Ranking of Kings

4 out of 5

Directed by: Yōsuke Hatta, Makoto Fuchigami

covers season 1

Engaging character designs and expressive voice acting; wonderfully stylized animation from Wit; and really smart scripting that continually tweaks on standard fantasy tropes in excitingly unexpected ways; Ranking of Kings is one of those anime that you’ll likely have a first yea or nay impression of based on the character designs – very bubbly, somewhat reminiscent of Kaiba-esque absurdity – but assuming you give it a go, the way it almost instantly begins dancing delicately around convention casts an easy spell, pushed over the line by the always-impressive Wit.

We have tiny prince Bojji (Minami Hinata), deaf, lacking in the sword-wielding skills of his half-brother, prince Daida (Yuki Kaji), and often the butt of jokes and judgments of not only the people of the kingdom of Bosse, but also the royal family and their staff. Besides preferring to watch cute animals prance around the gardens, crying a lot, and running away from general princely duties, Bojji doesn’t help engender much respect when he gets into the habit of meeting up Kage (Ayumu Murase), a shadow clan thief – i.e. a literal flat, black shadow, albeit with some eyes and a mouth – and forms a “friendship” based on giving Kage whatever he wants, down to the clothes of his back. …Resulting in Bojji walking home in his skivvies more often than not. But the young prince’s sincerity in these actions interests Kage, and when the latter witnesses the diminutive prince standing up to his stronger, taller brother during a sword fight, it removes the quotations from “friendship” and Kage starts to legitimately want to hang around Bojji.

And when King Bosse – a giant, natch – passes, wills the kingdom to Bojji but this is overridden in favor of Daida by the Queen (Rina Satō), Kage pledges full-on loyalty to Boj, and the duo essentially set off on a grand ol’ quest to reclaim the kingdom.

…Is how this sort of tale might usually go, and it takes steps in that direction. But just as it’s setting up those pieces, it’s also deconstructing the wholehearted king / plotting queen / evil brother stereotypes its set up, as well as exploring its many quirks to better explain how they fit within the world of Ranking of Kings. And during this time, you’ll find yourself surprised at how this bright and quite cute anime becomes much darker, and more emotionally weighty. Later, when conspiracies and intricately plotted double-crosses start to rear their heads, you’ll know that this definitely isn’t a kid’s show, if the seemingly cheery visuals and easy-access fantasy suggested otherwise – a rather meta commentary on not judging things based on how they look.

There is a slight cost to this, though: as the story evolves and causes and effects pile up, we get further and further away from Bojji and Kage; what starts as more of a character piece, informed by the world, becomes a series of events. The general intelligence of the writing and the visual awesomeness are still in tact, it just feels a little more shallow at points because of this. However, key moments are still delivered during this, and the show is never not completely engrossing, in whichever mode it’s functioning.

It’s probably inevitable that the weepy, diminutive Bojji would become a badass over the course of things, but Ranking of Kings does not take us on a conventional fantasy journey to get there, subverting tropes as a matter of habit and making for one of the more additive animes in recent past.