Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today we’ll be embarking on a journey through a show that’s pretty much unanimously considered one of 2021’s best productions, Ranking of Kings. Having already screened the first episode back around its debut, I can affirm that Ranking of Kings is indeed The Good Shit, but let’s start off with a brief breakdown of the production situation inspiring its excellence.

Wit Studio roared onto the anime scene ten years ago, branching off from Production I.G., and swiftly gaining acclaim for their adaptation of Attack on Titan. Their productions in the years since have included such highlights as After the Rain and Vinland Saga, with the first of those properties highlighting the unique “makeup team” the studio developed during Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and the second illustrating their tendency to bite off more than they can chew in terms of production scheduling. Though their attachment to the Titan franchise has afforded them a perhaps over-inflated reputation among general anime fans, the studio has built an undeniably impressive catalog over a short time, bringing a unique style of painterly artistry to projects ranging from Rolling Girls to Vivy.

For Ranking of Kings, the studio has assembled a top shelf team worthy of a prestige production, and appear to be consciously aiming to create a property that will fortify their artistic credentials. Art director Yuuji Kaneko has previously served as art director on projects ranging from Madoka Magica to Little Witch Academia to Patema Inverted, while the production’s roster of key animators includes many of the greatest working artists in the business. The economic conditions of anime production rarely allow for projects that strive purely to be great works of art, so I’m eager to see Wit’s artists apply their talents to something with such grand and admirable ambitions. Let’s get to it!

Episode 1

From the start, we are greeted by wonderfully distinctive character art, as well as a gorgeous array of backgrounds, all drawn together with the show’s light post-processing filters through its strong composite work. Rather than trending towards conventionally attractive modern anime designs, Ranking of Kings’ characters are conveyed as rounded, exaggerated picture book characters. The background art is similarly warm and expressive, with its rich colors, soft painted shading, and absence of any harsh linework evoking the sense of an illustrated fable

Audiences have a tendency to compartmentalize a show’s qualities into “writing,” “art design,” etcetera (something encouraged by many review structures), but in reality, all of these qualities impact each other, establishing a collective aesthetic and tone where artistry and drama are fundamentally intertwined. Ultimately, art design is storytelling, as this show’s first few moments clearly demonstrate: by virtue of character designs and background art alone, our expectations are set for a world far more fanciful than our own, with a sense of fundamental warmth and mystery to it that would not be evoked by a more standard set of aesthetic signifiers. Whether you enjoy our modern aesthetic of light novel adaptations or not, these first few seconds emphatically establish Ranking of Kings as a fundamentally different experience

The system of ranking kings is also established from the very start, where kings are defined by their power and holdings, but most crucially by whether they’re a great hero in their own right. This writing matches the fanciful, fablistic tone of the art design; it already seems clear this will be a story of individual personal growth, with this king-ranking system acting as a fantastical metaphor for maturing into your best self

A great deal of modern fantasy seems to pride itself on “how well all the pieces fit together,” or the solidity of the logic and structures underpinning its fantastical elements. It is true that dramatic solidity informs dramatic investment, but on the other hand, it’s also perfectly reasonable for magic and worldbuilding to be fantastical and inexplicable, so long as the core of your drama rests on other aspects of your storytelling. It often feels like the ideal of magic as something truly unknowable has been disregarded of late, in favor of fully explained lore, and that saddens me. I like fantasies that imply their worlds contain mysteries truly beyond our understanding, dark corners where no scientist or statistician has traversed

Our little prince is as big as his mother’s hand. See, this is a world where fantasy has no insecurity about its strangeness, and no compulsion to explain itself

Gorgeous character acting for our prince’s tears. Seems like they’re employing unusually high drawing counts for his movement here, creating a sense of organic fluidity

Then we cut to the prince walking boldly through town in his underwear, laughed at by all the townsfolk

The OP shows off more of this production’s effective post-processing work, with the digital sunlight effects somehow fusing quite naturally with Ranking’s deliberately scratchy, old-fashioned looking art design

Yeah, this production seems very proud of this fusion: background and character art that evokes the texture of pre-digital animation, combined with post-production lighting effects that illustrate the best advancements of the digital age

Our hero keeps a bright smile on his face, even as the ladies of the court turn to whisper about him. Remarkably efficient establishment of his relationship with his status

The direction is also top notch. Love these dynamic layouts as he rambles around the castle, with the camera’s playful perspective making us feel like we’re the prince’s confidant

Consistent low-angle shots present the world from a child’s eyes, impossibly vast and full of wonder

Our second character appears, a sort of morphing black blob that slinks along the ground, and speaks in a surly, suspicious tone

The blob pulls a sword out of… somewhere, and demands the prince’s money

The prince cannot speak, but he can read lips, and somehow this creature understands him. Attempting to adapt a manga with a non-verbal protagonist is a massively ambitious task, since it means all of his feelings must be expressed through the show’s fluidity of character acting. It’s the kind of hubristic choice you only make if you’re intentionally striving for animation greatness, and have a team capable of realizing that vision

The blob asks for his clothes, and the prince readily agrees, leading us back around to the cold open

“That’s the first prince, Prince Boji.” The crowd provides our secondhand introduction to our protagonist

“But he was smiling.” “He’s stupid. What’s more, he can’t hear or talk either. To make matters worse, I hear he can’t wield a children’s sword well.” With such dramatic disadvantages from the start, it seems clear already that this will be a story about reevaluating the fundamental nature of strength, and the qualities that define someone as great

Remarkable how much personality they’re able to draw out of this black blob’s movements

Oh my god. The next day, Boji returns as a clumsy marshmallow, almost keeling over under the weight of the many sets of clothes he’s wearing

