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)

Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ, Takashi Miike, 2016)

terra-formarsTerra Formars – Terror for Mars? It’s all about terror in the quest for terra and reform in Takashi Miike’s bug hunt extravaganza adaptation of Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana’s manga. In fact, much of the plot is more or less the same as Aliens, but our motley crew is not a crack team of space marines headed by a recently awoken from stasis super survivor who proves unexpectedly dextrous in a robotic forklift exoskeleton, but a collection of human “bugs”, parasitical criminals who’ve each been made an offer they can’t refuse. High budget and boasting a starry cast, Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ) definitely falls into the throwaway Miike category and proves curiously dull despite its ridiculous set up, but then if you happen to be into bugs there’s really a lot to like here.

Running through the Tokyo of 2597 which seems to be some kind of Blade Runner theme park, Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) and Nanao (Emi Takei) are trying to escape the oddly bug-like police only to be captured and taken to the lair of mad scientist and all round fabulous guy, Honda (Shun Oguri). He has a proposal – join his mission to Mars and get a large amount of money instead of getting a death sentence for the murder they were on the run for. Reluctantly, they agree but there are several things Honda forgot to tell them – they’ve been given alien bug DNA which gives them super powers, and the “cockroaches” they’re supposed to be exterminating have mutated into giant humanoid creatures capable of planning and tool use. Oh, and everyone on the first mission died horribly.

By 2597, the world has become massively overpopulated but luckily enterprising scientists had come up with a plan for terraforming Mars through the use of various kinds of moss distributed by millions of cockroaches. The terraforming process is now complete and it’s time for colonisation to begin but no one really thought about what to do with all their insectile helpers. No longer “mere” bugs, the highly evolved Roaches are now the (not quite) indigenous peoples of Mars. Miike does not push the colonisation narrative (and nobly attempts to mitigate the elements which have seen the original source material decried as racist) but you can’t get away from the fact that the Roaches have every right to fight back and defend their homeland from an invading force wielding superior technology and hellbent on mass extermination.

Honda’s big idea (well, one of his big ideas as it turns out) was to send a bug to catch a bug. In some senses, all of the assembled bait could be regarded as human pests – petty criminals and reprobates offering nothing of value to society. Given the pace of the film and the subsequent carnage, none of them is given much time to shine so we mostly remember them by their epithets – creepy serial killer, hikkokomori hacker, teenage prostitution ringleader, illegal immigrant, former yakuza and dodgy ex-police officer – in other words, people with no options that no one will miss. They’ve each been more or less forced into this position by their peculiar circumstances as exploited by Honda and his team who have given them a “risky” operation involving alien DNA which has given them bug-like powers from super sharp pincers to venomous stings.

Bug hunt is an apt way to describe the subsequent action as the crew activate their inner insects and prepare to squash some Roaches only to die in various painful looking ways, usually by losing their heads. There’s a distinctly Aliens undertone to the entire enterprise, even borrowing a key plot revelation from the film’s ‘80s anti-corporate message but it’s all so unimportant next to the bug killing that it most likely gets missed. Repetitious in the extreme, the two hour runtime is stretched to breaking point with battle after battle of mostly losses as the Roaches effortlessly swat our puny human heroes.

Production design is the most impressive element but even this borrows heavily from such similarly themed genre landmarks as Blade Runner, Aliens, Total Recall, and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers. Ultra camp from Honda’s obsession with his fashionable outfits to the Ultraman style practical effects of the bug suits, Terra Formars later fails to capitalise on its surreal and ridiculous premise, remaining disappointingly straightforward in terms of tone for much of the running time. Keen entomologists will perhaps enjoy the animated info sequences introducing the various beetles, flies, and other assorted creatures as well as those same traits being acted out by our heroes but for everyone else Terra Formars may prove a rather dull expedition to the previously red planet, now a green and pleasant land but very definitely inhabited and defended. Plenty of bug splatting action with only minimally disquieting overtones but a sorry lack of excitement, Terra Formars is a disappointingly by the numbers sci-fi effort from the usually exuberant Miike but does at least look good.


Original trailer (No subtitles – massive spoilers)