Good-for-Nothing (ろくでなし, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Good for nothing dvd coverIn the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu had accidentally provoked social outrage with a series of films later known as “taiyozoku” or Sun Tribe movies which revolved around aimless post-war youth who largely rejected the strident ambition of their parents for lives of dissipated abandonment. While the original author of the book that kickstarted it all fully intended to create moral panic, Nikkatsu perhaps hoped to capitalise on the inherent cool of adolescent rebellion and did it seems find an audience they hoped to continue courting with their youth movies even after the forced end of the taiyozoku movement. Shochiku, the home of polite melodrama, was a world away from Nikkatsu’s brand of angry young man but declining receipts encouraged them to get in on the action and so they began giving some of their younger ADs a chance to direct features in the hope of finding bold new voices who could speak to youth (a demographic their usual fare was not perhaps reaching).

Among these directors, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida would go on to greater heights of avant-garde cinema but his Shochiku debut is perhaps more or less the kind of thing the studio was looking for. Released in the same year as Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones, Good-for-Nothing (ろくでなし, Rokudenashi) is another tale of youth gone wild only one with a much deeper sense of self pitying futility which casts its ill-fated hero as a noble soul left without purpose in the rapidly stratifying society of post-war Japan.

Against a heady yet whimsical jazz score (composed by Shochiku stalwart Chuji Kinoshita, brother of Keisuke), the action opens with a gang of petty delinquents kidnapping the secretary of one of their fathers, Hisako (Kakuko Chino), as she leaves the local bank. Toshio (Yusuke Kawazu) is in many ways the typical taiyozoku hero in that he is extremely rich and therefore filled with ennui because his life has no real purpose. He is not, however, the hero of Yoshida’s film. Gradually, our focus shifts to the intense figure of university student Jun (Masahiko Tsugawa) who, unlike the other members of the gang, remains internally conflicted as to the forward direction of his life and his complicated relationship with Toshio.

Whereas the taiyozoku films most often focussed on the bright young things of the new era – the children of those who had become rich in the post-war economy but had few values and were content to bury themselves in imported hedonistic pleasures, the “heroes” of Good-For-Nothing are the collaborators. If the taiyozoku were despised by the older generation as parasites living off inherited wealth and contributing nothing to society, then the guys like Jun are the parasites on the parasites. This is perhaps a view Jun holds of himself, wilfully embracing the “rokudenashi” label as expression of his intense self-loathing and acting in accordance with its values as an act almost of self-harm.

Toshio rebels against his sense of powerlessness in the darkest of ways – by setting his sights on taking his father’s “haughty” secretary down a peg or two. He may not like her confidence, self possession, and earnest determination towards honest industry but it is exactly these qualities which begin to attract Jun as representative of the society he has rejected but secretly longs to belong to. A poor student, he’s tried doing things the “right” way – part-time jobs, hard work etc, but has little interest in the student movement and views himself as “weak” for allowing himself to be swayed by the easy life of those like Toshio even in the full knowledge that he cannot live that way forever and his time at the beach will be as short as a summer vacation.

Hisako sees the conflict in Jun and tries to pull him towards a more positive path but is also attracted to him because of his darkness and nihilistic ennui. She too is unhappy with the status quo, living with her brother and his wife who quarrel about money and the disappointments of the salaryman dream while the office playboy hassles her at work and is only spurred on by her constant rejections. Hisako knows getting involved with Jun is playing with fire, especially if it keeps her in the orbit of the continually declining Toshio whose worrying behaviour is perhaps enabled by his well meaning liberal (though arch capitalist) father who is hoping his son will find his own way through hitting rock bottom, but salvation is a temptation it’s difficult to resist.

