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)

Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Yuichi Fukuda, 2017)

psychic kusuo posterMany may bristle at an attempt to label director Yuichi Fukuda an auteur, but you can’t argue with the fact that he’s developed something of a house style. That house style may have just catapulted him to the top of the box office with two successful movies inspired by the gag filled Gintama, but outside of his big budget studio efforts he’s something of an acquired taste. Take Hentai Kamen, for example. For some a hilariously perverse super hero adventure comedy. For others one childish joke stretched out for 90 minutes. Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Saiki Kusuo no Sainan), coming from the same general area as the phenomenally successful Gintama in adapting an absurdist gag manga only this time one by Shuichi Aso, undoubtedly belongs in the latter category.

16-year-old Kusuo Saiki (Kento Yamazaki) is the most powerful esper on Earth. Seeing as he was born to a lovely, hippyish couple who didn’t mind that he was a bit strange, Saiki grew up appreciating his superpowers for what they are but also mindful that they could cause him a problem if they got out of hand. He uses his powers to hypnotise those around him so that they don’t notice his neon pink hair or the antennas in his head which keep his emotions in check and prevent him accidentally destroying all of Tokyo. Nevertheless, it is quite a bother to be burdened by unnatural abilities especially in that it makes life extremely dull not to mention a little stressful when you can hear everything everyone is thinking in every tiny detail.

The big problem is that Saiki is coming up on his first high school culture festival. Saiki is not big into celebrations and hanging out with other people so what he likes about festivals is that no one’s going to miss him so he can escape for a little me time. The last few festivals, however, have each descended into chaos and if it happens again this year they’re going to be cancelled for good. In order to save his precious haven of relaxation, Saiki will have to forgo it this time to make sure no one starts any trouble.

Fukuda began his career writing skits for TV variety shows and the humour in his films is indeed very specific and of the kind familiar to fans of Japanese television comedy, which is to say it is extremely broad and somewhat meta with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. The major antagonist of Psychic Kusuo is conceited high school classmate Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto) who is accounted by all as the school’s number one beauty and knows it. As he’s able to read minds, Saiki knows she’s in no way as pretty on the inside and makes a point of ignoring her. Of course, this only ends up attracting her attention because she’s incapable of accepting that there’s a boy who doesn’t instantly sigh on catching sight of her. In keeping with Fukuda’s over the top approach, Kokomi becomes little more than a collection of preening looks alternating between calculated cuteness and outright bunny boiler villainy.

Meanwhile, Fukuda throws in a series of in jokes and random references to other franchises from Assassination Classroom to Dragon Ball, piling absurdity on top of absurdity through a series of possible crises as yankees from another school threaten to cause a ruckus and the Dark Reunion turn up to prosecute their conspiracy on school grounds. Meanwhile a creepy stage magician and his surprisingly sprightly mother/assistant take credit for all the strange goings on and Saiki accidentally ends up marooned in space.

Yet the problem is that it just isn’t very funny or particularly interesting. It comes to something when the most entertaining part of the movie is Saiki’s extremely nice parents and their unflappable acceptance of the strange goings on which often befall their family. Over reliant on reaction shots and schoolyard humour, Psychic Kusuo may play well to Fukuda’s many fans, those familiar with the anime or manga, and lovers of TV variety skits but anyone else may find themselves scratching their heads at its decidedly lowbrow, scattershot attempt at humour and longing for an end to its considerably dubious charms.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Orange (orange-オレンジ, Kojiro Hashimoto, 2015)

Orange posterPerhaps it isn’t possible (or even desirable) to live a life without regrets, but given the opportunity who wouldn’t want a second chance to tackle some of those thorny adolescent moments where you said something you shouldn’t have or didn’t say something that perhaps should have been said. The heroine of Kojiro Hashimoto’s Orange (orange-オレンジ) gets exactly this opportunity when she receives a letter from her future self asking for her help in “erasing” some of her teenage regrets by using the information in the letter to save a friend she hasn’t yet met. Though the letter contains little information about the life she is leading ten years from now, it is clear that something happened all those years ago which has profoundly affected the lives of a tight group of high school friends.

