Anime has a lot to say about friendship. Most of it, is about the process of making friends (often in trying situations with rather awkward people), and then standing by them in tough times. Much of the medium’s message about friendship can be pretty clichéd, but that doesn’t make it any less comforting and inspiring—or true.
Every now and then though, a series or episode comes along that reaches beyond the tropes and the tried and true maxims, and adds a bit of unexpected depth to this all-important theme. This past week, it was Wit Studio’s charmingly original Ranking of Kings, and the friendship of Kage, the shadow assassin who is literally a shadow and not so much of an assassin, and boy prince on-the-run, Bojji.
At this point in the story, Bojji has headed out on a mission to seek adventure and deliver a letter to his step-mom’s family in a distant land. He’s accompanied by his trusty sword master, Domas, and companion Hokuro, both of whom can communicate with the deaf boy through sign language. This is an important detail because it speaks of their well-established friendship with the unusual young royal.
Episode 4 is a rather jaunty one—the least tense since the series began, with only a couple of seconds of looming peril (both of them by the campfire) rather than the usual minutes. (Bojji’s life has not been easy!) Various mishaps add some humor: the theft of Bojji’s bag after he naively tips off the fact that he’s wealthy and curls up for a snooze in a busy town centre; a juicy leg of some large animal getting shot mysteriously from Bojji’s hand just as he’s about to tuck in with relish; a sudden fall down a hidden shaft and a close shave with that mad mystical hunter king, who at least had the courtesy to lead Bojji in a jolly thanksgiving dance and tasty dinner before eying him up as his next sacrifice. So far, a colorful adventure!
But the episode doesn’t end well. Not in the least.
Master Domas pushes Bojji into the flame-spewing abyss known as Purgatory, and leaves him for dead.
Suddenly, it becomes clear that he’s been trying to kill the prince throughout the entire episode. Hokuro didn’t suspect a thing though, and is nowhere in sight as Bojji screams his last. Talk about a cliffhanger.
But the opening few minutes of episode 5 see Bojji saved when the crossbow on his back spontaneously shoots an anchoring bolt into the wall of the pit, slowing Bojji’s plummeting and enabling him to drop gently to the floor.
Turns out that this random shot was no fluke, but was instead fired by none other than Kage, who had been stowing away in Bojji’s bag all this time. And saving his life at every turn: cushioning Bojji’s fall during his escape from his tower prison; scaring off the thief who stole the prince’s bag; knocking the poisoned meat out of his hands before he could take that first bite; calling his attention to a way out of the pit with a pebble; and now, the trick with the crossbow.
Kage has been there all along. Just like he promised. He was the friend Bojji didn’t know he had with him.
Meanwhile, the friends who swore fealty to Bojji either betrayed him outright, or failed to be there for him when he needed them.
Sometimes, what looks like friendship can prove to be a fleeting or insufficient thing. That was the case with Domas and Hokuro, though actually I’d suggest that their friendship was indeed real—just painfully human in its ultimate failings. Through no ill will, Hokuro simply couldn’t protect Bojji against a foe he didn’t realize existed; while Domas, forced to choose between loyalty to his sovereign and his calling as a knight on the one hand, and Bojji on the other, chose duty over friendship.
Most of our real life friendships don’t involve these extreme stakes, but the principle is the same: we often let friends down unintentionally through ignorance, or because we feel we have no other choice.
Equally, friendship doesn’t always look like what we expect or think it should. BeBin, the sinister mustachioed toady of Prince Daida, turns out to have helped Bojji from afar, releasing and equipping Kage with his own knives in order to protect Bojji, though he himself lacked the courage to defy his usurping lord Daida. And most significantly, Kage, who seemed to have abandoned Bojji, turned out to be his truest, most loyal and capable friend.
But it took a long time for Kage to reveal himself. And during that time, Bojji believed his shadow friend to have abandoned him. It certainly didn’t feel like Kage cared for him! Instead, it looked like Bojji had been alone, aided only by good fortune, like when he landed on his soft bag after free-falling from the tower, or found his stolen bag untouched on the path outside the city. Certainly, neither of these things flagged up Kage’s presence and rescue of the prince.
In fact, Kage’s secret interventions in his life even sometimes looked like bad luck or something even worse, like when Bojji lost his delicious meal to what proved to be Kage’s throwing knives, and when, the next day, the fox family that had scurried away with it was found dead. It seemed as if those knives had been poisoned, and the thrower was out to kill Bojji. It did not seem a friendly act in the least.
God’s friendship can sometimes look a lot like this too. As with Kage, it can seem like God has abandoned us; it can feel like he’s not involved in our lives, or maybe even has it in for us—knocking the things we love out of our hands like Bojji’s dinner; leaving us to fate when we’re free-falling or alone and frightened in a pit.
But also like Kage with his prince, that’s not at all what is really going on.
Like Kage, our God is a good friend who stows away when we’re not even aware of him, walking out the highs and lows with us. Sometimes for decades before we begin to realize it. “Where can I flee beyond your presence?” asks David in one of his songs (Psalm 139:7-12). If I go up to the skies, he continues, you’re there, and if I hide down in the deepest pit, you’re there too. If I fly to the furthest reaches of the world, even there you’ll guide me, and your right hand will protect me. If I say I’m doomed with all this darkness surrounding me, even the night will become like daylight; nothing can hide me from you.
God is a good friend. He will never leave us or forsake us. (Hebrews 13:5)
He is there in the coincidences and happy accidents, the good fortune and pebbles tossed to get our attention and trigger in us the realization that there may be another way—another way to go, another way to live, and a way to be saved and safe on this adventure called life.
But he is also patient. And sometimes very slow indeed to reveal himself, to open our eyes to how he’s been with us all along, helping, guiding, comforting, protecting. Kage could not reveal himself right away. He knew someone was out to kill Bojji, and he needed to remain hidden until the enemy showed his face.
We may not have people trying to kill us, but we do live as part of a very large story, a small part of a complex world, and we cannot fathom all that is happening in the world—both material and spiritual—and how it intersects with our own lives and circumstances. Sometimes God needs to wait for the right time, just like Kage. The shadow assassin risked Bojji’s disappointment and resentment, and even his animosity, so that he could ultimately save the boy’s life. We have a God who is willing to do that too.
It’s still hard though, when you’re the Bojji in this scenario! And Kage recognizes that, crying with the boy upon their reunion. So too does our God, who captures every tear we shed because he knows how real they are, how hard it is to feel alone. (Psalm 56:8) And like the prince, we can trust that our Friend really is a good friend, and that his plans for us are for our blessing and happiness and not our harm. (Jeremiah 23:11)
So check your bag, my friends. And journey on!
Ranking of Kings can be streamed on Funimation.