Kingdom has been sneaky good for a long time, but perhaps the most surprising thing is that while I’ve barely noticed the transition, it’s become quite an attractive show visually. Those horrendous days of bad CGI character animation seem like a distant nightmare now, and everything has leveled up – the character modeling, the animation (much less CGI in general, and even then it’s used appropriately), the backgrounds. If things had started out this way, Kingdom might have won over a much larger audience than it did.
For me, I’ll always have a taste for epic storytelling in anime, and all the more so because it’s become a virtual dinosaur in the current environment. But the key to really successful epics is that they have to be able to tell personal stories too – the switch from panorama to zoom is what makes these stories connect emotionally and keeps the sheer magnitude of them from getting exhausting. Kingdom’s structure is to tell the tale of Warring States China – about as epic a story as there is – through the personal stories (highly fictionalized) of the people who drove it. And while sweeping chronicles of battle like the one that ended S1 are the meat of the series, it’s equally adept at the small-scale stories like the one it’s telling right now.
My only disappointment of the episode was that Wang Qi didn’t have a larger role to play – he offed the incompetent replacement Zhao commander, but that was it. Every second of Koyama Rikiya eating Wang Qi’s dialogue for lunch is pure gold, but there was plenty of other good stuff here. Of course the story is of Zheng’s lost childhood as a hostage in Zhao, the source of his twisted relationship with his mother, but the context was delivered in a big way. Namely, the massacre of 400,000 surrendered Zhao soliders by the Commander of the Qin army. The two states had been at war for years so it wasn’t as though there wasn’t bad blood to begin with, but what happened when the two-year stalemate was broken cemented a fierce and intense hatred among the people of Zhao – a hatred which finds a convenient outlet in the disgraced Zheng and his mother.
History has debated the event – there were very real practical concerns that drove the Qin commander Bai Qi to order 400,000 Zhao soldiers (in truth the number was probably significantly lower) buried alive. If they were simply released they’d return home to be used as soldiers in the inevitable next round of warfare between the two nations. There would be serious issues of feeding such a huge group of prisoners on a march back to Qin – and what to do with them then? Nevertheless, the murder of hundreds of thousands of surrendered prisoners can only be viewed is a vile and reprehensible act, and the enmity it caused as completely justifiable. Sadly in the context of this fictionalized account, it was Zheng and his mother who suffered terribly for it – he reduced to petty thievery and subject to daily beatings, she to selling her body to the disdainful men of Handan, Zhao’s capital (in reality of course a young boy in Zheng’s position in that era would have been subject to even more terrible abuses, but there are areas a show like this thankfully isn’t going to go). The really terrible part is that their identities were seemingly known to all the locals, and it’s also interesting that it was Lu Buwei who managed to get Zheng’s father out of Zhao, while leaving the woman and child behind.
There’s a very interesting angle to this story historically, though Kingdom has given no indication that it’s going to explore it – and that’s that many historians believe Lu Buwei was actually Zheng’s father. That would certainly be a dramatic wrinkle – but there’s plenty of wrinkles already. We finally meet Zi Xia, the woman who saves Zheng’s life (the implication being that she’s going to pay with her own). She’s the head of the black market in Handan, a child of the streets herself, and it’s she who takes pity on the wild-eyed urchin and decides to help the agents of Qin who’ve come to rescue him at last from the hell he’s been enduring. The reason they finally did so is because King Zhao has died, making Zheng the new Crown Prince.
It’s interesting to see Zheng from this angle. What’s made clear is that in order not just to survive his ordeals but to do so without being broken he had to be not just strong in resolve, but a little bit broken to begin with. The street-child Zheng is a feral cat – quiet, watchful and vicious when cornered. It seems as if his mother was a bit frightened of him all along, and that she much more than he was indeed twisted and scarred by the ordeal of living as a hated enemy in Handan. Frankly I don’t think any of this bodes well for the notion of a mother-son alliance – it’s not as if there’s any indication these two ever loved or even liked each other to begin with, and the sense is that she’s done things that he can neither forgive not forget.