Reviewby Theron Martin,
episodes 1-8 streaming
Note: All names in this review use the romanizing standards from Funimation's simulcast stream of the series.
Hotheaded idiot Xin and the more intelligent, even-tempered Piao were orphaned by one of the many battles of the late stages of the Warring States Era of Chinese history, so they find themselves first as slaves and eventually as servants in the far western kingdom of Qin. They know their prospects for bettering themselves aren't good, so they aspire to become great generals and thus earn enough acclaim through force of arms to better their stations. To this end they practice against each other relentlessly until Piao gets drafted to serve a vital role in the court of Qin; as Xin later learns, Piao is to serve as the body-double for Zheng, the recently-crowned 13-year-old king of Qin. A coup attempt staged by Zheng's half-brother throws Xin into league (reluctantly at first) with the fleeing Zheng and the even younger He Liao Diao, the bird-costumed last survivor of a Mountain Barbarian tribe. As assassins pursue the trio, Zheng must struggle both to survive and to build a power base to use in retaking his throne. Only by doing so can he realize his ultimate ambition: to bring an end to the constant internecine warfare of the era by uniting all of China.
Whatever else might be said about this new Studio Pierrot adaptation of Yasuhisa Hara's originating manga, one cannot accuse it of a lack of ambition. It strives to do no less than provide a fanciful account of the early years of Qin Shi Huang, who is arguably the most important figure in Chinese history. He really was known as Zheng in his early years, really did ascend to the throne at age 13, and would go on to end the Warring States era of ancient China (circa 475-221 BC) by accomplishing the unprecedented feats of forcefully uniting the remaining states into a single political entity and standardizing Chinese script, coinage, and weights and measures. He was also instrumental in the building of the Great Wall of China and ordered the creation of the Terracotta Army for his burial site, amongst many other feats. Little is recorded about the earliest years of his reign, so this series deigns to fill in that narrative gap. That places the time of the events in the series' first few episodes at 246 BC.
While Zheng is the series' central character, he is only at best the series' co-lead. Especially in the first few episodes, the lead role belongs to Xin, who could not be more tailored to the stereotype of the stubborn, hotheaded, thick-skulled young shonen action hero if the creators had tried; in fact, he represents these traits to the point of irritation, as only a small fraction of his dialogue does not involve some degree of shouting. Yes, the Kingdom manga originally appeared in Weekly Young Jump, a seinen magazine, but Xin is hardly the only element in the story which follows traditional shonen constructions: the plucky, bird-costumed He Liao Diao also has the feel of a typical shonen sidekick character, Piao represents the more mature, serious-minded counterpart to the hotheaded lead, and many of the character designs and the way action scenes are staged have distinct shonen action flavors. The flow of the story so far also resembles shonen action series more than anything else.
The play of events in the series is more sophisticated than is what normally transpires in a shonen action series, however, and that is where the historically-based and action elements conflict. The villains at work here are not cardboard cut-out psychopaths but careful and deliberate schemers who make chess-like moves and counter-moves – and then they send out killers who look like something straight out of any shonen action series. The half-brother usurper is a cold-hearted, even-tempered, arrogant bastard but not a caricature; this is a young man who honestly thinks that Zheng does not have the proper heritage to be the true king. Indeed, speculation has existed for millennia that Qin Shi Haung was not actually fathered by the previous king (though the legitimacy of those claims has been called into question in recent decades), so working that uncertainty into the picture here by this means is fairly clever. In a decided break with realism, however, the half-brother has a monster of a henchman who can pulp a man's head with one giant hand. References are made to Duke Mu, an actual historical figure from 400 years earlier who did, indeed, have dealings with barbarian tribes that would include the Mountain Barbarians, but the actual encounters with the Mountain Barbarians are closer to shonen-level caricatures despite a big surprise waiting in the identity of the barbarian king. This mixing of styles may be meant to make the series appeal to both younger and older audiences, but the uneasy balance is just as likely to be off-putting to those who are not normally fans of both shonen action series and dedicated historical fiction.
The technical merits likewise have some uneasy stylistic intermixing. Scenes of the more elaborate settings – Qin's royal palace, the summer home, and especially the throne room of the Mountain Barbarians – are gorgeous, and character designs are often rendered with eye-pleasing quality, while the varied costuming effectively represents different cultural and social groups within the setting; the series slips up a little by assuming no evolution in armor styles over the course of 400+ years, however. Although a laudable attempt is made to use distinctive Asian racial features on many characters, the effort leads to aesthetically questionable results, especially in the case of Xin, and some designs are full-blown caricatures. Animation is a rough combination of more traditional and CG components, which sometimes leads to some very awkward-looking sequences in fight scenes where the movements are fully-animated but with an unnatural-looking stiffness; this is especially prevalent in episodes 2 and 3. The animation does improve markedly for later episodes, even sometimes looking good, so the Animation grade given here should be considered more an overall average than a consistent value. While these episodes are not rife with bloody violence, they do have intense enough content that they may be unsuitable for young viewers.
The soundtrack is more consistent, with a regular tendency to come on much too heavy. It plays almost every scene up as great drama, whether the scene actually warrants it or not. While that does help make some of the fights thrilling and give a sense of grandeur to the work, its lack of restraint sometimes pushes the content into melodrama. Lavishly-animated opener “Pride” and more simply-animated closer “Voice of Soul” are both respectable but not stand-out numbers. Amongst vocal performances, Jun Fukuyama complements the content effectively with a restrained, just slightly arrogant performance as Zheng, but Masakazu “Ichigo Kurosaki” Morita contributes heavily to the grating side of Xin with a single-toned performance which struggles to be credible in more emotional moments.
Qin Shi Huang was, in many respects, one of China's greatest visionaries, and elements of that can be seen towards the end of this introductory span. He also, later in life, displayed such a degree of ruthlessness that it tarnished his name and reputation, and some hint of that can be seen in Zheng's largely unemotional behavior and the deliberate way that he uses people around him. That can make this a very interesting series for students of Chinese history. It also has enough drama and action in its first eight episodes (the first is double-length) to satisfy most shonen action fans. Regrettably those two aspects do not integrate more smoothly.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ Integrates in lots of historical detail, background art, plenty of action and scheming.
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