Ranking of Kings tells the tale of a prince coming into his own in a fairytale world of mystery and danger. The show has it all: gorgeous environments, shocking twists and turns, and scenes that will make you weep. Series director Yosuke Hotta and his crew of industry luminaries have delivered impressive work week after week, refining the best qualities of the source material without losing the scrappy essence that makes Ranking of Kings what it is. The result is the best adaptation of a manga I've seen since Mob Psycho 100 and its sequel.
Mob Psycho 100 and Ranking of Kings have something else in common: both anime series are adapted from webcomics. Over the past few years, the anime industry has turned to webcomics in its drive to churn out more and more material. These adaptations often take their cue from redrawn or refined versions published in the traditional market; for instance, last year’s romantic comedy anime Horimiya was based not on the webcomic original but on the adapted print edition serialized in Monthly G Fantasy. Similarly, the popular anime adaptation of One-Punch Man used Yusuke Murata’s redrawn edition as a base rather than ONE’s doodly original. I can certainly understand why anime producers might choose refined versions of these stories, yet a part of me can’t help but look back at the originals and feel a pang of regret.
You see, I was once a webcomic freak. I read everything from supernatural mysteries like Gunnerkrigg Court to video game parodies like RPG World to sprawling nerd soap operas like Sluggy Freelance. What was it about webcomics that I found so wonderful at the time? First of all, they were free. Second, they could be obscure, and the idea of stumbling on something great nobody else knew about was catnip for teenage me. Third, I thought the do-it-yourself nature of webcomics (many of which were drawn by teens and young adults learning the art and their own selves) was magical. Any strip was a unique, unfiltered glimpse into the creator’s id. This applied as much to the bad webcomics as it did the good ones!
Ranking of Kings was published in a different context and time than the webcomics I read as a teenager, but it carries the same luxurious scent of creative indulgence. Its central thread is Bojji, the young prince whose kindness impresses everyone he meets. But the series is constantly going on tangents because every other character in the story has a secret. Bojji’s foster mother Hilling looks like a stereotypical evil queen from a distance, but is she really? If Domas is a noble knight loyal to the royal family, why does he hold Bojji in such disdain? My favorite character in the show is the sneaky snake knight Despa — he constantly acts in ways that seem cruel, but those actions are revealed again and again to disguise selfless motivations.
At times this tendency threatens to detract from the pacing of the story. In one episode, we discover that Bojji is on the cusp of learning a move that will make him far more powerful. I couldn’t wait to learn what this move was, but my dreams were deferred for two episodes in favor of Hilling and her son Daida. I found myself cursing Daida, wondering when we were going to return to Bojji and his adventures. But I came to realize that the generosity of Ranking of Kings, its insistence that every character has their own importance and hidden agenda, is essential to what makes the series what it is. Webcomic artists have the freedom to follow their muse rather than magazine-wide popularity polls, and series creator Sosuke Toka’s approach is perfectly in keeping with the comic’s emphasis on the importance of empathy and respect.
Ranking of Kings is also all over the place, tonally. The first episode forecasts a charming series for children, but later episodes pull in genocide, satanic ritual, and political maneuvering. That aforementioned ritual is one of the gnarliest moments of anime horror in 2021, in competition with any of Wonder Egg Priority’s nastier moments. But Ranking of Kings isn’t a “gotcha” show like Puella Magi Madoka Magica or Made in Abyss, where the cute surface is meant to hide grim depths. It’s a series that features both heartwarming moments of empathy and grotesque dark fantasy without one ingredient displacing the other. Personally, I think that’s great! A more marketable, “refined” version of Ranking of Kings might moderate the darker elements or age up the characters so the horror comes as less of a shock. But I enjoy the version of this story where you have no idea where an episode will take you, just that it will be surprising.
With that in mind, the anime staff producing Ranking of Kings did make some critical changes to the comic. The character designs are revised for animation by Atsuko Nozaki. Art director Yuji Kaneko creates fantastical environments on a grander scale than what was present in the source material. Story and character revelations are rearranged, sometimes coming far earlier or later than they did in the original series. The final result is certainly more polished than the original comic, which at times reads like an improvisational chain of “I told you that story, so I could tell you this one.” But many of the rough edges are preserved: the simply drawn characters, tonal swings, and dedication to playing against reader expectations are kept intact.
The grand innovation of Ranking of Kings — and Mob Psycho 100, whose adaptation in my mind most closely resembles it — is to ask: So what if the source material bears the mark of an independent creator? Why not emphasize that, rather than hide it? The plot of Ranking of Kings might be familiar to you if you’ve read enough fantasy stories or boys’ adventure comics, but the form and delivery have kept surprising and impressing me throughout the show’s run. Hotta and company deserve credit for their spectacular work, but also for translating rather than suppressing Sosuke Toka’s original vision. I hope that Ranking of Kings continues to be successful and that future anime adaptations are confident enough to follow in its footsteps and be weird, indulgent, and creative in ways only the best webcomics can be.
Are you watching Ranking of Kings? What are your favorite webcomics? Would you, too, die for Bojji? Let us know in the comments!
Adam W is a Features Writer at Crunchyroll. He would recommend the webcomics minus, Octopus Pie and Your Letter to curious readers. He sporadically contributes with a loose coalition of friends to a blog called Isn't it Electrifying? You can also find him on Twitter at: @wendeego
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