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Ranking of Kings – Episode 4


Hello again, and welcome to Wrong Every Time. Today we’ll be returning to the world of Rankings of Kings, wherein Bojji most recently set off on a grand adventure. All the pieces are now set for a classic work of heroic fantasy: a young boy with grand dreams but untested abilities, a nefarious half-brother claiming his birthright, and a vast world sprawling out before him. But of course, even by this point, it’s clear that Ranking of Kings intends to complicate our understanding of heroism, justice, and righteousness.

For two full episodes, and up through the first half of the third, Queen Hyling was presented as an unambiguous antagonist to Bojji. She scolded him for his fundamental nature, marveled at his weakness relative to her trueborn son, and even led the charge to prevent his ascension to the throne. We were given every reason to believe Hyling belonged to a long lineage of evil stepmothers, whose motives require no unpacking, and whose role in the narrative is entirely one-dimensional.

And then, we learned who Hyling truly was. How she’d initially possessed such enthusiasm for connecting with Bojji, and how she genuinely respected his gentle nature. How they’d grown together, and then how the birth of her son had slowly drawn them apart. Crucially, what we learned about Hyling did not reframe her prior actions as secretly noble – Hyling has done both kind things and selfish things, sometimes operating according to her most charitable instincts, and at other times reacting out of fear, impatience, or simple frustration. She is the first to embody Ranking of Kings’ most central and urgent theme: that people are not simply good or evil, people are people, with complex motives, concerns we’re not privy to, and the capacity to act in both kind and unkind ways. Hyling was not drawn away from Bojji by some equally noble cause; she simply let love slip into indifference, and from there to resentment. So it goes.

Ranking of Kings’ general refusal to engage in moral absolutism, its understanding that we all contain multitudes, is its most compelling thematic thread. But beyond that, the show is also charming and beautiful and a generous adventure in its own right, embodying the strengths of its genre predecessors while dancing around many of their pitfalls. With Bojji at last on his way, I’m eager to see where his adventure leads, so let’s get right back to the delightful Ranking of Kings!

Episode 4

Ranking of Kings immediately follows up its reveal of Hyling’s circumstances with another character reassessment, as we return back to when Domas was assigned the duty of being Bojji’s swordsmanship tutor

Even the first few moments here are intensely humanizing, as we see him indulge in a brief moment of triumph and excitement at being assigned such an important duty. Moments like this typify the specific style of nuance Ranking of Kings is bringing to its character reveals – again, rather than flip our understanding with some contrived scheme about how they were “always secretly working for good,” we see how any single person can possess both charitable and uncharitable instincts, and be driven into either a heroic or villainous posture by the whims of circumstance

Both Domas and Bojji commence their training in high spirits, in spite of Bojji’s initial weakness. Domas is certain that proper training will build this eager young man into a fine warrior

But in spite of his efforts, the boy isn’t improving. A scene where Hyling asks about Bojji’s progress offers a quiet indication of how much they are both invested in connecting with Bojji, as we briefly see Hyling offering Domas lessons in sign language. As a narrative device, the hurdle of Bojji’s deafness is a convenient way to demonstrate the earnest work his caretakers are putting in

Hyling asks if Bojji has any aptitude for swordsmanship, and Domas deflects with “it’s too early to say just yet.” The staging of this shot echoes the attitude of each character – we see the back of Domas’ head, as if he’s attempting to conceal his lie, but Hylings’ eyes are aimed straight at the camera, piercing through his deception

In the wake of that composition, Hyling lowering her cup of tea strikes with a finality that announces her understanding that Bojji is hopeless

But she is kind as well as firm. That shot in turn is followed by her suggesting Domas surprise Bojji with his progress learning sign language

Given this show’s emphasis on the variability and complexity of any given person, it seems particularly appropriate that one of Bojji’s “powers” is his ability to connect with and bring out the best in others

This idea seems echoed by the final shots of the opening, which see him graduate from going on a journey with Kage alone, to leading all of the members of the court behind him

The official king-ranker has quite the costume. Honestly, in spite of this story being named “Ranking of Kings,” I’m still uncertain how this king-ranking system will play into the drama; it’s a fun, playful device in the abstract, but has little to do with the ongoing drama so far. Presumably the arbitrary nature of such a system will eventually be contrasted against the more all-encompassing appreciation for human nature embodied by the show’s own philosophy

Meanwhile, Daida’s mirror is busy hatching schemes again. The order to assassinate Bojji has been sent, and now the mirror urges Daida to consume his father’s strength

“I want to stake my reign on my own potential.” Daida doesn’t really care about power for his own sake; rather, he wants to prove his own suitability for the crown, and presumably dispel the doubts that have haunted him since the position was handed to him