The heroes of the taiyozoku movies are aimless because they have no economic imperatives towards individual progress, but those like Jun or indeed like those of The Warped Ones are aimless because they see no sense of purpose in an intensely class bound society in which, paradoxically, all the cards are held by men like Toshio. Some, like Jun’s gang mate, decide the best way forward is to become a willing underling living off Toshio’s largesse who is, in his own way, intensely lonely and filling the friendship void with minions. Others, like Hisako, decide to plug on anyway despite the disappointments of socially conservative success. For men like Jun, however, the prognosis is as grim as in much of Yoshida’s later work, suggesting his nihilism is justified because there is no hope for men without means lost in the widening gulf of post-war inequality where any attempt at moral righteousness is likely to be rewarded only with further suffering.


Original trailer (Japanese with French/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Keiichi Hara, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

birthday wonderland poster 1The demands of adulthood are apt to overshadow any young teen’s life, but you can’t shake them off just by lying in bed and refusing to age. So the heroine of Keiichi Hara’s The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Birthday Wonderland) discovers as she determines to hideout from emotional complexity, waiting for the storm to pass and cowardly failing to defend a friend in the process. The last thing she wants is the responsibility of being “the chosen one”, but the thing about that is that you don’t get to choose and if the universe has plans for you it would be very irresponsible to refuse.

After (not) getting involved in a minor spat amongst friends about coloured hair clips, Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) decides the best solution is to feign illness, turn off her phone, and avoid going to school. Her kindly mother (Kumiko Aso), seemingly aware she’s not really ill, decides to let her stay home anyway but all she ends up doing is mistreating the cat in frustration and moping about, so her mum despatches her to her aunt Chii’s (Anne Watanabe) place to pick up her birthday gift which she presumably can’t open until the big day tomorrow. Truth be told, Akane doesn’t much like her aunt Chii, she’s far too free spirited and unpredictable for the neurotic teen, but she could stand to learn something from her irrepressible lust for life.

Akane gets the perfect opportunity to do just that when she sticks her hand onto a palm print in her aunt’s shop and is promptly greeted by a dapper-looking man with a fabulous moustache and his tiny minion (Nao Toyama) who crawl up through the hidden basement to explain that she is the “Goddess of the Green Wind” they’ve been searching for and must come with them right away because their nation is in peril! As expected, Akane doesn’t want to go, but is chivvied along by her overexcited aunt and a strange amulet the man, an alchemist named Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura), places around her neck.

The amulet, he tells her, helps you move forward even if you want to go back. That is, in a sense, Akane’s entire dilemma as she finds herself on the cusp of adulthood, afraid to step forward and accept the responsibilities of maturity while longing to return to carefree childhood days when there was nothing much to worry about and always someone around to look after her. Like any good fairytale, she finds her mirror in the other world in a melancholy prince who remains so reluctant to take part in an essential ritual that he is almost willing to burn the world to avoid having to acknowledge his royal responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Akane is slow to adjust to the charms of her new Wonderland, refusing to engage and loudly stating her desire to go home while her aunt tries to encourage her to embrace a sense of adventure. Chii, the film’s best asset who proclaims “no alcohol no life” while thoroughly enjoying sparring with the uptight Hippocrates (who perhaps is also enjoying the challenge though might not want to admit it), might in some senses be a barrier to Akane’s self-actualisation but is also an important source of safety for her in an unsafe world and just irresponsible enough to push her niece towards taking the right kind of risks in order to do the right thing and save the kingdom.

The reasons the kingdom is in peril in the first place are hugely symbolic – an ongoing water crisis caused by governmental negligence is draining the world of colour while literally drying it out. Getting used to her new surroundings, Akane begins to see their charm. This world, near identical to her own in many ways, diverged around the industrial revolution. Where “our” world rocketed into a frenetic lust for convenience, the rhythms of this one stayed the same, a perpetual village society in which cheerful people live laidback lives surrounded by the beauty of nature – something Akane later comes to worry her own world is losing. Gradually letting go of her fear and getting a better idea of the kind of life she might want, Akane gains the courage to embrace responsibility through directly supporting someone else as they learn to do the same.

