Reviewby Theron Martin,
K: Return of Kings
Blu-Ray + DVD
As the activities of JUNGLE (aka the Green Clan) advance, the other clans eventually come to understand that most of its members aren't true clansmen but people participating in what they think is a social networking game, one where they can temporarily gain powers from the Green King as they accrue points and level up. Under the direction of Green King Nagare Hisui and his chief subordinates, Kuroh and Neko are targeted, SCEPTER 4 is run ragged, and HOMRA is harassed. Their ultimate target is the Dresden Slate, the mysterious artifact that Alfred K. Wiseman (aka the Silver King) once unearthed and which is the source of both the king system and the powers of the Strains – and with the Gold King, who had been securing it, now dead, it's vulnerable for the first time in decades. Red King Anna, Blue King Reisi Munakata, and newly-returned Silver King Alfred/Yashiro are not about to let the Green King unleash the chaos that he is intent upon, but they are unaware that the Green King also has a powerful ace up his sleeve to go along with his powerful subordinates.
If you have seen the first TV series of K but have not seen the movie K: Missing Kings then you should not begin this sequel, as starting right after the season-opening fight scene (which is either a flashback or a dream sequence) a lot of things will not make much sense without knowing the characters introduced in the movie and the circumstances set up there. If, however, you have seen all previous franchise content then picking up this season is a must, as it firmly brings the overall storyline – indeed, the setting as a whole – to a solid conclusion.
One of the most interesting aspects of the franchise so far has been how differently each King has structured and run his clan, resulting in stark contrasts between the very order-oriented Scepter 4 (the Blue Clan), the more street gang-styled Homra (the Red Clan), and the much looser Silver Clan. This aspect gets expanded on greatly in this series, as we learn at least a little about the Gold Clan (which has long been charged with maintaining the Dresden Slate) and a whole lot more about JUNGLE, which consists of a couple of very powerful chief subordinates and a vast array of lesser underlings who may or may not even know that they actually are part of the Green King's organization and who only know the Green King via social media – in other words, the most decidedly modern-tilting of all of the clans. The King of the clan, Nagare, is also vastly more of a schemer than the Red, Blue, or Silver Kings ever were and is also the most powerful of the lot, albeit only for short bursts. His more extensive but also diluted organization allows JUNGLE to play the villains against all of the other three groups.
The second big change is that Anna is now nominally running the show for HOMRA, though it is more of a case of the Red Clan members taking general cues from Anna rather than specific instructions. Still, it is a distinctly different relationship than with Mikoto as the leader; while he was more of a gang boss, she is the heart and soul of the clan, and she so prioritizes their well-being that she's not averse to working with former enemies in pursuit of that goal. She's definitely not a helpless one, either, as some of the most impressive action scenes in the series involve her taking direct offensive action. Even so, watching as Yata tries to resolve himself to being her protector makes for some good character growth for him, and it's not at all hard to understand why all of Homra would adore Anna even if she wasn't now their King. While she is clearly a strong moe play, this series shows that there is a resolute core to her personality, too, one that other Homra members could doubtless respect.
Other key relationships also get delved into further. Seri and Izumo get additional opportunities to work together, which reassures my long-standing impression that they would be a proper couple if clan politics and Seri's devotion to Munakata didn't get in the way. Yata and Fushimi's testy relationship also gets more exploration, with it being clearer than ever that Yata has a definite bromance with Fushimi; Yata coming to terms with Fushimi's defection to Scepter 4 possibly being the best move for him is easily one of the key character development points of the entire story. The relationships among the villainous Green Clan powerhouses is much less vibrant, as it hinges on a character who's already been established as thoroughly-annoying (Yukari), another who's newly-established as annoying (Sukuna), and Tenkei, who isn't annoying but whose motives seem very thin given his level of buy-in with Green King Nagare's scheme. For that matter, while Sukuna's motives for participating in Nagare's scheme are quite clear, why Yukari goes along with it is never firmly established.
Nagare's ultimate plot also brings up both the biggest hole in the series and its biggest philosophical aspect. In the former case, the Dresden Slate mentioned in the preceding movie gets a lot more attention here – in fact, it becomes the focal point of much of the plot – but exactly what it is and why it exists is never much explored, nor is why Kings manifest a Sword of Damocles when their powers are fully active. In the latter case, Nagare's scheme boils down to a conflict over whether society works better with order maintained via concentrated power or whether individual empowerment is more desirable even at the expense of chaos and a purer “survival of the fittest” attitude. Given Japan's overall conformist mindset, the former is the natural choice for the heroes and the latter the attitude of the villains, but this is a case where not everyone may see the Green Clan as the villains. I am also struck by how much the power dynamics in play here mirror the gun rights/control debate in the States, though I am fully confident that any such similarities are mere coincidence.
Even more so than in previous installments, the technical merits of the series stand out. While the visual look of the series remains the same if you look at any static images, this series uses a substantially more active camera, hence sometimes resulting in multiple viewpoint shifts even within the same action scene and a more fluid transition in such shifts. This results in a more 3D flow than just about any other non-3DCG anime title I've ever seen. Whether or not there's any actual value to doing this is more debatable, as in some scenes (especially the opening one of the series) the animation seems to be showing off simply for the sake of showing off. For all of this keen effort on movement, some animation is also occasionally recycled. Otherwise this series maintains series standards: male designs tend to have a lanky shojo flavor to them, while designs for prominent female characters other than Anna emphasize sex appeal; the camera also continues to be fond of crotch-level shots of Seri from behind. Anna, meanwhile, is still the epitome of Goth loli appeal.
Much of the musical score carries over from previous entries in the series. Unfortunately that also means that the score isn't doing any better job than the first TV series did of providing appropriate and enhancing backgrounds music. Neither the opener nor the closer distinguish themselves much, either.
The English dub carries over the entire cast from previous installments. Among new roles, Ray Chase (Piccolo from Dragon Ball Super) is a fine fit as Tenkei, while Amanda C. Miller (the new Sailor Jupiter for the original series) does her best imitation of Brianne Siddall's Tsukasa from .hack//SIGN in voicing Sukuna. Colleen O'Shaunessy has also improved as Anna, which clears up the one weak point from the movie's dub. Recurring roles are as sharp as before, resulting in an English audio performance which loses nothing to the Japanese version.
The deluxe release from Viz Media includes both DVD and Blu-Ray versions in a single case. On-disk Extras include the clean opener and closer, the English credits, and a Director's Cut version of the final episodes which adds about 5½ minutes of extra content at around the 20:20 mark in the episode. While hardly crucial content, those extra few minutes do round out the final episode better. The case comes in a sturdy artbox with a set of 13 art card which reimagine various cast members as idol singers and their clans as talent agencies.
Overall, Return of Kings is a small improvement over the first series in that it tells a more complete and coherent story. It still has a tendency to emphasize flair and style over substance, but that doesn't get in the way as much here as in previous franchise installments.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Rounds out the story, strong action sequences, good development of some character relationships, solid English dub
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