The ranking official lets slip that “Bosse would have been first place if we judged by strength alone,” implying there are also other considerations for kingship

Whoa, some crazy king lore here. Apparently the king in first place gets to choose one item from the “Divine Treasure Vault,” but each successive king has always chosen the same item, and subsequently gone missing or mad

Love the mixture of textured lighting effects this show uses for ornate shots like this image of the exultant king. It’s a very cleanly integrated and modern post-processing effect, but the uneven, painterly look of the light beam layer gives it a sense of old-fashioned cel photography. Ranking of Kings routinely uses the most cutting-edge post processing effects in order to evoke the visual texture of pre-digital animation

And of course, its beautiful painted backgrounds further bolster that effect, along with its uneven line weight for the characters. While the compositing and lighting effects are very modern, the underlying aesthetics feel loose and hand-crafted at all times

Graceful wordless transition here, as Bojji rubbing his eyes prompts a cut to them setting up camp for the night

Bojji scampers off the moment they reach a town. His polite, tucked-in posture while watching this puppet show is adorable

Bojji flashes his wealth around, and has his bag stolen almost immediately

Even Domas’ lecture reflects an understanding of our complexity of behavior, as he says not that “thieves are everywhere,” but instead “these people work hard for scraps of money, so please don’t lead them into temptation.” Anyone can be a thief if the times are desperate and prize is tangible enough

Meanwhile, Daida’s king ranking has been knocked down to 90th place

Domas offers a speech about the importance of following orders no matter what, because we cannot understand the concerns of our superiors. Hokuro sees this as a lecture for him, but it’s clear that Domas is primarily dealing with a personal struggle, and attempting to convince himself of something

And Bojji, being Bojji, sees that Domas’ plate is empty, and hands him the rest of the drumsticks

Outside of town, they run across Bojji’s bag, with its contents mysteriously still there

Bojji falls into a spike trap, and ends up meeting a man with a crown underneath it. Wonderfully playful animation as Bojji apologizes for intruding, intentionally using a very low drawing count to emphasize his panicked series of bows

This man curiously defines Bojji as someone from “the secular world,” by which he presumably means the non-magical world

And indeed, this forest is magical, guarded by a massive forest spirit that takes in the souls of dead animals and releases new living creatures

They’re doing a remarkable job of capturing the unique manic energy of this forest king – it seems like they’re animating him on a tighter frame count, but rather than using that to create a sensation of graceful fluidity like in Mushishi, his individual drawings are hectic and wildly distinct from each other, creating the sensation of a man flailing with frightening intensity

From this man, Bojji is taught gratitude for the natural cycles that sustain us, as well as a cool dance. Then he runs away before the man can eat him, too

That sequence is immediately paralleled by Domas offering Bojji food as well, emphasizing how Bojji is divorced from the cycle of violence through which his formal underlings support him. While we know well Bojji’s kindness, this episode is consistently emphasizing his naivety, and how the lives of others have been sculpted by more unforgiving forces

In contrast, Hokuro actually sees Bojji’s kindness as its own form of strength. It is a hard thing to weep for everyone without eventually hardening your heart, and in spite of losing his own mother at a very young age, Bojji has maintained a great and willing sympathy for all living creatures

The town on the edge of the underworld is a delightful visual setpiece. I like the distinct architectural styles for these various towns, which really foster a sense of this being a sprawling adventure across many unique lands

And so we come to Domas’ betrayal, what both he and the mirror were hinting at, as he pushes Bojji into the Gates of Hell

Even here, we see a playful inversion of expectations – Domas at first laughs, with his face lit in red, evoking a standard “he was playing Bojji all along” reaction. But that laughter is actually just the opening salvo of a tearful breakdown, a defeated acknowledgment of his own heinous actions

Meanwhile, Daida’s having a dream that basically tells him everything he needs to know: the mirror will betray him, and Bojji will become his last shred of hope. Now surely he’ll renounce the mirror, right?

Nope, precisely the opposite. Hoo boy

And Done

Well, it’s been fun guys, but it seems like Bojji’s adventure has come to an abrupt end. Our boy may have plummeted into the fires of hell, but at least he went out strong, demonstrating more interesting nuances of human behavior right until the end. This episode essentially reversed the last episode’s redemption of Hyling – rather than showing how a seemingly cruel person could be acting from universal human instincts, we instead focused on the noble knight Domas, emphasizing how even people who embody certain kinds of righteousness can be led to great acts of cruelty. It’s a complex world out there, and Bojji still seems a bit too naive to navigate it, so hopefully his time in hell serves as a learning experience. Down into the pits we go!

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