I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking “depressing fantasy series about how life is terrible for marginalised people in typical fantasy world” or “dark fairytale about how monsters aren’t actually the bad guys” are two premises that might drive people away because they’re very common attempts at deconstruction of typical fantasy things and also often done very badly. Which is why Ranking of Kings is a genuine surprise in how good it is.
The premise sounds like a fairly uninspiring one if you describe it too plainly – a young prince, born deaf, struggles for recognition in a royal family who would prefer a strong, heroic and able-bodied boy next in line for the throne – his evil brother. He meets a suspicious creature who offers to help him get by in this uncompromising world. That premise could go many places, but I think what makes Ranking of Kings stand out is it does very little deconstructive with it, and just focuses on being a very moral, very compassionate story. It’s a heartfelt tear-jerker and I actually quite appreciate its lack of cynicism. I think what makes it clear it’s a show with its heart firmly in the right place starts with the title, and all its implications – society is very interested in what makes a “good” king, and that’s good looks, strength, intelligence and authority. Someone who looks like they should rule, acts like they should be obeyed and exudes wisdom and power. By contrast you have Prince Boji, who is physically weak, unable to speak or hear, and generally disliked because he doesn’t fit the preconceptions of what will make a “good king”.
But, of course, this is the sort of series that is going to hit you repeatedly with the fact that while he does not meet the ideal of a nobleman he is a good person, someone who is detached from the preconceptions and prejudices of society and finds humanity in everything. I think I needed a series with that fundamental heart to it, because the cynicism I sometime have over moralising fiction was cut right through as I felt genuine sadness at how this kid was being treated and how his shadow companion – used very plainly and explicitly as a vehicle for messages about treatment of refugees and immigrants – ended up turning to crime because society couldn’t accept his people. And I realised what I was taking away from this was that things can be sad, they can depict the ugliness of the world in a way that is fine for children and in a visual language that is straight out of picture books, and they can do it in a way that encourages empathy rather than crystallising the idea that society is inevitably terrible.
That’s a difficult distinction to explain but what I mean is a bad, grimdark kind of story would say “life sucked for someone who was different in medieval times, look how hard and grim they were” and you get your pleasure from your preconceptions about how in the past it was OK to be unpleasant to different people being fulfilled by fiction. Ranking of Kings doesn’t put the racists and the prejudiced nobles at the forefront of the story as the heroes “but that’s just how things were”, it wants you to empathise with the victims of that society and question its justice and rightness. It’s not a “dark fairytale” in that it wants you to think fairytales where badness is defeated by goodness are weak or pathetic, it’s a “dark fairytale” in that it focuses on someone who is ostracised by society and turns to outside forces – probably supernatural – for companionship and support. It’s not even fair to call it nuanced because it isn’t, it’s a lot more explicitly condemnatory than most takes on this may be – because ultimately when you’re dealing with these themes in the framework of something for families, which it definitely feels like it’s aiming for, you don’t want nuance, or to explore if sometimes it’s OK for the court to scheme against the prince who can’t meet their standards of being a ruler. You want to make it damn clear that Boji, despite his not meeting those standards, would be a better ruler than his brother.
Perhaps that’s a naive way of looking at this and perhaps this is actually a naive, immature kind of story. I personally think it’s one of those series that is unafraid to throw out some basic morality and be as loud and as sappy and as explicit as it wants. I mentioned in a previous post that what drew me into watching Galaxy Express was the fact that through the weirdness, the robot cats and the people made of wood and the weird sci-fi-ness it had – at least for a while – a sense of “I, the writer, am very angry about this problem in society and I will tell you about why.” It was forthright when there is a kind of unspoken desire for nuance to cushion difficult accusations. Now Galaxy Express by around 60-70 episodes in unfortunately lost that vitriol, it faded into a kind of uncomfortable centrism because its themes ended up becoming much bigger than I feel its formula could adequately handle. Ranking of Kings may well go interesting places – after all, it is only just begun – or it may lose its way. But its opening is very strong and if it commits to what it’s offering I will be happy to be sad while watching it.
Now there’s one other thing I want to compare this with as a kind of postscript, because it’s fundamentally a very similar setup in a way but absolutely shows how you can mess this right up. And the problem is not one with the anime at all, but with the source material. Little Princess Sara is an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess which you could perhaps point to as sitting in a similar vein of “outsider child is discriminated against by society that is uncaring” to Ranking of Kings. Indeed, both are – for their times and ways – intensely moral corrective works equally outspoken about what goodness and badness are. The difference is I hated, and still hate, A Little Princess and by extension have a troubled relationship with its anime version because the anime’s greatest sin is cleaving too closely to the book’s tiresome morality.
From a completely simplistic perspective you could say Sara Crewe and Prince Boji are not dissimilar; both are used as vehicles to show how through the determination and essential strength of human character one can overcome adversity and discrimination to prevail against the evils of society. Both find companionship in “outsiders” and, to be absolutely blunt to the point of facility, immigrants. (And it is here that I feel Tetsuro Hoshino pokes his behatted head into the discussion as another anime kid whose strength of human character and interactions with outsiders and the dispossessed are used as a way to show some moral message or another, but his involves shooting a lot of people and whining about the secret of eternal life). But the problem is Burnett’s morality, recreated in Little Princess Sara, feels less humanising. Sara interacts with cultural outsiders via a poor servant girl who represents the essential dignity of the deserving poor, and an Indian manservant who represents “the good ones”, the foreigners who can be allowed to exist in upper-class British society.
Her moral arc is based around the accumulation and loss of wealth – she is ostracised for losing her wealth and her big moral moment at the end of the story is retaining her morality even as she is “rehabilitated” into society by finding it again. Boji’s arc, from what we have seen of Ranking of Kings so far, is about someone who societal mores say deserves wealth and privilege but it is given grudgingly because although he has to have status for reasons outside society’s control, society does not deem him worthy of it. He is someone for whom wealth means nothing and his goodness does not come from having or losing it, but from not having the chance to use it but wanting to do good with what he can.