It’s not as if the field is crowded with nominees, but it’s pretty hard to think of an anime in the last several years that does better at depicting large military campaigns than Kingdom (apart from the intermittent optically abusive CGI). This is not an easy thing – Hollywood certainly struggles to do it well – and in general, this is a style of anime that went out of fashion long before the current niche-marketing production model was locked in place. The strength of Kingdom’s writing is revealed in many ways, but when the show sets its sights on serious combat it definitely goes in with well-earned confidence.
There were a lot of fascinating things going on this week, starting with an object lesson in management skills from Meng Ao. First he salvages morale by painting Xin and Wang Ben as heroes who scored a great victory, then he shows a deft touch in inspiring his troops with a show of his grandfatherly love for them. Mostly, though the action revolves on two new players on each side. Meng Ao’s two much-hyped Vice-Generals finally got off the schneid and into the battle, and we finally met the final two members of Lian Po’s Four Kings. Wiang Jian and Lian Po’s Jian Yan locked horns on one side in the more conventional of the two battles – though Jian Yan does have the unorthodox trick of manouvering his armies with his superhuman arrow skills, which seems to give the the advantage as their battle commences. But it’s on the other side – Men Ao’s right an Lian Po’s left – that the real action takes place.
If anything this battle was a demonstration of the fact that match-ups matter in war, almost in the same way they do in sports. In Jie Zifang, the last of Lian Po’s Kings, we see a relatively straightforward soldier unparalleled in mass attacks. But he’s clearly at sea against Huan Ji, the White Elder’s thief turned General. It’s obvious the cultured Meng Ao doesn’t especially like the fact that he needs to lean on such a cruel and unsporting fellow, but he does – and Huan Ji is truly a fiend in battle. He fights a guerrilla war, splitting his army into small units which hit the enemy and then disappear into the mountains, only to converge and swallow enemy units whole like a venus flytrap. Not only that, he deflates enemy morale by sending sacks of heads to their headquarters (aptly named), along with the corpses of their officers string up like drying fish.
Where this gets really interesting is when the title of the episode, “The Thief vs. The Strategist”, comes into play. I presume Jie Zifang and Xuan Feng are of equal rank, but Lian Po turns the Jie army over to Xuan Feng. It’s obviously a necessary move, but a delicate moment – and while Xuan Feng handles it with as much discretion as one might hope, it shows a lot about Jie that it takes it as gracefully as he does. Cocky as ever, Xuan dismisses Huan Ji’s tactics as lightweight, and promptly directs Jie to launch a frontal assault on the enemy HQ (whose location he’s deduced based on troop movements) to take advantage of their scattered fighting style. A good strategy – but the old man’s cockiness gets the better of him. I think the main issue, though, is that Xuan Feng thinks he’s the master of every military strategy in the book – and maybe he is – but the man he’s fighting isn’t military. Huan Ji is, as he says, “an expert at sneaking into people’s houses”. And in doing so, he promptly does what Wang Ben and Xin failed to do and takes the old strategist’s head.
This obviously has a significant impact on the morale of the Lian Po troops – though I might question the wisdom of communicating news of Xuan Feng’s death to all of the armies currently in battle. It also pisses Lian Po off in a big way, and seemingly forces him to step into the role of master tactician himself. This is an object lesson in the difference between tactics and strategy, and why Lian Po moving from the latter to the former unsettles the entire chain-of-command in his army. Meng Ao, has, as he says, surged one move ahead. And his grandson has still yet to make his presence felt on the battlefield – I can’t help but think he and Lun Hu are destined to face off at some point. But Lian Po is not to be taken lightly, and he still has three-fourths of his inner circle at his disposal. This battle will likely be a series of waves, rolling back in forth, as so many of them were, and his army may be the one riding the next one forward.
Yozakura Quartet – 04
Yozakura Quartet is a pretty strange beast. Every episode seems to start and end virtually in the middle of a sentence, and offers little explanation for anything that’s going on (much of it would seemingly lend itself to some serious explaining). This is one of the charms of the show for me, but it also has its downside and I think that becomes evident in this episode.
There is an underlying plot in YQ – several in fact – and while having a full cour to play with has given Ryo-timo a chance to keep things mostly light and random for a few eps, they were bound to get serious sooner or later. But because every strange thing that happens in this universe is treated mostly with nonchalance, when the story is supposed to be deep and dark it doesn’t – at least for me – possess the gravity I think was intended. I think the plot we see unfolding is actually a very good one with a fair amount of pathos, but you can’t really have it both ways – and I don’t think the series is really able to pull off the tonal shifts that well as a result.
That said, it remains fun when it’s supposed to be fun – a kind of supernatural slice-of-life. This week brings some bad – the supremely annoying Kouhime (Ogura Yui), Hime’s 9 year-old cousin running for Mayor of the neighboring district. But it also brings a pretty entertaining pool party showing off the mermaid side of Mina (or is it Kana) and the wacky old couple running the pottery shop. And then there’s that plot, the reveal of which begins in earnest. Akina gives us the background on how Sakura New Town came to be, and the threat facing it from the “blooming” of the giant trees that link it to the mysterious dimension where Akina’a tuning sends his clients (or victims).
Ultimately, I think Akina’a burden is the most weighty story element in Yozakura, more so than the flailings of Hime and the others as they try and keep the peace and balance their work with their lives as high-schoolers. And I do think Akina’s tough road will come more and more into focus as the story progresses, although Ryo-timo seems most at home with the wacky and ecchi side of the material. As the balance shifts, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to inject real gravity into Yozakura’s dark side without losing the spontaneity and youthful irreverence that he’s so adept at portraying.