A whimsical coming of age tale, The Wonderland excels in world building but somehow never quite achieves the level of emotional engagement it seems to be looking for even as its sullen, detached heroine perhaps begins to realise she did a great disservice to her friend when she failed to defend her during the silly hair ornament argument largely because she personally didn’t want to rock the boat and put herself in the firing line. Her horizons suitably expanded, Akane finds she no longer needs an amulet to keep moving forward even when longing to look back and resolves to step into adulthood with an easy, laidback confidence learned from her palls on the other side.


The Wonderland was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Day and Night (デイアンドナイト, Michihito Fujii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

day and night poster 1Can two wrongs ever really make a right? Michihito Fujii’s Day and Night (デイアンドナイト) wants to ask if the difference between good and evil is really as stark as that between dawn and dusk, or if life is really more like twilight in which morality is a relative concept and acts cannot by judged individually but only as a part of the whole. What the hero discovers, however, is that the world is an inherently unfair place and it may not be possible to “win” against the forces of self-interest solely through being pure of heart.

The drama begins with a stunned Koji (Shinnosuke Abe) returning to his small-town home to graffiti scrawled across his fences and his father lying in repose inside after having apparently taken his own life. No one will quite explain to Koji what exactly has happened, but it seems there has been some unpleasantness surrounding his father’s auto business. Though most of the other townspeople including his old friends are civil, they are also frosty and obviously unwilling to address the subject of Mr. Akashi save to press Koji for money they might still be owed as employees.

Meanwhile, poking around the garage in search of answers, he runs into the mysterious figure of Kitamura (Masanobu Ando) who claims to have known his father well though Koji’s mother claims never to have heard of him. Seeing as Kitamura is the only person willing to speak to him, Koji ends up taking a job at the orphanage where he works which turns out to be a little different than he thought seeing as Kitamura is actually the head of a local crime ring which exists with the sole purpose of keeping the orphanage running.

Though Koij, like his father, is an upstanding, law-abiding young man, he is quickly pulled into Kitamura’s world of moral justifications when presented with his personal philosophy in which the greater good remains paramount. Kitamura steals cars by night, stripping the unsellable ones for parts, which is where Mr. Akashi came in having succumbed to a life of “crime” in order to support himself while his business was suffering. He also does some possibly less justifiable work in the red light district while making a point of beating up drug dealers because 80% of the kids in his care have a parent in jail for crimes related to substance abuse. In Kitamura’s view at least, these are all “justifiable”, morally defensible “crimes” given that they are necessary to ensure the protection of the orphans. Though the money is good and Koji does need it, they are not in this for personal gain but to protect something they feel is important.

As Kitamura puts it, Mr. Akashi put his faith in laws that are meant to protect people but in the end it killed him. Having discovered a serious flaw in the auto parts he received from a local company he did the “right thing” and blew the whistle but Nakamichi Autos is the major player in the local economy and many people did not take kindly to having their reputation called into question. Nakamichi rallied its supporters and had Akashi hounded into submission. As one of the former employees tells Koji, the truth “hardly matters anymore”. Nakamichi doesn’t care there is a minor flaw in their products because they feel the chance of a fatal accident is slim enough not to need to worry about and happy to let the risk continue as long as they maximise their profits.

Miyake (Tetsushi Tanaka), Nakamichi’s CEO, also has his justifications, insisting that there’s no such thing as right and wrong only the cold logic of numbers and that the death of one man will not change anything. Increasingly pulled into Kitamura’s world of crime, Koji opts for underhanded methods to expose the truth about Nakamichi and clear his father’s name but finds in the end that no one is interested in facts. Listening in to some of his father’s old employees enjoying their belated severance pay he is dismayed to hear them too justifying their actions as they each insist that they did what they thought was “best” for everyone, for a peaceful life, for their families.

In truth, Koji claims he hated his father. That he resented him for always working all the time. Now however he begins to see that Akashi was only trying to protect his family by providing for it. His father was a “good” man, and he did the “right” thing, but he also became involved with Kitamura’s morally questionable crime syndicate. Kitamura wants to protect the orphans and takes care of them well, but can he really justify his actions solely on the grounds that there is no honest way to care for children who are often victims of an unfair society the pressures of which have pushed their parents from the “moral” path? What Koji’s left with, broadly, is that “good” people do “bad” things for “good” reasons, but bad people do bad things because they’re selfish and so they hardly care about the consequences of their actions. He starts to believe that the only way to resist is to fight fire with fire, but discovers that the little guy is always at a disadvantage when there is too much vested interest in not “making trouble”. It turns out everyone is OK with the status quo, so long as it’s not their car that might suddenly lose its wheels. As Miyake says, “that’s just how society works”.

