble in a bar, for instance, he quells his anger in consideration of the bar and the friends around him. When someone asks for his aid in an impending battle, he pauses to go over all the available information and reaches a consensus among everyone before agreeing. And when protecting a goblin village from a pack of wolves, he doesn’t just mindlessly slaughter all the wolves; he looks for the way of least resistance (killing the leader of the pack) before ultimately integrating them with the goblins as equals. Though his human form looks young, it’s the wisdom behind his actions that makes those around him respect his leadership.

This is especially impressive considering just how overpowered Rimuru is. His transformation into a slime came with resistances to fire, cold, electric currents, pain, paralysis, and the ability to absorb, analyze, and take the form of anything he wants. In other words, he could go down the path of the typical shounen protagonist and solve his problems with his fists, but he never lets his overwhelming power dictate his decision-making process.

Rimuru meeting with his commanders.

Leading a Nation

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as much about Rimuru’s adventures as it is about the rise of the independent monster nation he helps establish. Instead of running off in search of adventure, the little slime decides to nurture the goblin village he protected at the outset. He helps the goblins and wolves “level up” by naming them, shows them sustainable ways to gather food and build makeshift defenses, and even brings back dwarves to introduce blacksmithing and carpentry.

Through expansion, industrialization, and conflict, Rimuru manages to orchestrate the creation of his country in a way that’s genuinely believable. His ambitions for a peaceful and integrated world play out in his willingness to accept other goblin tribes, ogres, lizardmen, and even friendly humans in his country. Being able to rationally read situations makes forging alliances and negotiating with neighboring nations possible. When a major calamity threatens all life in the forest, Rimuru wastes no time in holding a summit and allying with other forest dwellers over a common interest.

None of this would be possible without the uncanny, Luffy-like ability to inspire a sense of trust and reliability in those he comes across. Just like the members of the Straw Hat Pirates follow Luffy out of respect and loyalty, Rimuru’s commanders follow him because of his sound judgment and dedication to seeing everyone in his nation be happy. It’s satisfying seeing members of Rimuru’s guard take personal offense when others talk poorly of him because it’s clear that he’s earned the respect he’s given.

If isekai is to continue growing in popularity and thriving long-term, room must be made for different types of protagonists. Be they depraved, refreshingly honest characters like Kazuma or upstanding yet easygoing leaders like Rimuru, both demonstrate how valuable it is to shake up the formula and try new approaches to the genre. If the constant barrage of isekai has bittered your tolerance to it as a whole, That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime is well worth giving a shot.

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Anime Ichiban 23: New Decade, Same Questionable Tastes

Hatsune Miku at Coachella? Mangadex getting targeted for legal issues? People defending OreImo? 2020 is off to a crazy start!

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Welcome to 2020, Anime Ichiban listeners!

Lots of things have happened in the past few weeks, not the least of which is Hatsune Miku making her Coachella debut. After catching up on industry news, we take a look back at some of our more questionable choices in anime and how on earth we manage to defend them.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introduction and what we’ve been playing
17:46 – Hatsune Miku to Perform at Coachella
25:29 – Crunchyroll’s “Most Watched Shows of the Decade”
30:03 – Funimation’s Popularity Awards
38:13 – Wages in the Japanese Animation Industry
45:38 – Miki Yoshikawa’s New, Fan-Picked Serialization
47:08 – Legal Trouble Brewing for Mangadex
57:02 – Highest Grossing Domestic Anime Films for Japan in 2019
59:33 – What shows surprised us and which ones do we struggle to defend?

TRACKS

Intro – “Dream X Scramble!” by Airi (Keijo!!!!!!!! OP)
Outro – “Lucky☆Orb feat. Hatsune Miku” by emon(Tes.)

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