Perhaps it might count as evidence of a sort of masochistic tendency in my behavior, but whenever a new live-action adaptation of a manga comes out (especially if it is a ridiculous action manga), I like to try to go out and see it. Sure, I will skip out on some of the romance ones, or I just forget about some of them, but if it is a big action manga, I usually like to go. Even if I don’t know much about the manga. The recent Kingdom (2019) film has the added benefit (for me) of being about ancient China. I have harbored an interest in China for years—enough to sit through over fifteen hours of lectures about Chinese history as well as quite a few books, not to mention dozens of Chinese lessons and hundreds of hours of study.
And kung fu movies. I can’t forget the endless kung fu movies. Chop socky almost always makes things better.
So it was with a background of mad manga fandom and mad China interest that I went in to see Kingdom—that, and I bought the first volume of the manga and read it quick before attending the film with a good friend. The manga was enough to prime me on the characters and also really helped me to follow the story better as well.
The story follows Shin and Hyou, two orphans (living under the same somewhat kind master) with big dreams to become the most powerful war generals in China. To accomplish that goal, they incessantly practice fighting each other, and through that unending training regimen, they both become quite skilled fighters. One day a passing Chinese official sees them in the midst of their wild battle practice. The official takes a special interest in Hyou and enlists the boy for a special mission, leaving Shin behind.
To reveal what that mission is, though revealed very early on in the manga and in the movie as well, seems like a big spoiler to me. I think it is more fun to go into the story without knowing, as it caught me by surprise when I read the manga. Anyway, suffice it to say that Shin gets pulled into a dangerous world of intrigue and backstabbing and incredible violence as various forces vie for the throne and weird and wild warriors appear to challenge and attempt to slaughter Shin and his friends.
For me, the story was very engaging, if sometimes presented a bit simplistically in the movie. The manga allows the plot to breathe more so that character motivations can be explored in a more leisurely fashion. The movie tries to tell a pretty big chunk of story in a couple hours, and I think it succeeds more than many live-action manga travesties… but it still is trying to do a lot in a short time, so fans of the manga may get a bit of whiplash and they may find themselves longing for the more nuanced serial storytelling allowed in fifty plus volumes of manga.
Acting is fine, though it leans on the “scream your emotions” side. Shin especially tends to rage and roar and rarely has real soft and tender moments. Other characters, too, are quite a bit larger than life, such as a strutting and unstoppable general and a bizarre leaping, whipping hunter/killer with a blowpipe and poison darts and sort of octopus legs flopping all around as part of his clothing. Villains tend to fall into the sneering and insufferable variety, but that makes it more fun when they get theirs later.
One aspect of the story that I could not completely buy into was the strength of the main character, Shin. Yes, I get that he has been practicing endlessly with Hyou, but they never had any formal training, no real fight experience—I mean an actual fight, not just training with sticks. Yet when faced with a ferocious assassin for the first time, in his first real fight for his life, Shin wins, and then wins against a group of murderous ruffians with ease straight afterward. If anything, though, the manga is worse in this respect, and the movie actually tones down Shin’s unbeatable fighting prowess… but his supreme abilities still strike me as a bit too much.
Special effects are uneven. Costumes are often gorgeous, and the “owl” costume looks very manga-perfect, though some of the armor on soldiers looks like rubber. Some ornamental masks that appear later in the film are very cool and quite varied and impactful, but they don’t really look like something made in the past so much as movie props. The swords look sweet, but they look like they painted in chrome. A huge troll-like man-beast makes an appearance, and his costume is a bit stiff frankly.
Still, the sets are very impressive, and some of the CGI looks respectful, even good. Other times characters get woosh like flies through the air, bouncing and crashing with little sense of weight.
That weightlessness is worst in some of the fight sequences, wherein sometimes a baddie or goodie gets swatted effortlessly out of a dramatic leap. But these moments of lousy CG are only minor stains on the frequently kinetic and exciting fight sequences, which often end in blood and glory. While often I am not a fan of Japanese movie action, I would suggest this one is better than most, though not by a wide margin. With movies like Bleach (2018, also from the same director) and Ajin (2017) recently also sporting impressive fights, I think the manga movie world has been improving… even if they don’t approach the best of the Chinese/Hong Kong martial arts smash-a-thons yet.
I also want to say something quick about the cinematography, which captures the sense of wonder and the gorgeousness of the landscapes and buildings well. Some of the shots are truly spectacular, and the editing job usually presents the characters so that the action is easy to follow.
In addition, I think it’s important to say something about what amounts to a big elephant in the room—or maybe rather a panda. This is a Japanese movie depicting Chinese people in ancient China. All the characters are played by Japanese, not Chinese. Given the rocky nature of the historical and current relations between Japan and China, it may seem strange or even a bit dangerous to create a movie like this. After all, back when Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) was released, some people were offended that many of the Japanese characters were played by Chinese actors, presumably for extra name recognition in the West. While I did not think Kingdom was especially disrespectful of China or Chinese people, some Chinese may see things differently. It certainly isn’t a realistic take.
And maybe that’s a point in the film’s favor. Kingdom never pretends to be accurate historical fiction, but is instead a rollicking and wild ride with high drama and fast action. When I mentioned to one of my Chinese friends I had watched the movie, she said it sounded interesting (and she knew what the movie was about).
At any rate, for me the movie was a lot of bombastic fun, energetic and entertaining, if not particularly deep, with likable if not especially deep characters and a story that feels complete. Not bad. The director, Shinsuke Sato, has now made a name for himself with quite the string of manga adaptations, and though I haven’t seen them all, and some I have heard were much more successful than others, the accumulated experience really has paid off I think. It may not quite conquer the world of manga movies, but it is dang good for what it is, and that’s enough for me.