A bleak meditation on the wider nature of justice and moral greyness of the world, Fujii’s noirish drama suggests good and bad are less like day and night than a shady evening in which the only shining light is the greater good. The world, however, continues on in self interest and the “good” will always lose to the “bad” as long it compromises itself trying to play by the other guy’s rules. Koji finds himself torn between a desire to avenge his father and a new sense of fatherhood fostered by bonding with a teenage girl at the orphanage as he contemplates the existence of a line between good and evil and his own place along it, but his old fashioned “nobility” finds no answer in the infinitely corrupt moral dubiousness of the modern society.


Day and Night was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Jeux de plage (浜辺のゲーム, Aimi Natsuto, 2019)

105104a28dul1sw021sqjl“Listen, men are nice to all women, because sex is the only thing they think of” a young woman warns her friend as she recounts a casual encounter on the beach with a man they seem to have collectively decided to declare a bad idea. It’s not all fun and games by the sea for the romantically confused heroes of Jeux a plage (浜辺のゲーム, Hamabe no Game) which owes a fair bit to the French New Wave in its easy, breezy exploration of young love and an intensely sexist society. Produced by Kiki Sugino’s Wa Entertainment, Aimi Natsuto’s Rohmer-esque debut continues the internationalist vibe the studio is fast becoming known for in bringing together a disparate group of travellers each “invited” to a small seaside guest house by the mysterious Miwako.

The central psychodrama plays out between three young women, not quite friends, who are apparently engaged in some sort of revolving love triangle. Yui (Juri Fukushima) has brought her uni friend Sayaka (Haruna Hori) on a trip to her hometown where they’ve hooked up with her high school friend Momoko (Nanaho Otsuka), but the atmosphere is beginning to sour. Sayaka increasingly feels like a third wheel while secretly pining for Yui who seems to have regressed into a more vacuous version of her teenage self while obsessing over Momoko who only talks about guys despite later claiming to be pansexual.

Meanwhile, the three women find themselves constantly bombarded by (largely) unwanted male attention – firstly from another guest at the hotel, Akihiro (Shinsuke Kato), who seems to have completely messed up his personal and professional lives with an ill-advised love affair. Akihiro’s eyes are out on stalks when he spots the three pretty women though they, while admitting that he’s “cool”, declare him a little sleazy, maybe even creepy seeing as he’s probably “as old as 35” and giving the eye to a bunch of college girls. Even so, Akihiro is not the only lothario on the prowl. Korean student Min-jun (Koo Hyunmin) has brought a Korean girl, Yona (Li Taun), who’s come to visit him, to stay in the hotel after getting a recommendation from Miwako. It seems Yona is just a friend who came to find out about studying film, but Min-jun keeps making awkward passes and intermittently reminding her about an introduction to his professor which occasionally seems like a creepy sort of pleading.

All that’s aside from the randy professor (Kentaro Kanbara) who might as well be a escapee from a Hong Sang-soo film, having started the picture without his trousers in the empty hotel swimming pool after apparently being seduced by the ever absent Miwako the night before. Despite being profoundly sorry, he turns up the next day to return the clothes he had to borrow and makes a worryingly aggressive play for the previously sympathetic manageress all while his suspicious wife (Kiki Sugino) watches from behind a nearby hedge, presumably following him after doubting whatever story he told her to explain not having arrived home the previous evening. Meanwhile, Sayaka, sick of feeling like a spare part, takes off for the beach where she’s quickly hit on by two different creepy guys, one of whom turns out to be a film director (A cameo from Edmund Yeo) who wanted to hire her for a movie though she wasn’t particularly interested.

