A tale of peasants who aspire to be military giants, set in the years before China became a unified empire, Shinsuke Sato’s Kingdom adapts a hugely popular manga but owes as much to big-screen heroic epics. A cousin in its setting to Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which similarly found a nobody saving the life of the real-life Chinese king Ying Zheng, the Japanese production lacks the lavish artistry and top-shelf cast that helped that film reach a wider audience stateside — but is more than colorful enough to excite genre fans who like a dash of history with their swordplay.
Brash Kento Yamazaki plays Xin, who is sold into slavery as a boy and immediately bonds with fellow farmhand Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa). Assuring his new friend that there’s no escape from slavery that doesn’t involve swords, Piao decides that if the two spar with wooden blades 10,000 times (somebody’s been reading Malcolm Gladwell), they’ll be ready for greatness.
Greatness descends well before the boys hit that goal: Now young men, the two are tearing into each other when a chancellor for the king spots them. “This encounter just might change fate,” the man tells his companions, with a solemnity we don’t yet appreciate. But he only buys Piao’s freedom, not Xin’s, and the two part with many promises that fate will reunite them in martial glory. Left behind, Xin embarks on a solo-training montage — watch him split solid stone with a wooden sword — that gets him ready for whatever will come.
The king’s men recruited Piao not for his talents, but because he’s the spitting image of their leader — a decoy to distract enemies of the throne. When the king’s half-brother Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo) stages a coup, Piao is mortally wounded, and barely makes it back to Xin in time to tell him to go save the king (who, naturally, is also played by Ryo Yoshizawa).
By this point, Sato’s frequent use of horizontal wipes is just one of several touches hinting at an affinity between Kingdom and the first Star Wars film or Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The leads’ developing chemistry is rounded out with the addition of Diao (Kanna Hashimoto), a young woman from the nearby hill tribes who dresses in an owl costume complete with heavy, feathered mask. (Her fellow hill-folk seem to have borrowed their own smaller masks from African tribes.) The peasants must help their royal companion reach the older man who is “my only hope”; a massive, fearsome general working for Cheng Jiao has a Vader-like way with a cape and a voice with a faint metallic echo.
The allusions don’t draw attention to themselves, but they’re a fair indication of the movie’s overall high spirits and its cheerful attitude toward war. Xin’s ambition to prove himself and become one of the greatest generals in history drives the action through sequences choreographed by Yuji Shimomura, but team-ups with other factions ensure that he’s not responsible for every bold feat in the tale. Things get slightly clunky in the last act, as some clever tactics give way to overfamiliar mano-a-mano posturing; and you don’t have to be fretful about present-day China to cringe at our heroes’ closing talk about the glories of the empire to come. But Kingdom endearingly weds boyish naivete to on-a-budget grandeur, and will do nicely until the world of wuxia finds its next truly singular image-maker.
Production company: Credeus
Cast: Kento Yamazaki, Ryo Yoshizawa, Masami Nagasawa, Kanna Hashimoto, Kanata Hongo
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Screenwriters: Tsutomu Kuroiwa, Shinsuke Sato, Yasuhisa Hara
Producers: Teruyuki Kitabatake, Tsukasa Imamura
Executive producers: Nobuoki Kinoshita, Hibiki Ito
Director of photography: Taro Kowazu
Production designer: Iwao Saito
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Composer: Yutaka Yamada