Written by: Robin C. Farrell | July 14th, 2022
The Deer King (Masashi Ando/Masayuki Miyaji) 3 out of 4 stars.
The Deer King is the feature-film directorial debut of Masashi Ando and sophomore outing for co-director Masayuki Miyaji (Fusé: Memoirs of a Huntress), both former Studio Ghibli animators. Needless to say, the film hits the ground running with stunning visuals, despite a bleak premise. Ten years after the end of a brutal war between the kingdoms of Vol and Aquafa, former soldier and widower, Van (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill), is imprisoned in a salt mine along with other convicts. One night, a pack of wolves attack the mine, carrying a plague with them: Black Wolf Fever. Only Van survives the attack, along with a young girl named Yuna (Kimura Hisui), whom he frees from one of the dog’s clutches and receives a bite in the process. Somehow, Van is not infected and escapes, adopting Yuna as his daughter and, together, they start a new life in a small village.
Elsewhere, Black Wolf Fever is rampant in tandem with political intrigue and coups in the making. News of a survivor from the mine reaches a doctor, Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi, The Sun Does Not Move), intent on finding a cure, and a tracker, Sae (Watanabe An), seeking to avenge her family after events in the previous war. The characters’ paths cross and diverge throughout the remainder of the story, as they try to uncover the truth behind the disease and dodge their many pursuers along the way.
The film is based on a series of novels by Uehashi Nahoko, which is abundantly clear. The world is dense and complex and while nothing seems too complicated to keep track of, there is a palpable sense that much has been omitted for time, as is so often the case with book-to-screen adaptations, live-action and animated alike. Occasionally the pacing and plot mechanics get a bit elaborate and the heart at the film’s core can get a little lost. Some of the conversations around the disease can also strike all-too familiar notes with often uncomfortably realistic depictions of infected patients.
Yet the settings are also lush and gorgeous to behold. The sound design as well as vocal performances are tempered and compelling even during the darker sequences. There are definitely shades of other Studio Ghibli films here (especially Princess Mononoke) but in ways that feel inviting rather than stale. The characters stand out as unique and diverse, especially in the weaving of their often-hindered motivations. The scope of this film is vast and much of the worldbuilding is offered through the animation itself—clothing, architecture, customs, and so on—in addition to the dialogue. The Deer King doesn’t necessarily stand toe-to-toe with the best of Studio Ghibli, but if you’re a fan of those films as a whole, this is not one to miss.