Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom

October 17, 2023 · 0 comments

By Shelley Pallis.

After a millennium of warfare, the rival kingdoms of Alhamit and Balkari have finally fought each other to a standstill. In a frankly ill-conceived plan to create dynastic harmony, Alhamit agrees to send its most beautiful princess to marry a prince of Balkari. Balkari agrees in return to send its cleverest prince to marry a princess of Alhamit. Setting aside for a moment the fact that they could have solved this problem by just marrying each other, the two chosen newlyweds arrive in their new homes, only for each to discover that they have been sold a pup.

In the case of minor princess Sara (voiced by Minami Hamabe), this is the literal truth, as her bridegroom turns out to be a dog called Luckman. In the case of Naranbayar (Kento Kaku), the Balkari “prince” who is actually a man plucked from the local dole queue, his blushing bride turns out to be a cat. But each is determined to hide the deception from their superiors, and as Naranbayar and Sara struggle to keep the peace, they find themselves becoming closer to each other.

“Sara is a princess from a remote country who’s all too aware that she is not the most beautiful girl in the world,” explains producer Toshimi Tanio. “Naranbayar is jobless and has no hope of getting ahead; neither of them is really in the spotlight of their society. They are both close to us in terms of being ‘ordinary’.”

For Tanio, it was all part of the quirky appeal of Nao Iwamoto’s original manga, which managed to garner mainstream praise while still disrupting many of the tropes of modern manga.

“[Iwamoto’s] character-modelling is really unusual and edgy,” comments Tanio. “I love the fact that there are no real evil characters. Still, as to how we should condense the original for a film, we struggled.”

Kotono Watanabe’s feature directorial debut comes suffused with middle-eastern promise, indulging in a rich and varied colour palette to depict kingdoms that are refreshingly different from the cod-European setting of many a fantasy film.

“The pandemic hit just as we started work on the illustrations” remembers Watanabe. ”Staff members with small children had a difficult time of it, but everyone was professional, and we managed to proceed without a hitch.”

“I did think about using CG for things like mosaic art,” says Watanabe, “but in order to create a style that could show off the original’s charm, I stuck to hand-drawing. As the artworks are so detailed, I would really prefer everyone to see it on a cinema screen.”

Working from a screenplay by Fumi Tsubota, she delivers what often seems to amount to a shot-by-shot retelling of Nao Iwamoto’s original manga, which ran for eight chapters in Comic Flowers a decade ago, and was published complete as a single compilation volume.

That, at least, spares us the unending sequelitis of many an anime production. Like Iwamoto’s original, the animated feature of Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom combines a realistically cynical perspective on real-world diplomacy with a pantomime-like ease – the minimal tension and drama is sure to be resolved, as sure as any fairy-story will deliver a happily-ever-after for its cast, along with what Watanabe herself describes as “two countries’ worth of wonderful costumes.” But there are also some powerful historical resonances – Sara, for example, is not really a princess, but the offspring of a royal concubine, precisely the sort of discount noblewoman that the Han dynasty used to throw at the Central Asian nomads in a long diplomatic tradition of brides-for-horses. As a heroine forced into a marriage of convenience with a family pet, she also recalls the hapless Princess Fuse, distressed damsel of the Japanese classic adventure novel The Hakkenden.

Her rakish counterpart Naranbayar is a misunderstood hero like someone out of the Arabian Nights – an architect fallen on hard times, who is selected by his nation as cannon fodder because his superiors believe him to be worthless. In fact, he and Sara turn out to be inspirations that propel their countries towards true peace, despite the cynicism that led them to confuse a marriage bureau with a pet shop, and for each to send diplomatic embassies that would have surely reignited hostilities if Naranbayar and Sara were not so keen on changing the narrative.

Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom is screening at Scotland Loves Anime.

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