These days the phrase “Live-action manga” brings with it well-deserved groans and cringes. So, when I saw it connected to the new movie, Kingdom, I was understandably concerned. There exists an awful tradition of translating animation and manga into the real world via the removal of anything that made the original exciting and enjoyable.
Kingdom happily avoids those pitfalls.
Directed by Shinsuke Sato (the visionary behind 2018’s Bleach, another anime-turned-live-action film), Kingdom doesn’t lose itself down familiar fantasy rabbit holes. Rather than spending time and energy on making the unrealistic elements look realistic, he spends time developing the relationships central to the story.
The story centers on two slave boys, Li Xin (Kento Yamazaki) and Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa), who dream of rising out of their lower-class futures through the power of swordsmanship. They don’t just dream of freedom, but of becoming the greatest generals in the world. Their paths fork when Piao is summoned by a royal Lord to work at the king’s fortress.
Years later Piao returns suddenly to Li Xin to warn him about a coup against the king. Using his dying breaths, Piao gives Li Xin a map and makes him promise to find help for the exiled king.
When Li Xin finds out Piao died as a body-double for the king (also played by Yoshizawa), he sinks deep into a rage. But he has to ask himself what the best way is to honor and avenge his fallen brother. Is it to kill the person who used him as a decoy, or destroy the person who made the decoy a necessity?
A delicate dance begins as the characters learn to trust each other and believe they are all working towards the same end. All this character development doesn’t mean there is a lack of fantastic swordplay and martial arts action. Some well-choreographed sequences will satiate those viewers anxiously awaiting the meeting of blood and blade.
One element I uniquely enjoyed was the world-building. Beyond the armies and clans directly involved in the conflict, Sato wonderfully captured the Mountain People, a mysterious and deadly race with their own tangled history to unravel. Their costumes were insane, and even their fighting style was specific to their character traits. Details like that always make me appreciate the time the creative team put into it.
Kingdom delivers action and adventure while not skipping out on high-quality performances.
*Reviewer’s Note: I was sent a screener link to watch the movie, but that in no way affected the content or tone of the review.