Matters come to a head right there on the beach where the women collectively take out their frustrations with the male sex on the cocksure Akihiro, who is not really at fault in this instance save insensitively mocking other people’s romantic distress. Unfortunately, however, the incident does not seem to have relieved the pressure on the central trio who continue to dance around their romantic confusion without talking about anything “real”. While Sayaka looks for advice in asking random strangers if they’ve ever had a same sex crush, Yui becomes increasingly stressed and as irritated by Momoko’s gravitating towards the guys as Sayaka is by her intimacy with Momoko. Meanwhile, the only “nice guy” – a sympathetic Thai filmmaker (Donsaron Kovitvanitcha) observing from the sidelines, fails to add to the drama when attempting to make his own romantic confession (a sweet and innocent one with flowers and poetry) at an extremely inopportune moment. Bookended by time cards with chapter headings taken from classics of the French New Wave, Natsuto’s approach is one of detached playfulness tinged with farce as she observes this collection of flawed but very human protagonists fail to plainly express their desires, becoming ever more frustrated and confused as they struggle to orientate themselves around each other in a repressive and infinitely sexist environment. 


Jeux de plage was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Takuji Suzuki, 2019)

Randen posterStill running over a century later, the Randen tram line is the only one in Kyoto and connects a series of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations in the famously “historical” city. It is also, of course, a key method of public transportation much loved by locals. Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (嵐電, Randen) fits neatly into that subgenere of Japanese films which might as well have been funded by the tourist board, but even so has real affection for its anachronistic street cars as they traffic a series of romantically troubled souls towards the places they need to be with a little help from the supernatural.

Chief among them, Eisuke (Arata Iura) is a blocked writer specialising in real life strange tales. He’s come to Kyoto, rich with culture and history, in search of local mystery but finds himself preoccupied with thoughts of home and the Kyoto-born wife from whom he fears he may have grown apart. Meanwhile, Kako (Ayaka Onishi), a painfully shy woman working in a bento shop finds herself unexpectedly sucked into the world of showbiz when she is persuaded to help a Tokyo actor, Fu (Hiroto Kanai), run lines in a Kyoto accent. Back on the platform, high school girl Nanten (Tamaki Kobuse), on a school trip from Aomori, falls for aloof high school boy Shigosen (much to the consternation of her friends) but unfortunately for her trains are “everything” for him.

Mimicking the linearity of the tramline, Randen takes us through three ages of love with three variously troubled lovers each trying to find the right stop. Teenagers Nanten and Shigosen struggle with their feelings in the normal way. She is certain, he (more romantic than he seems) is not – denying his feelings in the anxiety that requited love evaporates where the suffering of unreciprocated attraction does not. Kako, meanwhile, is struggling with quite different issues in that she lacks self confidence and has decided she’s no good with people. She rebuffs Fu’s straightforward attempts at romance out of shyness and confusion, unable to parse his non-committal replies and wondering if he finds her line of questioning irritating, in which case why is hanging around with her. Eisuke, meanwhile, does something much the same as he recalls a “failed” trip he took with his wife to Kyoto sometime ago and ponders the various ways each of them will change in the time they are apart.

Through it all, the rail station cafe owner (Ryushi Mizugami) is there to dispense his wisdom and knowledge of the city. Picturesque as it is, the tramline is also pregnant with local superstition – the teenagers believe catching sight of the “Yuko” train and its distinctive retro livery means a couple will stay together, while accidentally catching sight of a train staffed by kitsune and tanuki will lead a couple to part. Superstition is as superstition does, but there may indeed be some truth in it if only as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The presence of the contrary trains does, however, prompt true emotions to the surface if only to avoid a negative outcome born of getting on the wrong train at the wrong time and ending up in an unwelcome romantic destination.

