To be clear, Kingdom the manga/anime isn’t history – it’s historical fiction. Who knows how things really played out on these battlefields – but in the end it doesn’t matter, because all we’ll ever know about those moments is what’s trickled down through the millennia, with all the “telephone”-like distortion that implies. If you’re going to re-enact these moments in the modern day you might as well do so in massively entertaining fashion – and the way Kingdom has set up this war between Qin and Wei has really been a thing of beauty.
What we have as things stand is a sort of bookend structure on either side of the mountain Meng Ao has chosen as his stronghold. In the fore we have the young guns, Lun Hu and Xin (though Lun Hu is older than he looks) fighting a titanic battle of GAR and swords with the morale of both central armies hanging in the balance – a young man’s game. And at the rear, the grizzled old war-horses Meng Ao and Lian Po, fighting an old man’s game – a battle of the mind, with 40 year-old memories and 40 years of considering them the key to the struggle. It’s two faces of battle, each presenting great drama as they play out within a few hundred yards of each other.
The dynamic between the White Elder and Lian Po has certainly become a fascinating one. The mangaka Hara-sensei here uses a very interesting device to give the audience insight on it, cutting away from the front to the headquarters of Li Mu – a character we haven’t heard from for something like 20 episodes. But Li Mu has been presented as the best pure strategist in this era, and his insights on the battle are unsurprisingly on-point. But in assessing the dire state of Meng Ao’s army, with his hollow Vice-general Wang Jian bottled up in his own stronghold and the other, Huan Ji, nowhere to be found, Li Mu is missing one piece of vital information – one supplied to him by one of his retainers who, like Meng Ao, came from the state of Qi.
It’s a simple statement – “I guess Meng Ao won’t be re-claiming his honor” – that’s the key to everything. To Meng Ao Lian Po is an obsession – his “white whale” in Melvillean terms, the bane of his carer. He’s spent 40 years of his life thinking about Lian Po, and he knows full well what a genius of battle Lian Po is. But for Lian Po, Meng Ao is an insect – a “loser” general who’s incapable of surprising him in any way. Until the current campaign it’s likely Lian Po hadn’t spared Meng Ao a thought for decades, but Meng Ao went so far as to personally travel to observe his nemesis in battle. He knows what faces him, but if Meng Ao exceeds the man Lian Po assumes he is, Lian Po – at least theoretically – is going to be taken off-guard.
And indeed, that’s how it seems to be playing out for the moment. Meng Ao has set up this entire headquarters as a bait to lure Lian Po in, with seeming weaknesses which lead to hidden traps. Even more, he’s assumed the genius Lian Po would remember everything he saw from the base of the mountain even as he ascended it, and designed his traps to be mobile and ephemeral. It’s a good plan, a plan with 40 years of thought behind it designed specifically to pray on the vulnerabilities of one very strong man. And Lian Po, if anything, seems to still think too much like a young man sometimes – he relishes the heat of battle and it draws him like a moth to flame. He’s going to have to prove that even after 40 years of being analyzed and dissected, he can still surprise the White Elder. And I suspect he will – Lian Po is that good. But even he may not realize that My Man Bi has accidentally wandered into the vicinity with what’s become a large force of men, and seems very likely to attack the Lian Po forces from the rear – trapping him between two enemy armies on the side of a mountain riddled with traps.
The young men aren’t unaware of what’s happening on the other side of that hill – but they don’t have the luxury of worrying about it for trying to kill each other. The magnificent bastard Lun Hu has realized what Xin’s true strength is – not his physical prowess, but his ability to inspire others, which Lun Hu admits is “greater than my own at that age”. As such he also realizes that if he can take out Xin, he can destroy the wall of will that’s managed to halt the charge of his army and take out Meng Ao from the front. But Xin has known all along that Lun Hu was the crucial figure in the Wei central army, and is no less keen to return the favor. Even one-handed Lun Hu seems the stronger figure – he manages to wound Xin in the thigh after a clever trick of head-butting Xin’s horse with his own. But I notice neither of the other two young wolves in the Qin army was heard from this week, and I expect that to change very shortly. Just as with the old men, perhaps the Wei general Lun Hu would have the last word in a one-on-one battle, but there are other forces on the Qin side whose presence could fundamentally change the dynamic in their favor.