Gemma Creagh takes on anime adaptation The Deer King by the antlers.
Based on a popular Manga story, The Deer King tells the story of a former warrior, now enslaved under the Empire of Zol. Van (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi) is forced to spend his days labouring as he grieves the loss of his family. When a group of savage, supernatural dogs descend on the salt mines, our monosyllabic hero and a young child he befriends, Yuna (Hisui Kimura), are the only two to escape the attack. The powers that be investigate the incident and when they realise Van and Yuna were unaffected by the usually lethal Black Wolf Fever, they send their top people to recover the two fugitives. Healer Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi) and tracker Sae (Anne Watanabe) begin to chase Van and Yuna with the aim of using their blood to find a cure for this mysterious illness and save the Empire’s ruling class in the process.
One might ask how do you take such complex and well explored source material and boil it into something satisfying and complete in two hours? Well, unfortunately, Masashi Ando isn’t the man to answer that. In his exploration of Nahoko Uehash’s Japanese fantasy novel series, Ando lightly touches on a great deal, while saying relatively little. The Deer King suffers from constantly abandoning the most important themes and characters in favour of spelling out overly complex politics and irrelevant world building, not dissimilar to The Phantom Menace.
While The Deer King is Ando’s directorial debut, he’s no newcomer to the field, and was the animation director on some of the most iconic and groundbreaking anime features to date, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. He certainly maintains a strong visual style, using unique and jarring angles; navigating ethereal dreamlike sequences, and he’s not afraid to lean into the violence and gore of the illness, but what’s ultimately missing is an emotional connection to the material. With Ando designing the characters, and Harumi Fuuki composing the film’s striking score, there’s still a richness to this complex world, but it’s simply not enough to sell the premise.
Taku Kishimoto’s adaptation of this story for the screen just doesn’t carry the narrative. For such a visual medium, and with such talent to hand, the plot is weighed down in deep swathes of exposition. So many of the scenes feature two underdeveloped characters explaining the world, while the perspective or the narrator keeps shifting, to the point where mid film, we get random VO from a side character, which never reappears. Meanwhile no arcs other than Van’s are resolved. There’s no cohesion in tempo and theme.
Fans of The Witcher will be right at home, right down to surrogate father-daughter relationship, the mediaeval fantasy setting, and overly chatty sidekick providing much needed comic relief. Dealing with illness, war, death, and societal inequality, The Deer King is not what you could call an escapist film given recent world events, but at least delivers a satisfying visual spectacle when taken in isolation.
The Deer King is released 29th July 2022.