I recently finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms anime (adapted from Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s manga, not the recent Chinese-Japanese collaboration). It’s old and rather long, but turned out to be a fairly epic ride. At least it doesn’t turn everyone into girls! Since it’s faithful, it does a great job of highlighting what’s good (and what’s bad) with the RoTK saga.
The military battles are by far the most interesting aspect of RoTK for me. The show captures the essence of Sun Tzu’s Art of War by building layers upon layers of deceptions in military strategy. In fact, the Battle of Chi Bi at the end of the show was 90% scheming, and the actual fighting proved quick and decisive. There are a myriad of unusual tactics used every battle, so it never gets old to watch. Some tricks are a bit ridiculous, but nothing in the level of Code Geass, thankfully.
Real, Flawed Characters
RoTK has a huge cast, and within that cast there are a lot of heroes. Cao Cao is a man of overflowing ambition and talent, while Lu Bu is a peerless warrior. However, that doesn’t mean that all they have are good traits, because the show also portrays their foibles. Cao Cao gets blindsided by pride, while Lu Bu is a coward at heart. Liu Bei is inflexible because of his strong moral compass. The only person I could think of who doesn’t have any weaknesses is Zhuge Liang, who is a kind of Chinese Jesus anyway, but his struggles are still interesting to watch. That said, my favorite character is Zhang Fei, who is as flawed as he is strong.
China is huge. It’s staggering to learn that armies in this era can grow up to 1 million in size, though the novel could just be exaggerating figures. Provinces are separated by vast tracts of land, and it takes a lot of time for people to move around. Due to the limitations of a typical 90’s TV anime budget, the show doesn’t cover huge battles very well (see Red Cliff instead for this, definitely), but one could get an idea how the land means everything to our heroes, who fight for it with their lives.
Since RoTK is largely political, there is a lot of intrigue involved. Two generals may be allies today and bitter enemies in only a couple of episodes. Sometimes allies would try to kill each other, even! The entire land is fragmented into many factions struggling to overcome each another. I think this is a great thing, since having too many heroes on one side would make for a boring story. (Which is one thing LoGH got right!)
Much of the anime focuses on Liu Bei’s rise to fame and glory. However, it’s a long, hard road for him, presenting him with a lot of dilemmas. Liu Bei is a kind and virtuous man, one who is forced to make tough choices in life. Would he usurp power (and do the people good, since the leader in question is incompetent), or would he rather protect the heir his lord asked him to guide? And it’s not just Liu Bei–Sun Quan also has a lot of trouble with deciding whether to surrender his land to Cao Cao or ally himself with Liu Bei to fight off the invader, and he needed Zhuge Liang’s help to make up his mind!
Characters appear on screen and die regularly, and it’s how RoTK works. It compels us to get attached to these characters for as long as they’re alive, and when they die, that’s it. Liu Bei, Cao Cao and even Zhuge Liang don’t even last the end of the novel, but their stars shine brightly as long as they are around. The show knows this, and it’s a good choice to end it at Chi Bi, with most of the notable personalities still living. The music helps, too! The lyrics to Toki no Kawa, the OP song, are meaningful and summarize the show as a whole.
On another level, one could enjoy RoTK for the sworn brotherhood that Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei have. These three know how to stick it out, and it’s a touching tale of friendship. I’m a little miffed that the show decided to shelve the sworn brothers in favor of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu for the Chi Bi campaign, but that’s what the novel did anyway.
I may not like Liu Bei and his faction very much (I’m more of a Cao Cao fanboy), but I grew to like him despite the early episodes having a “LIU BEI IS THE SAVIOR OF HUMANITY” vibe. If you like old-fashioned epics and Chinese history, check this out–you could do much worse!