If you strip away the sex and dragons from Game of Thrones you have the story of trying to unite warring factions into a single kingdom and bring the period of warfare to an end. Kingdom (based on a seinen manga series of graphic novels, and later a seventy-seven episode anime tv series) is a fictionalized telling of such a story based in the Warring States Period (3rd century BCE) of Chinese history as the Qin dynasty seeks to unite the many kingdoms that have been at war for five hundred years. As in GOT, this film is filled with intrigue (although not as complex as GOT), heroes who rise to the occasion, individual fighting, and grand battles.
The story is told through the eyes of Li Xin (Kento Yamazaki), an orphan reduced to a life of a slave. A fellow slave, Piao (Ryô Yoshizawa), convinces him that the only way out of slavery is to become great warriors, so they train with stick-swords for years, awaiting the day when they can achieve glory. One day, a general sees them sparring, and chooses Piao to go to the palace to serve the king. The two long to be together, but when Piao must leave, Xin continues to train, knowing that some day they will fight together.
Then one night, Piao arrives wounded and dying. He gives Xin a map that will lead hm to someone in need of his fighting skills. When Xin follows the map, he finds… Piao! (Actually, it is the king, Yang Zheng [also played by Yoshizawa]). Piao was recruited to serve as a double for the king, and when a coup was attempted, Piao lead the assassins away while Zheng escaped. Now Zheng must find a way to regain his throne. Xin is torn between fulfilling his friend’s desire to aid the king and avenging Piao’s death because he blames Zheng. Xin agrees to help Zheng find his loyal general and connect with the mountain tribes to have enough strength to overcome his opponents. Xin uses his self-taught skills to share in the fight to restore Zheng and become “the greatest general under the stars.”
As the story progresses issues of classism play a key role. That a slave might rise to become a general is only a part of this. The usurper king, Zheng’s half-brother Jiao (Kanata Hongô, who often seems to be channeling Joffrey Baratheon), justifies the coup by pointing out that Zheng’s mother was a commoner, making him unworthy of the throne. In that sense, the ideals of equality (or superiority) form the foundation for conflict throughout the film. Zheng, who must convince the mountain clan to join with him, shares his dream of a more diverse nation which gains strength through coming together in peace.
But that is not an easy task. Zheng concedes, “Different ethnic groups with their own beliefs and cultures can only coexist after blood has been shed. Years of discrimination and resentment can be erased. A look at history shows how hard it is to overcome.”
Xin continues to seek vengeance for his friend, but that vengeance takes a backseat to the larger goal of restoration of Zheng to the throne and the bringing together of a nation. Along the way he learns that vengeance is not a fitting objective. He learns “When a king takes up the sword motivated by hatred or grudges, his kingdom will parish.” The nobility of Zheng and his followers becomes the building block of the new nation—and Xin is on his way to finding greatness by sharing in that noble cause.