The second century is coming to an end, and with it, China’s Han Dynasty is entering its final years. A new uprising going by the name of the Yellow Turbans marks the beginning of a turbulent era for the country, one that will see three separate kingdoms rise and attempt to claim the empire for their own.
Three Kingdoms may be one of the so-called “four great Chinese classics”, but like many others in the West, my first exposure to the story was through Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series of videogames. In time, I came to discover and read translations of the original novel, but it was only recently that I learned that ROTK had also received its own anime adaptation way back in 1991- a 47 episode series covering the events of the novel from the Yellow Turban rebellion through to the battle of Chi Bi.
It should be made clear from the outset that expecting anything approaching quality from the series is to leave oneself open to disappointment; the animation is awful, the music is uninspiring, and the story is a somewhat revised version of the original. Where the novel can be said to be biased towards Liu Bei and his kingdom of Shu, the anime is an all-out endorsement of him; in fact, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to name it “Liu Bei and his Warriors of Justice”.
Where other leaders are greedy, grasping and power-hungry, Liu Bei is the embodiment of all that is good and right in the world, a virtuous warrior of truth, love and justice. At the beginning of the series, he is only a simple sandal-maker, but so marvellous is he that somehow his merits are praised throughout the land, and those closest to him know that there is no better man to rule the country. Even his character design reveals larges eyes and an open face, a far cry from the arrogance of Cao Cao, or the ugliness of Dong Zhuo.
In contrast, the men of Wei and Wu are lesser beings; Cao Cao comes through with many of his exploits intact, but as the novel itself warns us, he is “licentious and uncontrolled”, a brutally ambitious leader who cares little for the opinions and welfare of his underlings. Wu fares even worse- Sun Jian is a selfish man whose death conveniently takes place offscreen, whilst Sun Ce’s only appearance so far portrays him as a inexperienced youth all too eager to learn from the great Liu Bei.
So then, you might wonder at this point, if the series is truly so awful, why even bother to watch it? Of course, the answer to that is exactly because it is awful- hilariously so. Even if the series was a faithful adaptation, it would no doubt be amusing (take, for example, a named character stepping out from behind a screen and saying “ah, I have a good idea”), but ROTK goes one step further thanks to not only its Liu Bei-centric approach, but also the quality of the English subtitles. Now, whilst I couldn’t quite bring myself to screencap such a poorly animated series, Hopeless has put together his own pictorial guide to the unintentional humour, to which I can add a few personal favourite quotes in the form of “Drink wine and oppress the world is the best!” and “Let’s rob him and go away”. Unfortunately, not every episode is filled with gems such as these, but any time that the series threatens to become too dull to be worth continuing with, a new vein of comedy gold is struck.
There is a reason why ROTK is such an obscure and unnoticed series- it is simply too mediocre to deserve much in the way of attention. Nonetheless, to anyone who enjoys a good chuckle at the hilariously bad, I cannot help but recommend it.