Shinsuke Sato (director), Tsutomu Kuroiwa, Shinsuke Sato and Yasuhisa Hara (screenplay),
Kento Yamazaki, Ryo Yoshizawa, Kanna Hashimoto, Masami Nagasawa, Kanata Hongō and Takao Osawa (cast)
Sony Pictures Japan/Funimation Films
April 19, 2019 (international)/2020 America
In ancient China, two orphaned slaves, Li Xin and Piao, dream of becoming the world’s greatest generals. They train each other until one day their dream comes true—partially. Piao is recruited to the royal palace; Xin remains behind, training harder than ever before.
I have been hearing so much about Kingdom this year, that I had to review the film when WWAC was approached about it. I haven’t read Yasuhisa Hara’s manga that the film is based on, and unfortunately, this film doesn’t enthuse me to rectify that situation. Which is a shame because Kingdom is a phenomenon in the manga world, and a property so well-loved deserves a great adaptation. Though Kingdom has been raking cash in at the Japanese box office, I feel its imminent release in the US and Canada will not be met with as much success.
Despite the hype, I really didn’t enjoy it—I cringed for the majority of the film, and was relieved when it was finally over. This is not the kind of cinematic experience I look forward to—in fact, I wish I could get those two hours and fifteen minutes of my life back.
Why did I dislike Kingdom so much? The acting is the primary reason. We’ve all encountered terrible acting, and I understand that a manga adaptation can be a little over-the-top, but this was too much.
Kento Yamazaki played Li Xia in a 3-minute short in 2016 and reprises the role here, but in Kingdom he’s practically unwatchable. He doesn’t so much chew the scenery as swallow it whole. His expressions are overwrought, he screams all his dialogue, and he fails to bring any realistic emotion to Xin throughout the film’s duration. I was glad when he wasn’t on screen, which is not how I want to feel about the protagonist.
Yamazaki’s acting feels even more jarring because he is paired with Ryô Yoshizawa, who plays Piao, and later returns as Ying Zheng. Yoshizawa is calm and composed, imbuing his characters with just enough emotion to make them real and relatable to the audience. His scenes are a soothing balm on our Yamazaki-tortured eyes.
But Yoshizawa’s performance is the rare highlight in Kingdom. Most of the acting borders on over-the-top, though none of the actors butcher their roles the way Yamazaki does. I really wish I didn’t have to bang on about Yamazaki, but he ruined this film for me.
Terrible acting aside, I wasn’t excited by this story either. I was hoping for something epic and unexpected—what I saw was a garden-variety rags-to-riches buddy-comedy with a healthy dose of violence and bizarre stunts. Nothing caught me by surprise—if your audience is going to figure out how the film ends after the first five minutes in, what’s the point?
The reason why the story fell flat was because of the focus on Li Xin. He isn’t compelling in and of himself. The only interesting part of Xin is Piao—take him away and you’ve got your standard male protagonist bent on revenge. We’ve seen it a thousand times before.
You know who was compelling? Ying Zheng. This fictionalised version of a very real king who united China should have been the protagonist and led the story. His backstory is interesting—his mother was a commoner, which is why he ended up being deposed—and he has a grand vision for his country that nobody else had.
This makes me wonder why Kingdom decided to focus its efforts on this coup when Zheng’s legacy was his ability to unite a massive country that had been war torn by internal strife for centuries. The coup itself is dispensed with within minutes—the vast majority of the film is a road trip to get Zheng’s throne back. It’s nothing new, or at least, nothing new was done with the material.
The sole moment that had me raise an eyebrow in mock-surprise was the revelation of who mountain Chieftain Yang Duan He really was. It’s great to have a female leader in a historic epic, and Masami Nagasawa plays the part well, but she barely has any lines and is introduced far too late in the film.
She isn’t the only female character in Kingdom, which was a relief. Kanna Hashimoto plays He Liao Diao, a random child who leaves her gang of thieves to help Xin and Zheng.
I’m not sure how Diao’s character works in the manga, but in the film, she unfortunately doesn’t fit at all. Diao has no character arc, is generally annoying (think Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and I couldn’t help but wonder who thought it was a good idea to bring a child into a full-scale battle. She also almost dies for no reason.
Then there are the fight scenes. I understand that these action scenes are genre-specific, and this film specifically is essentially a Japanese take on the wuxia genre (thanks for the reminder, Nola!). But considering the production values of Kingdom, I was expecting jaw-dropping and innovative action. What I got was fantastical martial arts that was far too by-the-numbers. I understand that Kingdom is an anime adaptation, and there are some supernatural elements at play here, but some of the genre conventions were so over-the-top I had to laugh. Watching people being flung to the other end of the room from one kick or flying through the air to stab their target was a bit much for me.
Kingdom fails on so many levels for me—bad acting, poor story, dodgy fight scenes—but I loved the production design. The cinematography is stunning, the sets are gorgeous, and the costumes are beautiful. On the big screen, this film is guaranteed to be a feast for the eyes.
I love that the grandeur of this film is in the details and not the scale—no impossibly high ceilings (looking at you MCU Asgard) here. Instead, the backdrop of the royal throne is deftly embossed with snakes and serpents and painted gold to showcase royalty.
You get a real feel of the historical setting here, which I appreciate. There are straw huts in the villages, and terracotta tiles on the palace roof. It looks believable and man-made.
Director Shinsuke Sato has a great eye for visual aesthetics. I’ve seen his Death Note: Light Up the New World, a post-Death Note story that was stunning to look at but had too many cheesy scenes for me to enjoy. Come to think of it, there was a lot of over-the-top acting there as well, so maybe that’s a Sato trait?
But visual appeal isn’t enough to sell me on a film—it didn’t work with Avatar (seriously, why do people love that film so much? It’s so cringe!), and it doesn’t work with Kingdom. I wanted something historical and inspirational, and definitely epic. What I got was a protagonist who screamed too much and a story that I’ve seen way too often, all neatly wrapped in a beautiful package that I will hide in the back of my cupboard.