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.