Big Dad Energy: The Deer King: Review
UK distributor Anime Limited has long championed cinematic anime, most obviously with their annual Scotland Loves Anime film festival in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Over Summer 2022, with their “Cine Matsuri” festival they’ve promoted UK-wide releases of several anime movies — starting with Pompo the Cinephile on June 29th (which, tragically, did not show anywhere near me), and continuing with Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko and The Deer King (both of which showed this past week at my local independent cinema, the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen.) The festival culminates with the release of Masaaki Yuasa’s latest film INU-OH on September 28th.
Anyone who has read my writing over the last few years will know that as much as I love TV anime, I love anime movies even more. Cinema lends itself to contained stories, efficient characterisation, and often spectacular visuals achieved on a time and financial budget far superior to anything produced for the small screen. I’m overjoyed whenever I get a chance to drag my kids to see the Next Shiny New Thing at the cinema.
The Deer King has an impressive pedigree, based on a trilogy of novels by Nahoko Uehashi, author of the Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit series (adapted into anime in 2007) and The Beast Player series, adapted into anime as Erin in 2009. It’s animated by Production I.G, a highly respected studio also responsible for Ghost in the Shell, Psycho-pass, Miss Hokusai, Giovanni’s Island and A Letter to Momo amongst many other films, TV shows and OVAs.
It’s helmed by first-time co-director duo Masashi Ando and Taku Kishimoto. Ando was animation director and character designer for Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Paprika, A Letter to Momo and Your Name, whereas Kishimoto screenwrote for Haikyu!!, Erased, Fruits Basket (remake) and Ranking of Kings. In particular, Ando’s time working on Princess Mononoke seems to have been the strongest influence on The Deer King — it’s the first movie I thought of, early in my viewing, with this film’s similar tension between (super)natural forces and the men who would try to control them.
Set in what seems to be a fictionalised feudal Japan, the rural country of Aquafa has been subjugated by the Empire of Zol for a decade. Whereas many ordinary people try to get on with their lives by integrating both cultures, Aquafan men taking Ziolian wives and vice versa, other factions have more warlike goals. The Aquafan people traditionally lived in harmony with the land, raising deer as mounts. The Empire of Zol is more “modern”, however their society is highly stratified and controlled by a religion with strict ceremonial rules. Previous attempts to occupy Aquafa by Zolian forces were prevented by a fatal plague, spread by wild dogs, that seemed to differentiate between susceptible foreign Zolians and mysteriously immune native Aquafans.
Main character Van is an enslaved former elite soldier who survives a wild-dog-led attack on his Zolian-run salt mine prison, and he escapes with an orphaned girl named Yuna, whom he adopts. Both Yuna and Van are bitten by the supernatural dogs, yet do not succumb to the plague — and in fact seem to gain supernatural abilities from it. As the plague spreads anew amongst the occupying Zolian populace, the local government official despatches imperial doctor Hohsalle to find the rumoured survivor (Van), to gain samples of his blood with which to produce a cure. Hohsalle is aided by elite tracker Sae, a mysterious and deadly woman of few words and murky motives.
Van and Yuna’s idyllic village life is disrupted by the machinations not just of the empire but of the warlike faction of Aquafans from the Fire Horse Territoru, the only area not controlled by Zol. Their plague dogs capture Yuna, so Van plus Hohsalle and Sae must put aside their differences to find Van’s adopted daughter. Only then will Van share his blood — if his own people don’t kill him first to prevent this.
Princess Mononoke’s influence is palpable almost from the opening scenes, with dark, amorphous blobs of evil-looking miasma spewing between the forest’s trees, carrying an army of crazed, rabid animals in its wake. Unlike Mononoke, however, there’s not such an overt environmentalist message — more of an anti-war polemic. The two opposing cultures couldn’t be more different, but the normal people don’t care, as they do their best to integrate together, accepting small things like dietary differences. It’s only later, once people start to die from disease, that widespread distrust of “the other” spreads. That distrust is fomented by the rulers on both sides, who have dark ambitions and will willingly sacrifice others to achieve them.