The blob keeps making fun of him, but Boji’s just happy to have someone to talk to

Strangely adorable seeing this blob blush at making a friend. His name is apparently Kage

“Don’t overdo it. Let’s do this again tomorrow, Boji.” I appreciate how you can largely tell what Boji is saying purely by Kage’s reactions

More effective wordless storytelling, as this close, low-angle shot of Boji grinning conveys the moment of Kage falling for his charms a bit, and feeling genuinely happy that Boji is so glad to see him. It’s a tricky thing to animate a sequence such that the audience can feel the characters’ emotional reaction to that moment – it’s something Sound! Euphonium was incredibly good at

Boji is determined to be the greatest king in the world

Yeah, this show is really committing to a specific collection of shot styles. There are the long shots that are generally framed out across the kingdom, but aside from that it’s mostly closeups and low-angle shots, all of which creates a collective effect of closely tying the audience to Boji’s perspective. And by seeing the world as he sees it, full of giants who tower over him, his determination and bravery come through that much more clearly

Boji seems accustomed to the adults, but the mockery of the children sends him running home, red-faced

“I doubt he even realizes how big of a fool he is.” The most urgent source of tension in this episode, that question of whether Boji understands his reputation

We meet Queen Hiling, the mother of Second Prince Daida. She demands an explanation for Boji’s nudity

“Big Four ‘Swordmaster’ Domas” provides sign language translations of the others’ speech. I love this show for actually committing to its challenges, and through embracing them offering heartening, character-establishing moments like this

Though Hiling is harsh, she at least cares enough about Boji to have learned sign language as well

“Now I think it is quite clear that this boy is not fit to be the king”

It seems the staff don’t know that Boji can read lips

“I wish this kingdom were a meritocracy.” A fascinating statement by the queen in the context of a series called “Ranking of Kings.” While the ranking system itself seems designed to be a meritocracy, the kings that fill out its rankings presumably inherit their positions, rather than earning them. Perhaps that’ll be a tension that’s explored down the line

More great layouts as the prince gets dressed. Love this angled shot from under the table, offering a moment of intimate solemnity, with the prince’s expressionless back forcing us to reflect on what he must be feeling after that last encounter

Only when the prince is alone does he allow himself to cry at his circumstances. A strength no one else knows about – in fact, a strength illustrated through his very ability to look “weak” and perpetually cheerful in public

“Big Four ‘Snake Handler’ Bebin” actually notices Kage, and calls him out as a member of the shadow clan. Continuing to love this story’s incidental, fantastical worldbuilding, with not one second wasted on tiresome exposition. If you unveil your worlds’ secrets at the pace your characters witness them, you’ll both tie the audience that much more closely to your characters, and also maintain a sense of ineffable, borderless wonder in your world

Apparently the shadow clan are assassins, and supposedly had been wiped out

But Kage is “just a child”

Boji’s father is Huge. He is introduced as the 7th place king, Bosse

Beautiful flashback sequence for Bosse’s history. They animate a genuine horde of monsters, no CG models in sight. Additionally, the actual “fight sequence” is no longer than it needs to be to establish Bosse’s power; in a medium where narratives are frequently considered an excuse to string together fight scenes, I appreciate this production’s restraint in not unnecessarily lingering over its action scenes

It seems his father does not know sign language, as Domas still signs for him

King Bosse’s got a bad case of blood cough, a universal symbol of imminent death. Tuberculosis really did a number on our collective imagination

Bosse loves his son, but knows he’s too soft to rule, and is frustrated by his inability to get stronger

More great multilayered compositions as Bebin’s snakes crawl over the camera. I like this show’s balance of storybook-style flat compositions and ones like this, where the camera positioning creates a great sense of depth in the composition

This sequence of Domas getting out his aggression through practice continues Ranking’s focus on dynamic action camerawork, expressing his frustration through his stick’s repeated impact into the frame

Second Prince Daida appears at last, and is predictably twice as tall as Boji. He asks for a sparring match with first Boji, then Domas himself

Daida fights with rage and savagery, and so impresses Domas that we can see the warrior forgetting himself, and actually leaning into the joy of battle with a worthy opponent

Wonderful fusion of hard tactility and cartoonishness, with Daida’s face contorting into exaggerated extremes even as the weapons collide with an irrefutable sense of weight and impact

Domas is dazzled by Daida’s swordsmanship, and Boji can see himself actively losing his one ally in court. Without a word, we understand his anxiety here, the feelings that drive him to challenge Daida himself

More delightfully depth-rich compositions as a guard remembers the time Boji faced off against a group of snakes. The snakes themselves form a sort of ornate frame in the foreground, with the camera’s reverse zoom drawing a line across the composition from this guard to Boji to the snakes. A powerfully effective layout, with an understanding of how to draw the eye that’s uncommon to TV productions

An offhand line reveals that Daida is Bebin’s student

Boji has no physical strength, but a phenomenal aptitude for dodging

And Done

Gosh, even the ED is a parade of visual wonders with this show. Ranking of Kings has one of the most inviting, beautiful aesthetics I’ve seen in years, and yet it all feels so humble and understated at the same time. The animation feels utterly natural, so fluid and character-rich that the artifice of illustration disappears entirely, leaving only the “actors” on screen. And the direction is just as impressive, with this episode’s storyboards, scene transitions, and general camera movement creating a powerful sense of space within the compositions, complimenting the show’s storybook aesthetic with a truly cinematic understanding of visual drama. And all of these beautiful aesthetic strengths are actually being applied to a story that seems genuinely worthy of them, dispensing with anime’s usual indulgences to illustrate a story that already seems novel, thoughtful, and confident in its approach to fantasy. As expected, Ranking of Kings is looking to be something truly special.

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By admin