A dose of 21st century attitude mixes nicely with other winning ingredients in “Kingdom,” a thoroughly entertaining adaptation of Yasuhisa Hara’s hugely popular manga set in China, 245 B.C. Centered on two orphan boys who dream of becoming “the greatest generals on Earth,” this Japanese take on a Chinese wuxia is overwrought at times and too simply plotted at others, but wins through with colorful characters, top-class swordplay and snappy dialogue that’ll especially connect with younger viewers. Energetically directed and co-written by manga-to-screen specialist Shinsuke Sato (“Gantz,” “I am a Hero”), “Kingdom” grossed a whopping $50 million in local cinemas earlier this year and ought to perform strongly in limited North American release from August 16.
Taking its thematic cues from literary classics including “The Prince and the Pauper,” and adopting the high-spirited story-telling of action-adventures such as Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress,” “Kingdom” refreshes a familiar tale of heroes emerging from poverty to play pivotal roles in major historical events. In this case it’s the lead-up to China becoming unified after centuries of conflict known as the Warring States period.
The appealing paupers are Xin (Kento Yamazaki, “Orange”) and Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa, “River’s Edge”). As youngsters the duo were sold as slaves to Riten (Naomasa Musaka), a cruel farmer. According to the boisterous Xin their only shot at freedom and fame lies in practicing swordplay at every available moment, thus preparing themselves for glorious futures as military commanders.
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An opportunity for advancement arrives unexpectedly soon for Piao, who’s spotted by nobleman Chang Wen (Masahiro Takashima). Amid much anguish at leaving his lifelong friend behind and making tearful promises to reunite one day, Piao accepts an undisclosed role at the court of Ying Zheng, real-life ruler of Qin kingdom.
The mystery surrounding Piao’s recruitment is answered when he staggers home mortally wounded and lives long enough to tell Xin he was felled by an assassin after being hired as a double for Ying Zheng (also Ryo Yoshizawa). The king has been overthrown in a coup led by his wicked half-brother, Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo), and it’s Piao’s dying wish that Xin save the ousted royal.
After locating Ying Zheng in an isolated hut an enraged Xin isn’t sure whether to obey Piao’s instructions or kill the king. At this point the story establishes a lively reversal of the traditional peasant-ruler power dynamic. An enraged Xin blames Ying Zheng for Piao’s death and tells the monarch he’ll have to prove himself worthy of being protected.
Eventually the duo find common ground and are joined by allies including Diao (Kanna Hashimoto, “Assassination Classroom”), a cheeky, money-obsessed young woman who wears an owl suit and belongs to the Mountain Tribe. This charming oddball leads her new friends to tribal boss Yang Duanhe (Masami Nagasawa, “Before We Vanish”), a hulking figure dressed in a huge cloak and scary mask who speaks with a menacing, Darth Vader-like voice.
Production designer Iwao Saito and costume designer Masae Miyamoto run delightfully riot at Mountain Tribe HQ with wild decors and duds that suggest a combination of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” with African and Chinese influences. It’s a terrific setting for Ying Zheng’s delicate task of winning support from an ethnic group that’s been on bad terms with the Qin for 400 years.
Just as negotiations stall and the visitors appear in danger of being executed Xin steps forward and addresses Yang Duanhe with, “Hey, you in the boss mask.” The lad’s brashness and heartfelt speech about unity and respect inspire the fearsome leader to bury the hatchet and join the cause. The splendid exclamation mark on the sequence arrives when Yang Duanhe removes cloak and mask to reveal the sleek, charismatic and super-skilled female warrior beneath.
It’s all systems go from there. Big battle scenes, tricky dealings with wily warlords and thrilling one-on-one combat is the order of the day as Ying Zheng inches toward his reckoning with Cheng Jiao, while Xin grows into his role as a leader and strategist.
Although it over-indulges in flashbacks to Xin’s emotion-charged memories of Piao, and it’s a little too easy for Ying Zheng to pull off a daring raid at his palace, “Kingdom” bounces along with high energy and nice sprinklings of dry humor for the vast majority of its lengthy running time. Largely shot on lavish sets at Xiangshan Film and Television Town in China, with some gorgeous exteriors filmed in regional Kyushu and near Mt. Fuji, “Kingdom” is lovely to look at in widescreen and is very well served by Yutaka Yamada’s (“Tokyo Ghoul” TV series) lush orchestral score. All other technical aspects are tip-top.