When it comes to Japanese animation, at least in western media, you don’t get more mainstream than Studio Ghibli. Movies like Spirited Away and My neighbor Totoro have been dubbed by English actors, making the films much more accessible to younger viewers. Considering the place Ghibli holds in our hearts, The Deer King, feels like a spiritual Ghibli movie in many ways. This is probably because the movie was created by Studio Ghibli alums who worked on some of your favorite animated films. The Deer King is directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji of Taku Kishimoto writing the script. Both Ando and Miyaji worked on Spirited Awaywhat Ando is also working on Princess Mononoke, your nameand Madhouse produced Paprika. Meanwhile, Kishimoto is another Ghibli alumnus who went on to create hit anime series such as Haikyu!! and the remake of fruit basket. The film’s main animators also come from both the first and second generation animators at Studio Ghibli.
With such an impressive pedigree, it’s no wonder The Deer King feels so polished, even as Ando’s directorial debut. The story connects to well-known themes such as nature, war, found family, with touches of fantasy that give the story a mythical quality. Quite a political story The Deer King follows a soldier named Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who begins the film as a slave working in a mine controlled by a vast ruling empire. When a group of mysterious wild dogs attacks the mine, Van is left alive along with a young girl named Yuna (Hisui Kimura). While Van and Yuna are free to live their lives in a small country village, war and turmoil are brewing in the kingdom. The combination of Van and Yuna is something that already feels very familiar, we have seen countless gruff father figures adopt young innocent children who eventually soften their hearts. It still evokes the same warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but it’s not groundbreaking.
Unlike Ghibli movies, this movie is based on an existing fantasy novel series by Nahoko Uehashi, which both helps the film when it comes to forming a complicated story, but also hinders it due to the sheer breadth of world construction. The world of The Deer King is surprisingly complex. The dynamics between the invading realm of Zol and the independent kingdom of Aquafa are complicated and time-consuming. The only reason Zol had trouble conquering Aquafa in the past is because of a mysterious disease called Black Wolf Fever, also known as the Mittsual. This fever is thought to be a curse for the Zol people, as only they seem to be infected by the disease. Van and Yuna become entangled in the political warfare between these two nations, and their fates become intertwined with the Mittsual and Aquafa cases.
The disadvantage of The Deer King is just how much work it takes to really get to the heart of the story. By the time Van Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchic), a talented scientist and physician, and Sae (Anne Watanabe), an experienced ranger and tracker, we are well into the movie, almost halfway through. Since these three characters each have their own motivations, the first half of the film explores that, but The Deer King often feels like it’s juggling too much. It doesn’t help that they keep panning back to Zol, where we’re also treated to bits of political intrigue that don’t quite land with as much force as they should.
While you may be tempted to link Mittsual’s disease to COVID-19, the thread connecting the two viruses is thin. The project for the film began in 2016, and while the virus may have impacted how they approached the story, the mystery behind Mittsual and the truth of what it is is tangential at best.
Obviously the creators have been heavily influenced by their previous work, there are times when The Deer King can be split like this Princess Mononoke and feel completely out of place. Although the story could use some polishing and editing, the animation is impeccable, making the film a true spectacle. Combine that with the captivating melodies of Harumi Fuukic makes The Deer King stand out from other animated films. While The Deer King has all the ingredients and potential of a classic film, but lacks the fine-tuning that connects ideas and images. This is a technique that took years to perfect for Hayao Miyazaki itself, so it’s no surprise that this is no match for the biggest hits. For lovers of Japanese animation, the film will delight them and introduce them to Ando as the creative director, but for those looking for a replacement for Ghibli, this isn’t it. But the future looks bright for Ando if this is where he starts.
The Deer King is now in cinemas.