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)

United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

Koji Wakamtasu had a long and somewhat strange career, untimely ended by his death in a road traffic accident at the age of 76 with projects still in the pipeline destined never to be finished. 2008’s United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Jitsuroku Rengosekigun Asama-Sanso e no Michi) was far from his final film either in conception or actuality, but it does serve as a fitting epitaph for his oeuvre in its unflinching determination to tell the sad story of Japan’s leftist protest movement. Having been a member of the movement himself (though the extent to which he participated directly is unclear), Wakamatsu was perfectly placed to offer a subjective view of the scene, why and how it developed as it did and took the route it went on to take. This is not a story of revolution frustrated by the inevitability of defeat, there is no romance here – only the tragedy of young lives cut short by a war every bit as pointless as the one which they claimed to be in protest of. Young men and women who only wanted to create a better, fairer world found themselves indoctrinated into a fundamentalist political cult, misused by power hungry ideologues whose sole aims amounted to a war on their own souls, and finally martyred in an ongoing campaign of senseless death and violence.

Dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, Wakamatsu begins with a lengthy history lesson starting right back in 1960 with the birth of the student movement and the first casualty of the unborn revolution as a young woman loses her life protesting the rise of tuition fees. Despite the lack of success, the student movement intensifies during the turbulent 1960s with the renewal of the ANPO treaties and the perceived complicity of the Japanese government with America’s anti-communist warfare in Asia. Mixing archive footage with reconstructions and on screen text detailing timelines, names and affiliations these early segments are hard to follow but bear out the complexity and chaos which contributed to the inefficacy of the student movement. Soon, each of the leaders we have been introduced to has been removed from the scene leaving the older but inexperienced Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) in charge of what was then the Red Army Faction.

Mori had only recently rejoined the movement after leaving in disgrace at fleeing a protest and thereby evading arrest. The Red Army Faction then merges with another sect, the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF), to form the United Red Army. Led by Mori and a female commander, Nagata (Akie Namiki), the United Red Army holes up in a cabin in the woods in order to undergo military training for the upcoming armed insurrection. Prior to this, there had been a series of purges and executions in the city producing an atmosphere of terror and paranoia which only intensifies in the incestuous and claustrophobic environment of the ascetic mountain retreat.

Out of his depth and eager to prove himself, Mori’s revolutionary consciousness developes into a dangerous cult of personality in which his iron rule is more akin to fundamentalist religion than a serious political movement intended to change the world for the better. Wakamatsu’s depiction of these events is as terrifying as it is absurd. Maoist doctrine becomes a holy scripture as each of these would be revolutionaries is forced to undergo self criticism in order to devote themselves fully to the revolution and become a “true communist”. Brainwashed and naive, the cadre comply seeming not to realise that no self criticism they can offer will ever be good enough for Mori’s constant need for identity erasure and that each fault they offer will only be used to form the basis of the next charge levelled against them. What begins as questioning develops into screaming before descending into bloody violence and eventually murder.

If Mori’s fault is a kind of madness born of fear and insecurity, it is Nagata whose mania takes on an almost gleeful quality. A plain woman with unremarkable features and a sharp personality, Nagata, as she’s portrayed in the film, displays extreme issues relating to femininity. When an idealistic young woman arrives dressed in typical city fashions necessary to blend in with the capitalist bourgeoisie, Nagata wastes no time in berating her for her stylish clothes and makeup. Threatened both by the woman’s conventional beauty and high ranking position in another faction, Nagata takes especial care to make sure she herself remains on top. Despite being in a relationship with one cadre member and later leaving him for Mori (because it’s “right from the communist perspective”), Nagata cannot bear any hint of sexual activity and it is an ill judged kiss which ends up leading to the first set of mercilessly violent self criticism sessions eventually resulting in death as both parties are beaten and then tied up in the freezing mountain air where death by exposure is all but inevitable.

Mori declares that “leadership means beating” but when this is no longer enough the death sentences come thick and fast. Eventually, some members manage to escape and the mountain hideout is discovered. Splitting up and heading on the run, Mori and Nagata are captured while a group of five break into a mountain lodge where they take the caretaker’s wife hostage and remain under siege for nine days until the police eventually break in, arrest the terrorists and rescue the woman all of which became the first such event to be live broadcast on Japanese TV. The Asama-Sanso incident, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of the left wing protest movement in Japan as the terrorist violence of the renegade protestors forever coloured public perception.

Wakamatsu does not end his story here – returning to the captions which opened the film, he reveals to us the legacy of the failed student protest movement in the overseas activities of the Japanese Red Army, most notably in North Korea and the Middle East. The protest movement in Japan resulted in abject failure – the ANPO treaty survives, the Sanrizuka villages were destroyed and an airport built, the capitalist future arrived at speed heading into the bubble economy where the only revolution was consumerism. The glorious future of which these young people dreamed, free of class, gender, and social inequality, would not materialise as their idealism devolved into introspective dogmatic rhetoric, violence and murder. Trapped inside a fundamentalist cult, the true tragedy is that this was a children’s revolution – the vast majority of its victims under 25 years old, one just 16 and forced to participate in the death of his own brother. How much good could each of these socially conscious young people have gone on to do if only they’d found a less destructive cause? Would anyone want to live in the world born of this revolution? Contrasting the joyous camaraderie of the peaceful protests with the escalating, internecine violence of the URA, Wakamatsu’s vision of the movement he was once a part of is a necessarily bleak one but resolute in its gaze. Ugly, cold and unforgiving United Red Army is a warning from history which has only sympathy for those caught up in its terrible machinations.


Original trailer (English subtitles)