Van, the protagonist of The Deer King, is a big man. Probably the biggest in the salt mine where he’s enslaved. And he doesn’t like bullies. He stops a guard from beating a prisoner who has collapsed from exhaustion. For that he’s chained up and locked in a cage, where he gets to watch the entire population of the mine, slaves and guards, ripped apart by a pack of disease-ridden wild dogs. One of them has a baby in its mouth. Van doesn’t like that either. He nearly gets himself choked to death on his own chains fighting the dog and saving the girl.
He gets bit but does not get diseased. He’s Aquafese, a native to his land that has been occupied by the Zol empire. The Zol would like to completely conquer the Aquafa nation but the disease the dogs spread is terrible, and incurable, and only effects the Zol. Van takes the girl, Yuna, also not dead, and escapes the mine to find a place to live in the countryside.
He thinks he’s found a new life, but his escape and survival were noted by a doctor studying the disease, Hoshalle. He believes the blood of a man carrying but not succumbing to the disease might be the source of a cure. Hoshalle seeks out Van with the help of an Aquafa huntress, Sae. But she has her own reasons for hunting Van. Orders from the Aquafa royalty that Van is to be killed on sight.
They don’t want a cure. The disease is their only weapon for keeping the Zol from completely taking over their country. And they’re willing to sacrifice one of their own for the sake of national sovereignty.
The Deer King is a fantasy anime that looks, and feels, a lot like Princess Mononoke. Though set in a fantasy world and not historical Japan like that film, it borrows imagery from pre-Shogunate Japan. It also features heroes who ride ungulates other than horses. In this case, large deer. There are sword and arrow clashes, daring horseback rides, plenty of limbs severed.
What it lacks is the clarity of storytelling that Princess Mononoke had. Mononoke had complicated aspects to its story, but who was on what side and what the sides were was always clear. The Deer King has a complicated political story, and the motivations of its characters are not always immediately clear.
The film is based on a novel by Nahoko Uehashi, and it has much of a novel’s breadth. This works the film’s detriment as its climax involves several characters who have largely just been introduced or that were forgotten in the middle section. The middle is when Van, Sae, and Hoshalle must join together to retrieve Yuna from the pack of wild dogs who snatched her away from the village the two had been hiding in. That’s the most focused part of the story, where the characters come to understand each other, and how their interests eventually all converge.
Van is an intriguing character. He’s a hard, quiet man with a shadowed past. But he isn’t the rather typical tough gruff older anime character. He doesn’t have that kind of prickly antagonism. Yuna is endearing in an annoyingly cute kid way. Sae is a little more typical of a tough anime fighting female with a soft spot under her rough exterior.
The Deer King is the directorial debut of Masashi Ando, who has been a mainstay in the anime film industry for decades. He was a chief animation director for Spirited Away, Paprika, and Your Name, as well as a character designer and screenwriter for other major films. The film’s beautifully designed and animated. The character designs have a touch of an old-fashioned anime feel to them, tending towards the square and boxy which I find very appealing. It’s been rated R for blood and violence, which I think is a little silly. The violence is bloody, but not gratuitous or overdone.
The Deer King has several well made, well considered elements. In the end, however, they did not come together in a satisfying manner. The story had a few too many complications, a few too many characters that became particularly important at the end without being properly developed. I enjoyed the film without being enraptured because I wasn’t always firm about what story was being told. The Deer King is beautiful, and when the story is clear engaging. It doesn’t manage the trick, though, of being complex without being complicated.
The Deer King is being released by GKIDS in select theaters today.