The young prince’s self-assurance leaves him as his stepmother looms over him, looking down her nose at him, and literally overshadowing him in a scene tinged with an ominous red, arched eyebrows, and posture all geared to match the sharpness of her admonishments to him. We recognize the hallmarks of this kind of character; we’ve seen this story before. Only, not quite. This is the first time we see Queen Hiling, a character who, throughout Ranking of Kings, becomes one of the series’s most selfless characters, driven by her love for her two sons. Many of the characters in Wit Studio’s anime begin with a similar disparity. Their visual designs and the obfuscated intent behind their actions create an entirely different image than what we learn of them later on.
Adapted by directors Yōsuke Hatta and Makoto Fuchigami and writer Taku Kishimoto from the manga by Sōsuke Tōka, Ranking of Kings follows that of Prince Bojji, a young heir to the throne viewed as unfit to rule because of his deafness and lack of physical prowess. There’s a lot to love about the show — most immediately its use of sign language, the colorful, graphic art direction, and the frequently goofy elasticity of its characters. But its continual upending of almost every first impression made by its characters is every bit as striking.
With Hiling as a leading example, Ranking of Kings manages many other reversals by calling upon a history of stock characters from classic fairy tales, ones that’ll be familiar to most through cultural osmosis. In her first appearance, she might seem like the classic evil stepmother as per the Brothers Grimm, seemingly vindictive and dismissive of her stepson Bojji while her other son Daida easily earns her favor. But, as we learn about many of the series’ characters, seeing Hiling this way is based on a shallow impression, her sternness coming from a place of love and concern. The show continually shifts each figure and slowly excavates their true nature in a kind of dramatic mirror to how Bojji is perceived and underestimated for no other reason than his lack of physical strength. Ranking of Kings stokes similarly superficial attitudes by engaging with character archetypes that can be traced back to folkloric tales.
Though, as in the original stories, there’s no wholly unified version of each of these types, Ranking of Kings capitalizes on general impressions of and associations with comparable figures. Bojji himself, somewhat paradoxically, could fit into the “youngest son” archetype, where the physically weakest of a group of siblings succeeds on a heroic quest where his seemingly more capable brothers fail, perhaps as in Grimm’s The Story of the Youth Who Sets Forth to Learn What Fear Is or The Fool of the World and The Flying Ship (Bojji certainly “never did a harm of anyone in his life”), but especially Esben and the Witch.
The trope necessitates a lack of physical prowess in most cases, where out of multiple sons, one is shown as helpless or useless in their chosen profession (here that profession is, uh, King, but still). But Bojji reveals a hidden strength that exists because of his perceived weakness. The show begins to ask that we judge through observation rather than nostalgic memory, perhaps in coupling with how Bojji’s power comes through close observation of people and place. His best friend Kage (literally “shadow”), a former thief born into a lineage of assassins, becomes his steadfast companion. At the same time, his brother, the seemingly arrogant and vindictive Daida takes the more antagonistic role that the older brothers would play in such stories; mercilessly beating Bojji in a sparring match, scoffing at his unsuitablity for the throne and undermining him in front of would-be retainers. But he similarly reveals new layers to himself, becoming more in line with his older brother’s selflessness than anticipated.
By simply aligning certain characters with Daida, the kindness and honor of various characters comes into question. The snake handler Bebin — the untrustworthy connotations of his preferred pet dating back to the foundation of Abrahamic religion — turns out to be more benevolent and empathetic than such mythology (plus an assassination attempt and his constant lukring in dark corners) would suggest. Again, appearance doesn’t belie personality, as further evidenced ward, the giant and kindly three-headed serpent Mitsumata, (who turns out vaguely more in line with the folkloric theme of the snake as an imparter of gifts as in the fairy tale The Enchanted Watch and others of its type.) As a result of this, an early fight between Bebin and fellow knight Apeas looks completely different by the show’s end. Though the show establishes competition and divided loyalties between the two heirs, the line between the two factions becomes blurred and eventually redrawn as surprising truths emerge about their lineage and their capabilities.
The father and king play similar roles in fairy tales, and in Ranking of Kings the consequences stemming from that paternal role are intertwined. The aptly named king of kings, King Bosse, father to Bojji and Daida, at first seems absent like many a fairy tale dad before him. But he turns out to be actively terrible in place of the usual villainous mother figure. In fact, for a time, Bosse joins the ranking of all-time worst anime dads, having participated in a number of Faustian or perhaps Rumpelstiltskin-style bargains for power. (That trade of children’s lives for power also isn’t unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo either, as pointed out by my esteemed colleague Juan Barquin.)
