If you (like me) were hoping for an announcement at the end of this episode of Kingdom, then you were just as disappointed that all we got was “END”. Of course hoping isn’t the same as expecting, and it figured to be kind of a long shot that we’d get such an announcement. That doesn’t by any means exclude the possibility that we will get a third season, but there’s at least as good a chance that we won’t, and that would be a real shame. This season was the better of the two, and the first one ended up being pretty darn good. They just don’t write anime in this style anymore.
Despite the fact that it pretty much left every possible thread untied, this episode did end up being a bit more like a finale than the last few have suggested it might. This was the scene-setting, “go read the manga” type of ending, but it did feel like an ending. What it did admirably well, I think, was paint a very clear picture of where things stand on both the personal and global level. What it didn’t do so well was provide any sort of closure to, well… anything. But given the circumstances, there was really no way it could have.
In Xiangyang, it is indeed a matter of “choose your poison”, the metaphor Lu Buwei chooses to illustrate the standoff between himself and the young king. Lu has chosen the poison of the harem (and Zheng’s mother) and Zheng has chosen that of his traitorous half-brother. For now, Chengjiao’s help manages to force a split in the chancellor’s roles – with Chanpingjun as the Right Chancellor, and Changwenjun as the Left. The King and the Prime Minister, each with a chancellor in their pocket – at court, at least, things seem more or less a standoff.
What makes this all the more fascinating is the tangle of personal ties involved. Lu Buewi may be (and probably is) Zheng’s father. Chanpingjun is Diao’s master at strategy school, and a formidable figure in his own right. And adding fuel to the fire is the news that Xiang is pregnant with the King’s child (I suspected those bedroom scenes kept going after the cameras were turned off), which certainly complicates matters. This will be the illegitimate child of a king who’s himself an illegitimate child – though in the manner of the time and place, he’s making no secret of it. Xiang is happy, of course, but the poor girl has no idea of the nest of vipers she’s now irretrievably mixed up with.
We get a brief check-in with Qian Lei, who’s reportedly headed for Zhao. Along the way she conveniently runs into a baka bozu named Xin roughhousing with his friends and thinks of her comrades, but clearly she’s not going to be coming back until she clears her personal slate. Back with the Feixin force, we rejoin them as they arrive at Donjin, with no immediate mention of the encounter with Li Mu. Xin gives a speech that’s still more evidence he’s growing into his role as a great general, and the men reminisce about those that have been lost, and the reality that more will inevitably join them.
It’s with the arrival of Meng Tian (he’s actually been watching for a while) that things get really interesting. After a bit of left-handed praise, he brings Xin up to speed on events (pre-pregnancy) in the Capital, then brings him up the wall where Wang Ben is waiting and prods him for information about the meeting with Li Mu. Clearly, Li Mu is the man to watch in this story, the real enemy – all the more interesting because he’s quite a reasonable man (he pointedly tells Xin and Diao they “don’t understand the horrors of war”) who only wants the same thing Zheng does, just with a different country in charge. He’s incredibly smart, he’s patient, he sees both the forest and the trees – in short, he’s a menace.
After Xin and Diao are captured (unsurprisingly) while spying in Li Mu’s camp, Li tries to bait Xin a little. As always there’s a plan here – neither one of them can touch the other because of the alliance and both know it, but each wants to take the measure of the opponent. The difference is that Li Mu is genuinely surprised to see that Xin has grown so much (in every way) since their last encounter, while Xin was clearly unsurprised when Li Mu reveals himself to be a fearsome swordsman and not just a strategist. So what’s Li Mu up to in those woods, at the confluence of four kingdoms’ borders? No matter his teasing he’s not telling, but both Diao and later Wang Ben theorize that he’s secretly meeting with the Prime Minister of Chu to set up another alliance. Xin, however, recognizes someone who thinks big when he sees them – and his instincts tell him Li Mu has something bigger planned even than that worrisome scenario. Xin may not be book smart, but he’s ahead of the strategists on this one.
So there you have it – certainly a splendid setup for a third series if we ever get one, but a damn fine (if somewhat agonizing) commercial for the manga if not. I’m going to miss Kingdom, because it scratched an itch no other anime of recent vintage is even trying to scratch. I love big, ambitious stories, historical epics not least – and this one is beautifully written. It’s a glorious celebration of war that doesn’t gloss over the horrors of it, and does a splendid job balancing the personal, political and military stories it’s simultaneously telling (as indeed almost all great anime epics have done).
I use the word “great”, but a jaundiced eye must be applied to that here. I can’t call Kingdom a great series because no series that has an important element as weak as the animation is here can truly be a great series. It gets better over the course of the two seasons – the first cour of the first is the absolutely Marianas Trench of brutal CGI, sadly for the show’s potential viewership – but the problem never totally goes away. Nearly every major battle sequence is shot mostly in poorly rendered CG, a real shame for a military epic. But it was when the CG crept into the non-action scenes that things got really grisly, and thankfully that happened much more rarely after the initial burst. There were off-model moments and a drop in background detail from time to time, but the art and conventional animation were generally acceptable and the former occasionally quite good.
If Kingdom had been produced by Production I.G. or BONES with top-notch production values, I’m fully convinced it would be remembered with the greats in epic anime – the Twelve Kingdoms of the world. As is, I still get shocked reactions when I tell people how much I came to love it, and that’s the biggest shame of all. If you got past the heinous visuals at the start – and you have a taste for this sort of story – you were treated to something pretty special. But I can’t blame those that didn’t, and I even stopped blogging it for a while myself in the first season. That was a mistake, I freely admit – especially given that I dropped it just when it was really getting juicy – and despite the fact that it’s not the easiest show to blog, it was also a mistake to cover it in digest form for as long as I did.
So how does the second season stack up to the first? Well, that juicy part I referred to was the emergence of Wang Qi as a central character. Wang Qi (and seiyuu Koyama Rikiya) have never been matched for pure impact and entertainment value in either season. But given how worried I was about how Kingdom would cope in their absence, I’m pleased to say even without Wang Qi this season was clearly better. The visuals were better, the pacing was better, the quality more consistent. The first season didn’t quite make my 2013 Top 20 list but if it’d been eligible this one certainly would have. This is a damn fine show – beautifully written, rousing, funny, and respectful enough of the history it takes liberties with to be fascinating for those who love that history. If you dropped this show mainly because of the animation I strongly urge you to give it another chance, because they just don’t make anime like this anymore. It’s a great story with great characters, and that, not the others stuff, is what I’ll take away from it. And as takeaways go, that’s a damn good one.