What is first shall be… First. What – is it summer already?
OP: “Pride” by Nothing’s Carved in Stone
Seems like every anime season lately has a series that debuts a month before the rest of them. This time around, it’s Kingdom, from Studio Pierrot. There are several reasons this show interested me going into the season. It’s 38 episodes, first of all, a rarity in today’s aniverse and that means it’s going to have a chance to patiently weave a story. It’s a sprawling historical epic, and we’ve had all too few of those in recent years. And most of all, it’s directed by Kamiya Jun, the man behind one of my favorite anime, Hikaru no Go. In a season that looks weak on paper, this was one of the shows that showed the most promise.
I can best describe the two-episode premiere as a mixed bag, but not in the usual way. None of it was really mediocre – the good parts were great, and the bad parts were, well – bad. The things that usually matter the most to me – interesting plot and character development – were standouts. But while I can generally tolerate less than outstanding visuals when I have those things, the animation style here is very peculiar, and not in a good way. In simplest terms, there’s too much CGI, period. I’m used to seeing it for fight scenes and large set pieces, but Pierrot have decided to use it here for many of the interior scenes, too – simple conversations between characters, for example. Kingdom cuts from CGI to drawn animation at the drop of a hat, sometimes within the same scene. It is, in a word, distracting. And it’s not especially attractive, either, as the character movements in the CGI sequences are jerky and artificial. I see the need for CGI in large, choreographed battles and such – though I still prefer cel animation even for those – but it doesn’t serve the material well in intimate settings.
So can I get past that? Well – there were certainly extended periods when I forgot about it, but then an especially awkward sequence would jerk me out of the moment again. Even at that, by the halfway point or so I found myself getting swept up in the story, and by the end I was completely hooked. So yes, I can get past it if what we saw narratively is what we’re going to see for the next nine months. And as this is based on a completed story, I think there’s every chance it will continue to excel on those terms.
The setting is Warring-States China, 5th Century BC. We meet two young slave boys, the hotheaded and brutish Shin (Morita Masakazu) and the clever and diligent Hyou (Fukuyama Jun). They’re war orphans, slaves, living on a farm with a sometimes-cruel family that strongly favors Hyou over Shin. The boys take refuge in their brotherhood, and in tirelessly training with shinai – with the intent of becoming generals in the army of The Kingdom of Qin, and changing the world. One day a representative of the Imperial Court happens by in a carriage, takes a keen interest in their mock combat, and the next day whisks Hyou back to the Capital with him. Naturally Shin is devastated by this, but insists that Hyou go – and promises to catch up with him soon.
In the month that follows, Shin turns over a new leaf – working harder and smarter, seemingly determined to catch up to Hyou. But tragedy strikes when Hyou returns to the farm, dressed in Imperial robes and mortally wounded. Before dying he gives Shin a map to a village of outlaws and thieves, and warns that a pursuer will come looking for him soon, then expires. Shin goes off to the village, and the pursuer does indeed arrive – and tortures the family’s son to force the father to reveal what Hyou had said before he died. He sets off in pursuit of Shin, who by now has arrived at the village bearing Hyou’s sword – but he doesn’t need it to dispatch the villagers who attack him, his shinai proving more than adequate. And in the little shack where the two rivers meet, where Hyou has told him to go, he finds a boy who looks exactly like Hyou…
Forgive the extra recap, but with a premiere like this one I think it’s OK to break from my usual policy on recaps, because this is a series where plot is key to everything. I hope I’m able to communicate just how involving that was, because I was totally swept up in it – a classic epic with loads of potential. My guess is that Hyou was brought to the palace specifically because of his resemblance to the boy in the shack, who’s probably the King. And the King was probably secreted away from the palace because of the power struggle occurring between he and his younger brother Seikyou (Miyata Kouki), a nasty little toad who despises his half-brother the King because his mother was not of noble birth. The Minister from the carriage likely knew trouble was brewing, and brought Hyou in to be a sacrificial lamb while his brother could be hidden away safely.
It’s a fascinating setup, and it works especially well because the bond between Hyou and Shin was quite well-written. Shin’s anguished rage at Hyou’s death was almost shocking in its extremity, and it might come off as over the top – but given what we know of his character, I think it works. We can also see from the premiere that Kingdom is not going to be shy about going to some very dark and violent places. In short, that side of things is terrific – and I can’t help but think that if this were lavishly animated in a traditional manner, this series could be a genuine classic. The backgrounds are actually quite lovely – even reminding me of Seirei no Moribito at times. But that CGI… It’s a shame that it acts as such a distraction, because the premise is a winner and the direction is terrific – giving us Kamiya-sensei’s legendary mastery of pacing. As long as Kingdom is as good as these two eps were I’m going to watch it and thoroughly enjoy it, and perhaps – in time – I’ll stop thinking about the awkward animation so much.
ED: “Voice of Soul” by Takumi Ishida