Simple village life is portrayed as a happy ideal — men and women working together for common goals like hunting, raising, taming and breeding animals. The clearly traumatised Van takes a long time to warm to village life, initially declining to share food and drink with his fellow man, however his attitude is quickly thawed by the bundle of joy and energy that is Yuna, the true heart of the movie. Yuna’s incredible value to Van — her infectious laughter, her healing love — is what spurs him to move heaven and earth to get her back when she is taken, at any cost. Although he’s not her biological father, that’s irrelevant to him — “family means more than just blood”, he says at one point. As one of my fellow AniTAY authors is prone to comment “the big dad energy is strong with this one”.
Van is a singleminded monster of a man, think Liam Neeson from Taken mixed with Dave Bautista, but with weird glowy chakra powers that explode things on contact. He doesn’t want to fight any more. He doesn’t want to take charge of a rebel army. He just wants his daughter back, and he’ll sacrifice almost anything to do it. His quest to do so is against a backdrop of fairly incomprehensible political intrigue featuring scenes of old men politicians who are mostly divorced from the action. These scenes could easily have been removed and not much of substance would bave been lost. Much of the film’s inscrutability is not alleviated by these non-explanatory expository scenes.
Although Van’s (and the doctor’s) motives are blindingly obvious, the same can’t really be said of some of the supporting cast. Perhaps I need to watch it again, but stoic tracker lady Sae is persistently inscrutable, and she seems to switch sides when the plot needs her to, rather than for any organic character reason. The Zolian Empire’s culture is interesting, and ties directly into the plot and its resolution, which I liked, even though said resolution is so very obviously signposted that I guessed what was going on a long time before the big “reveal”. I also liked the weird “eye” imagery and the intimidating hot air balloons erected all over the country by the Zolian forces, presumably at least partially as psychological warfare.
With multicultural tensions building throughout the movie, one might expect the action-packed climax to involve some kind of massive war and gross bloodshed. That’s not what The Deer King is about, however. Yes, it gets all apocalyptic and bonkers in the tradition of the best anime, but there’s a very human message to be taken from it at the end — bloodshed isn’t always necessary to get what you want, but sometimes other sacrifices must be made instead.
It’s a beautiful film, with some stunning moments where I swear the animators at Production I.G. are just showing off because they can. I particularly love Yuna’s character design with her levitating bunchies, huge eyes and enormous grin. Hohsalle is every bit the gentle but driven, noble doctor (of which I very much approved) and his right-hand man with the mohawk haircut was often on hand for appropriate comic relief. Sae’s character design reminded me a lot of Miezela Celestella from Starblazers 2199 with her severely tied-back hair and noble countenance.
For a movie with “deer” in the title, as one would expect it indeed features many deer, along with various horses, and wild dogs. The animal animation is exemplary. Sometimes with cheaper anime it’s not always clear that the animators have even seen real animals, that’s certainly not the case here. It doesn’t quite reach the aesthetic heights of Ghibli’s best work, but it’s not too far off.
Apart from some slightly confusing politicking and the occasional slow part in the middle, The Deer King is a very good movie. Due to its significant, bloody violence, it’s not that suitable for children (it’s rated 15 in the UK), but it’s definitely a movie suitable to show to non-anime fans. There are no irritating anime tropes, it’s good old-fashioned storytelling done very well. I look forward to seeing what Ando and Kishimoto do next.
The Deer King
Directors: Masashi Ando and Taku Kishimoto
Animation Director: Masashi Ando
Writer: Taku Kishimoto
Character designer: Masashi Ando
Music by: Harumi Fuuki
Based on: The Deer King series novels by Nahoko Uehashi (2014–2019)
Production company: Production I.G.
Japanese cinematic release: February 4th, 2022 (premiered at Annecy International Animation Film Festival June 14th, 2021)
US Region A Blu-ray release: October 18th, 2022 (GKIDS/Shout Factory)
UK cinematic release: July 27th, 2022
UK distributor: All the Anime (Anime Limited)
Language: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Runtime: 114 minutes
BBFC rating: 15
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