Sometimes the train takes you where you want to go, and other times you need to get off and rethink. Shigesen bought his camera to film the things he likes, but worries now it’s more that he likes the stuff he films. There might be room in his heart for something other than trains, but he’ll have to put the camera down for a minute to find out. Nanten’s friends busy themselves the touristy stuff – the Jidaigeki movie theme park and putative trips to feed monkeys, but for her Kyoto is the city of love and she doesn’t want to leave it without fulfilling her romantic destiny. A loving tribute to the iconic, appropriately historical, method of mass transit and to the charmingly, picturesque town itself, Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram exists at the intersection of past and present as its conflicted lovers make ghosts of themselves riding the tram into eternity and fading into the city as just another part of local history, running the lines forevermore.


Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Demolition Girl (JKエレジー , Genta Matsugami, 2019)

Demolition Girl poster 1High school is tough for everyone, but some have it harder than most. Cocoa (Aya Kitai), the heroine of Genta Matsugami’s Demolition Girl (JKエレジー, JK Elegy), struggles to envisage a way out of her dead end existence in small town, rural Japan but begins to find a new sense of purpose when presented with unexpected opportunity. Circumstances, however, continue to conspire against her as she fights bravely for her right to define her own destiny while those around her all too often try to drag her down.

17 and in the last year of high school, Cocoa isn’t planning on going to uni like her friends because her family is poor. Cocoa’s mother died several years ago and her father (Yota Kawase) has been a feckless mess ever since. A gambling addict, he spends his days at the races frittering away the meagre stipend he gets through fraudulently claiming disability benefit. Meanwhile, Cocoa’s equally feckless 26-year-old brother Tokio (Ko Maehara) has come home from Tokyo after failing to make it as a comedian and spends his days lounging around at home. Cocoa is the only one working, providing for the entire family with her part-time job at a sausage stand at the amusement park. Just recently she’s started supplementing her income through starring in some “videos” her brother’s friend and former comedy double act partner Kazuo (Hiroki Ino) has been making with the hope of flogging them to the select group of people who might find footage of a girl in high school uniform stomping on things “satisfying”.

Symptomatic of the perils of small-town life, Kazuo offers the videos to an old friend who owns the local rental store, not quite realising that his old buddy Naoki (Ryohei Abe) is now what passes for a gang leader in these parts. Still, Kazuo is not a bad guy, just a naive one who realises he’s hit his wall and this small-town existence is all there is waiting for him. Knowing he’s in way over his head, he eventually tries to do the right thing and genuinely wants to see Cocoa succeed even when he knows that means his cash cow will be leaving town.

Cocoa, meanwhile, has become re-energised after a well-meaning teacher tells her she is probably bright enough to get into a national university (rather than just a private one) where the fees are much more manageable. Still unconvinced, she becomes determined when her aunt tells her that her late mother had been putting money away for her especially for university. Sadly, it turns out her wastrel father may have already burned through that, but her resolve is undampened. She’s seen a way out, and she’s going to take it no matter what it takes. As her aunt tells her, she needs to get out of that apartment otherwise she’ll be stuck there forever “caring” for her feckless family members while they sit idly by frittering her money away on easy pleasures.

Still, it won’t easy. Circumstances conspire against her from a stern school board suspicious about her extracurricular activities to the ominous presence of the petty thugs who’ve become quite interested in the potential of the videos. Cocoa’s 18th birthday (which her family didn’t even seem to really remember) turns out to be one of the saddest ever as she parties with her two friends in a karaoke box and is then forced into the realisation that they’re each standing a crossroads and likely taking different paths. Supportive as they are, her friends can’t seem to understand why she got involved with the videos in the first place. From much more comfortable backgrounds, they struggle to comprehend her desire for ready cash as a means of escape or her yearning for independence and to be free from her burdensome family who over rely on her for support but offer very little in return.

A subtle condemnation of systemic inequality and the innate unfairness of a world in which circumstances of birth determine almost everything, Demolition Girl revels in its heroine’s resilience as she decides not to be beaten down by those who tell her she cannot make it out. A beautifully lensed evocation of small-town life, Matsugami’s debut is a wonderfully observed coming of age tale in which its determined heroine learns that she can choose to do things “her own way” without compromising her sense of integrity or having to leave her friends behind.


Demolition Girl was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)