I’ve written elsewhere about my passion for Studio Ghibli; for many people, that journey starts with My Neighour Totoro or Spirited Away, but for me, it was seeing the eco-friendly epic Princess Mononoke that lit the fuse. So I didn’t need much encouragement to take a look at new animated feature The Deer King, from anime industry legend Masashi Ando, animation director on Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, and more. While this might not be the venture to attract new converts, it’s not quite as lush or as cute as the very best Ghibli films, The Deer King is a good example of the way animation can tell unique, involving stories in the classic anime style.
The Deer King is adapted from the Japanese fantasy novels by award-winning writer Nahoko Uehashi, the original author of the celebrated Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit series. That notion of nature and spirituality entwined is a staple, and explored here through the adventures of Van Gamsa, a war hero who we first encounter working as a slave in a mine. Van escapes, with the welcome baggage of surrogate daughter Yuna who he cares for, but times are tough, and a pandemic is causing division in his ancient land. Both Van and Yuna are bitten by the dogs which once carried the Black Wolf Fever, but their survival depends on a larger political struggle as the powers that be struggle to understand the true nature of the virus…
Although The Deer King went into production long before anyone was taking the notion of a pandemic seriously, there’s a certain prescience to the narrative featured here ‘The blood remembers how to fight the poison’ is one of a number of relevant lines to 2022, ‘Diseases do not target countries’ is another. This is Ando’s debut as a director, and it’s remarkably assured, rarely preachy or overtly cutesy; a more grown up variation on an animated story, but one that should work for adventurous adults and smarter kids.
The distribution company Anime Limited are based in beautiful downtown Glasgow, and they’ve been doing a fine job of keeping the best of anime in our cinematic bloodstream during troubled times. The Deer King may not be quite as personable as the best of Ghibli, but it’s got a literate flavour of its own, and is commended to those who like their wolves fearsome, justice swift, and to see the triumph of nature writ large in fabulous animated colour.
The Deer King will be shown in selected UK cinemas nationwide from 27th July 2022 in Japanese with English subtitles, as well as an English-language dub from 28th July 2022.