It’s far from the first anime to play with these characters in this way; for starters, anyone looking for a similar visual and/or narrative experience need only turn to Sunao Katabuchi’s lovely and overlooked feature film Princess Arête, perhaps Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or the cutesy mix of folklore and slapstick of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. The confidence and classical flavor with which Ranking of Kings toys with these tropes is familiar, yes, but that’s part of its warmth, and even part of its deceptively complex presentation of where a character’s destiny lies.
Ranking of Kings is interested in unpacking the psychology of these characters in a way that fairy tales often don’t. As Phillip Pullman noted in a piece for The Guardian: “There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad […] Nothing of that sort is concealed.” But time and again the anime chooses concealment and interiority— a choice that immediately changes the destiny of these archetypes, which usually serve simply as representations of a concept, to catalyze a change in the hero. It’s as simple as this: outside of its gorgeous presentation, Ranking of Kings is exciting because it turns these familiar archetypes characters into people, with all the complexity that entails.
Even the show’s entire aesthetic acts as part of its complication of various first impressions, as its adorable storybook art style smuggles in some complex political intrigue (and later, double-crosses and bloodshed). The consistency of its medieval fantasy landscapes and pastoral countryside beauty means that its metaphysical moments pack that much more punch — it quite literally looks at character interiority as Daida is trapped in what could be called himself, his self-image warping in one of the show’s trippier sequences. But it’s all still couched in that old-school look. The cheerful and bouncy animation features slightly idyllic backgrounds and soft silhouettes of the characters, suggesting a much milder and more peaceful world than what we get. Beneath each kingdom lies some deep, old wounds some still open with the tragic figure of Ouken (a one-time prince) steps into the picture. So, of course, Bojji’s heroic journey runs counter to that. As with other shōnen, he opts for forgiveness and mutual understanding, even when it’s the most difficult choice, in the face of a surprisingly dark story of death, lost love, and various other tragedies.
The way that the show gradually reveals new layers to each of these characters and their perceived stock types is also how they fill in the detail of the world around them. The history of Ranking of Kings is incrementally revealed with every new episode from a new perspective, one that gradually illuminates the true nature of the storyteller and the events that informed their outlook. Hiling’s introduction into Bojji’s life as his new mother is something she fought long and hard for rather than something of simple political circumstance. Miranjo isn’t simply an evil witch, and we discover this the same way we find out the conflict that characterized the transfer of power between the Gods(!) and the current kings. Bojji’s appearance, lineage, and his father’s actions all dovetail. How the kingdom’s past intertwines and links each character is often unexpected as it is thrilling.
Its numerous elaborations on this history and continual upending of our expectations surrounding the characters work their way to the show’s main idea, spoken aloud by Bojji’s late mother: “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” Daida, Miranjo, Apeas, and even Bosse’s mistakes are not beyond forgiveness; they’re not evil just because, and so they make for more exciting antagonists. The use of others without consideration for their past sets Miranjo on a bloody and lonely path. It spares humanization for all of its characters; tragic circumstances pathologically drive even the most villainous. With time and understanding of their past, some things can be fixed and lessons can be learned. It’s also part of why the show’s relationship with death is the way that it is — the characters aren’t just symbols or sacrifices needed for Bojji’s personal growth but people with dreams and ambitions of their own, also worth following. No one is killed simply to make a point.
That across-the-board consideration makes the more fanciful moments of Ranking of Kings — its metaphysical journeys, a manifestation of its glorious final fight as David and Goliath scenario — based in feeling as much as it is the mechanics of a fable. The traditional stories and their motifs do unfold, but with more emotional complication behind them than myopic simplicity. It’s not perfect (its conclusive romance is odd to say the least) but such things can be forgiven. It’s a fable after all.
It’s funny that one of the sweetest and most frequently heartwarming shows of the year stands out because of its playful deceit. Though Bojji is so lovable that all who gaze upon him (in and out of the narrative) just as soon swear they’ll take a bullet for him, Ranking of Kings dedicates much of its season to tricking us — into believing that we can assess the rest of the cast at a glance too. And, time and again, it delights by proving us wrong.
Season 1 of Ranking of Kings is now available on Crunchyroll and Funimation.