The Three Kingdoms was a historical period in China, beginning in 168 CE and ending 280 CE. It was a time with a lot of social and political upheaval, as three kingdoms battled for power following the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The best-known dramatization of the period is Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th century historical novel, and literary classic.
This era has bumped into my otaku sphere enough times to merit this article, where we’ll trace only a few of the ways the classic story manifests itself to this day. I find it curious how rarely these sorts of things receive attention from US publishers, and how active the fan community is despite that.
Souten Kouro (2009)
More of a re-envisioning of the Three Kingdoms mythos than anything, it nevertheless takes several cues from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The catch is that the protagonist, Cao Cao, is actually one of the villains in Romance.
The story takes a larger-than-life approach, dripping with the same machismo and sense of brotherhood that makes anime like Gurren Lagann a success. This may most succinctly be communicated by watching the anime’s opening.
The series suffers from a low budget, though it’s sufficiently well done by Madhouse that at its best moments, you lose yourself in the story. With incomplete fan translations of both the anime and manga, this is a property that could definitely use more mainstream attention.
When artist Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman) and author Buronson (Hokuto no Ken) team up, beautiful things happen. This manga should be no exception, though unlike Sanctuary and Strain, this manga has received barely any English attention, with a tiny amount of fan translation done in the distant past.
It follows the more traditional route of having the same protagonist as the Romance, but it also diverges wildly. Because it is a seinen written by this dynamic duo, you can be sure that it has a manly edge, while still being realistic and a passionate piece of storytelling.
My immense bias towards these two artists probably leaves me the most frustrated with the negligence this Three Kingdoms adaptation has suffered in the US.
The Ravages of Time (2001)
The art is gorgeous, and from what I’ve read of the story, it seems to be put together well. Unfortunately, as someone who is not intimately familiar with the Three Kingdoms mythos, I found myself getting lost and confused often enough that I want to wait until I learn more before revisiting it. The Ravages of Time is not newbie-friendly, which makes sense, considering it was written for an older Chinese audience.
At 60 volumes, the manga is a relatively accurate adaptation of a literary Japanese retelling of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
This is probably the most newbie-friendly incarnation of the story that I’ve run across. It skews to a younger audience than what I’ve mentioned earlier, but in true 70s fashion, they don’t pull too many punches.
Three Kingdoms (2009)
And finally, this is a 52-episode anime that is actually a co-production between Japan and China, and may very well serve as the definitive Romance of the Three Kingdoms anime adaption. I haven’t seen it, but I want to. It appears to be relatively well-animated, and the fact that China and Japan joined forces to make it happen is uniquely interesting.
It will begin airing in Japan in the 2010 Spring anime season, though the series already aired in China last year. Hopefully this Japanese broadcast will spur someone’s attention, and it will be available in English.