Live-action anime adaptations have largely gotten a mixed reception. A lot of the time, these films either alienate fans of the original source material by deviating in notable ways, or try to adapt too much to sufficiently explore within a two hour period. But one director in particular has been a huge favorite with fans for finding the right balance for each of his previously tackled adaptations. Shinsuke Sato, the director behind Bleach, Gantz, and Inuyashiki's live-action efforts among others, is back with another incredibly popular franchise.
Yasuhisa Hara's Kingdom, one of the most popular manga franchises in Japan, has made the jump to live-action film and it's an incredibly exciting transition. Full of electric action sequences, likable characters, and an infectious energy, Kingdom conquers with fun. Sato has hit it out of the park again.
Kingdom follows Xin, a young boy born into slavery with his childhood friend Piao. Dreaming of one day becoming the greatest generals in China, the two secretly train to become warriors until adulthood, when Piao is bought out of slavery by a noble. When the reason behind Piao's sudden freedom is revealed, Xin unwittingly gets thrown into the struggle of the deposed young king, Ying Zheng, who's trying to reclaim the throne from his traitorous brother. Through this rough journey, Xin and Ying Zheng form a bond that tests the strengths of their ambitions.
Sato's track record of kinetic and energetic action choreography remains strong with Kingdom as each of the sword fights are a joy to watch. Each of the styles displayed have a weighted nature that keeps fights grounded, but there's a slight fantastical element that highlights the playful core of the original manga and anime. It's a tight balance that keeps the world at a heightened level so you don't bat an eye when more visually distinct characters stand out among the bloodshed. When Xin starts leaping high into the air with his moves, it feels like a natural extension of this world rather than a wacky detail that takes you out of it.
What also helps this heightened world is the incredible energy of the film's cast. Kento Yamazaki's Xin has a pointed intensity that makes it impossible to root against him, and this pares well with the more subdued performance from Ryo Yoshizawa's Ying Zheng. The two have a great dynamic that unfortunately doesn't get a lot of time to flesh out, but this is made up for with Yoshizawa's double duty as Piao. It's just clear that the cast is having a great time bringing this franchise to life, and then throw themselves completely into the performances.
As is the case with many anime adaptations, Kingdom seeks to get a lot done with its story. This means that some potentially weighted developments in the original narrative seem to happen pretty quickly in the film. But rather than have the audience feel like they're missing out on something, this new heightened universe created for the live-action adaptation hones in on an emotional through line of pushing through strife with fighting spirit.
There's an energy in pushing through each of the battles that puts you on the edge of your seat, and while this constantly moving forward might result in the loss of some of the emotional impact when characters are in trouble, there's an overall fun filling in any of these gaps. When Xin and a small group of soldiers suddenly find themselves taking on hundreds of enemies, the shift in emphasis to fun action over the character focused drama makes for an outstanding climax.
With the amount of characters included throughout and how much the narrative evolves over the course of the film, fans hoping for a greater focus on certain characters might be disappointed. But there's a dynamism gained in fine tuning the narrative to a single focal point, and there's just so much palpable fun and excitement dripping from every scene. In fact, Kingdom's live-action film is so well done there will most likely be a huge new wave of audiences seeking out Yasuhisa Hara's original work.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Funimation released Kingdom into theaters for a limited time on August 16th.