「初めての旅」 (Hajimete no tabi)
I needed to take a bit of time after that episode, just to soak it all in. Ousama Ranking is like nothing else we’ve seen in anime for a long time – since Made in Abyss, I suppose. It’s a staggering font of imagination, coupled with a relentless narrative that keeps heaping plot on top of plot. It never feels rushed (somehow) but the episodes do seem to be over in about three minutes. Rather than feeling exhausted when they do, I feel breathless – and anxious for the next episode to come around as quickly as possible. That’s close to as strong an endorsement as you can give.
There seems to be evidence the series is winning over some in the Japanese audience. I’m seeing merchandise in bookstores (mainstream rather than otaku ones) and the manga charted on Oricon at #14 in total volume sales, for what I’m pretty sure is the first time. I sure hope so – not just because it deserves to succeed and because anything that encourages more anime in this vein is desperately needed, but because of the shadow hanging over Wit at the moment. Nothing speaks more persuasively to the shadowy powers behind the anime industry than commercial success – with very rare exceptions, it’s really the only thing that motivates production committees.
This was an episode full of mysteries and wonders. At times it felt almost like watching a Miyazaki film, though more in terms of theme than art style. The relationship at the heart of it is that between Bojji and Domas, and from the beginning it’s pretty clear that a shadow (and I don’t mean Kage) hangs over it. There’s the basis of something real here – the moment when Domas showed off the sign language Queen Hilling forced him to learn to Bojji was quite powerful. But we know something is wrong, right from the start. It just hangs in the air.
Daida is at the heart of much of this of course. We know he’s given the order (at the mirror’s behest) to assassinate Bojji. And this talk of deriving power from Bosse’s body lends credence to a theory which I hatched after Episode 3, which is that Bojji’s deafness and size is a consequence of the deal Bosse apparently agreed with a demon – a payment. That would certainly explain the demon pointing at Bojji and laughing after it emerged. Daida is haunted by troubling dreams (of Pandora’s Box) as well he should be. Hilling is trying even in dreams to stop him from plummeting over the edge into true darkness, but so far is having no success.
Meanwhile Bojji is on his epic journey with Domas and Hokuro. The little prince is a courageous and clever boy, but lacks common sense in the real world. His attention is easily diverted by butterflies and puppet shows, and he has his bag stolen after casually tossing a gold coin into the puppeteer’s pot. He gives Hokuro the runaround to be sure, but of Hokuro’s loyalty there seems no doubt. The reason for that loyalty is eerily similar to the reason Jin felt such loyalty to Chagum in Seirei no Moribito, with the additional layer that they share a bond of grieving at the same moment.
Back at the castle, the ranker of kings has arrived, and this is an element we know little of yet despite it being the series’ title. Daida doesn’t fare too well, unsurprisingly – “about 90th place” – which only hardens his resolve to attain power no matter the cost to his soul. The ranker also notes to Apeas that the spearman’s information is correct – the #1 king gets to choose any item they wish from the “divine treasure vault”, they always choose the same item. and they invariably disappear or go insane afterwards. This will become relevant very quickly.
The first sign anything seriously off is happening with Bojji’s party is that his stolen bag is returned anonymously, perfectly intact. Bojji then proceeds to get himself in trouble with his impulsiveness yet again, falling into a pit trap and only surviving because of his tiny stature (he’d have to run around in the shower to get wet). What follows is extremely dreamy and Ghibli-like – an encounter with a somewhat maniacal man with a crown who’s almost certainly one of those disappeared kings. He teaches Bojji about the cycle of sacrifice, which he honors with a dance as a strange mythical creature sucks up lives and spits out new ones. Before he can decide whether Bojji is to be his next one, the lad flees and quickly finds Domas and Hokuro.
How to interpret the assassination attempt, and its aftermath? It seems pretty clear to me that Domas was attempting to murder Bojji with poison and the “assassin” prevented that. Domas assumes it’s Bebin, and it could be – but it strikes me as even more likely that this is the secret mission Bebin sent Kage on. Either way, Domas is definitely trying to kill Bojji on the new king’s orders, and Bebin is acting to protect him. When the trio arrive at a town located at the gates of Hell – literally – Domas sends Hokuro to secure lodging and proceeds to take advantage of the opportunity to kill the prince with no evidence left behind.
It’s obvious why Domas asked Hokuro the question he did, and that he feels remorse – but I don’t give a damn, honestly. The “just following orders” and loyalty to the throne defense holds no water with me. Of course Bojji isn’t dead – it’s Episode 4 – but it’s still galling to see him suffer yet another betrayal. What a powerfully emotional and beautifully constructed series Ousama Ranking is – it’s as sophisticated as it is visually captivating, the clear standout of the season and a strong early contender for 2022’s best series. I just hope it winds up being viewed as a success by the power brokers in the industry, because that sort of thing has never been more vital than it is today.