16-year-old Naho (Tao Tsuchiya) receives the letter at the beginning of her second year of high school, reading it under the vibrant pink cherry blossoms. A little creeped out, she doesn’t read it fully but is surprised when, just as the letter said, a new student, Kakeru (Kento Yamazaki), transfers into her class and occupies the previously empty desk next to hers. A shy and quiet girl Naho is nevertheless part of a group of five friends which includes sportsman Suwa (Ryo Ryusei), geek Hagita (Dori Sakurada), and two other girls Takako (Hirona Yamazaki) and Azusa (Kurumi Shimizu). For reasons unexplained, the group quickly takes Kakeru into their fold only for him to suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks. On closer inspection of the letter, Naho is disturbed by the news that Kakeru is “no longer around” at the time of her future self’s writing.

Orange fits neatly into the popular tragic high school romance genre in which an older version of the protagonist looks back on a traumatic event and tries to come to terms with their own action or inaction in order to move forward with their adult lives. 26-year-old Naho, as we quickly find out, has moved on – she is married to Suwa and has a young son she has named Kakeru but she and the others are still finding it difficult to come to terms with what happened to their friend and the possibility that they could have done something more to help him if they’d only known then what they know now.

So far so “junai”, but Orange tries to have things both ways by introducing a slightly clumsy time travel/parallel universe theory in which the protagonists realise that they won’t be able to change the past but are hoping that their friend is happy in an alternate timeline created by their efforts to influence their younger selves with more mature thinking coupled with the benefit of hindsight. Unlike other examples of the genre, Orange undercuts the usual need to deal with the past and find closure through a mild fantasy of denial in which the older protagonists can believe in an alternate future in which they were able to do things differently and save their friend from his unhappy destiny.

Saving their friend is, however, only a secondary goal – the first being to ease their own sense of guilt in not having seen that Kakeru was in trouble and needed their help. All this emphasis on personal “regret” cannot help but seem somewhat solipsistic – everyone is very sorry about what happened in the past and wishes that they could have acted differently but is also somewhat preoccupied with their own role in events rather than a true desire to have in someway eased their friend’s suffering. Though there is the true selflessness of real, grown up love such as that displayed by Suwa who has always loved Naho but supports her love of Kakeru despite his own feelings, the actions of the group remain childishly goal orientated as Kakeru’s survival becomes an end mission flag rather than an expression of love and care for a friend in trouble.

The teenagers are, despite advice from their older selves, still teenagers and so it is only to be expected that they respond to a very grown up problem with a degree of immaturity, but it is also true that Kakeru’s ongoing, mostly well hidden, depression plays second fiddle to the various romantic subplots currently in action. Though the friends rally round with fairly trite phrases about helping to carry Kakeru’s burden and always being there him, Orange almost tries to argue that kind words are enough to pull a strained mind back from the brink – not that kind words ever hurt, but some problems are bigger than superficial pledges of friendship can handle especially when you’ve half a mind on who loves who and who is trying to get in the way of someone else’s romantic destiny. In spending so much time worrying about their friend, they have, in a sense, left him to deal with all his problems on his own while revelling in their own “concern”.

Superficial and melodramatic, Orange’s insistence on the power of teenage friendship can’t help but ring a little false and the parallel universe solution an overly convenient narrative device which allows for two differing resolutions both of which essentially frustrate the attempts of the older protagonists to accept their own sense of guilt and responsibility for their friend’s death in order to move on with their lives. Kakeru, in a sense, gets forgotten in his friends’ need to absolve themselves of his fate – a particularly ironic development in a cautionary tale about the enduring legacy of regret and the necessity of communicating one’s true feelings fully in the knowledge that there may not always be another opportunity to do so.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)