aptly timed, The Deer King‘s story around a mysterious infectious disease conjures up ideas of a found family and the uncomfortable debate between science and faith. Studio Ghibli alumni Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji have impressive resumes filled with experience in the Japanese animation industry. However, co-leading this movie adaptation is very different from any of their work in the past; not to mention the real COVID-19 pandemic pleading the production of their film. Although they were successful in establishing and translating the richness of the original story’s worldbuilding and character journeys, the plot’s pacing leaves the viewer in the dust.
Masashi Ando‘s directorial debut was on the most challenging project possible. First, there’s the difficulty of adapting a fantasy series into a two-hour film. Second, repeat the first challenge. Even as I took notes during the movie, it was incredibly hard to keep up with the number of characters, the various plot points, and how they are interconnected. From the first fifteen minutes, it already felt like an adaptation of a novel. The fluid animation and stunning designs could only do so much to distract me from asking, “Wait who is this again and why are they fighting?” This would happen every 30 minutes when the movie moved along Van’s hero journey or shifted to the broader plot between the Empire of Zol and its expansion to new territories.
Interest, the movie is an excellent watch. It is aware of the amount of prerequisite knowledge of the audience needed to follow the plot, and tries its best to keep everyone (including those with no context) on the same page. During a brief five-minute recorded video before the movie at the Animation is Film Festival, Ando stated his intention was to stay true to the source material while “inserting elements unique to the movie.” He also makes comparisons between the character’s circumstances to our conditions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. His closing statement included his desire for as many people to see this movie as possible. In addition, he hopes that the audience will think about the character’s fears and struggles living alongside a deadly disease.
That said, any film focusing on a contagious disease that is released in the midst of a global pandemic will read as timely. But the story of The Deer King Addresses a plethora of social issues that have long existed before 2020. Prejudice, ecological degradation, colonialism, empathy, and science vs. ideology are just a few topics touched upon in the two-hour film. The dark fantasy world introduces the viewer to the former nation of Aquafa, whose people have come under the control of the Empire of Zol. For an unknown reason, the Black Wolves—as well as the disease—sees to only affect the Zolians and spare any others. But this is quickly proven to be untrue as Aquafans begin to succumb to the same symptoms.
Van, a prisoner of war who failed his fight against the Zolians expansion into his village, miraculously escapes his prison in the salt mine. He and Yuna, an orphaned child, survives unscathed after being bitten by a Black Wolf that spreads the unknown, supernatural disease. After the trauma of losing his wife and son to the disease, Van keeps a stoic exterior and maintains an emotional distance while protecting Yuna. Over the course of the film, his icy demeanor melts as Yuna’s persistent actions of love touches a part of him that has been long closed off. Ando’s talent lies in his ability to create emotional impact through subtle character animation, even within a dense story. The emotional buildup and father-daughter relationship between Yuna and Van is brilliantly portrayed from the first act to the end credit scene.
Among the wide cast of characters, Hossal (or Hosalle in the subtitles) is a doctor who serves as a foil to Van. Unlike Van, Hossal is so disconnected from the world outside his academic work that he doesn’t know how to collect proper firewood. While Van’s knowledge and connection to the land keeps him and Yuna alive, Hossal’s continued refusal to admit the disease can be solved by anything other than science prevents him from seeing the cure before his eyes. In the beginning of the movie, Hossal is surrounded by both fervently religious anti-vaxxers and racists, who impede his care of the elder Zolian prince which ultimately leads to the prince’s death. Later, Hossal denies the disease has any connection to a divine will after he is explicitly told by the leader in charge of the Black Wolves. His first idea is to extract blood from Van, one of the two known survivors of the disease, but that isn’t enough. It is only after passing remarks by Yuna that he broadens his thinking and considers the lost traditions of people who were more connected with nature. By connecting the dots between tradition, faith, and science, Hossal discovers the cure lies in a magically imbued plant—introduced by Van in the first act—and successfully creates an antidote for the disease.
Even in the subtlest of motions, Ando’s strengths shine through. He sprinkles his signature style in gentle facial expressions and movement, demonstrating his experience in animation direction and character design. From the first single, continuous shot of Van reaching across his prison cell to comfort a crying Yuna, to Van’s emotional and wordless goodbye at the climax of the movie, Ando’s talent clearly lies in showing and not telling. To Ando and Miyaji, no detail is too small, as perfectly exemplified in a scene where a man is studying in the library shuffles his glasses and glares at the characters for being loud. I distinctly remember recoiling when the reigning Zolian prince squished the blood out of his diseased, bitten leg; the scene visually portrayed him as more disgusting than any text could ever make me imagine. That same scene quickly established the power dynamic between the imperialist Zolians and the conquered Aquafans in one fell swoop.
There’s so much more to the characters that I wanted to hold onto, but the dense material has proven to be more than a challenge for two animation veterans. The rushed movie ending leaves the audience feeling a desire for an extension of the story, whether it be through another movie or a TV series. Even so, The Dear King’s astonishing background and animation composition lend the film to repeated viewings and lands itself as another solid project in the Production IG library.