The Deer King


Studio Ghibli alums Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji channels Princess Mononoke in their visually striking “medical fantasy”.

Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli has become an industry all of its own as every year sees new creative talent leave the studio to develop their own independent work. The latest Ghibli alumni project has been adapted from Nahoko Uehashi’s novel series ‘The Deer King’ and was co-directed by Masashi Ando, previously a key animator and character designer on Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, and Masayuki Miyaji, who worked as assistant director on the latter.

In an exposition-heavy opening sequence, The Deer King sets up a fantasy world of clashing cultures, rich world-building and sprawling histories. Led by the deer-riding Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a group of warriors fought back against the Empire of Zol, and lost. While on the run from imprisonment, Van meets and becomes the protector of a young girl, Yuna (Hisui Kimura), as the pair fight off a pack of wolves that are carrying a mysterious, deadly disease. From here, a dense narrative – featuring religious anti-vaxxers, divine retribution and a decaying kingdom – unfolds.

The film’s themes of found family, imperialistic conquest and nature vs industrialisation tread familiar ground, most obviously explored in Princess Mononoke. However, Ando and Miyaji distinguish their film through its source material’s focus on science (Uehashi’s series won a prize for medical fiction in Japan). Billed as a “medical fantasy,” The Deer King concerns a doctor who attempts to find a cure for what is perceived as a supernatural disease. Characters must work together to overcome their differences and find a cure for this mysterious pandemic, which feels especially pertinent in 2021.

The Deer King feels like the tip of the iceberg of a bigger story that takes place off-screen, yet the historical context that underpins the plot is breathlessly rushed through in the first five minutes. As a result, there are moments when the film’s pacing either drags or gallops, a frustrating consequence of turning a novel series into a two-hour film. Thankfully, the relationship between Van and adopted daughter Yuru anchors the story, giving it emotional depth.

Although occasionally let down by weak writing and erratic pacing, the film’s visuals are glorious. Unsurprisingly given its creators’ backgrounds, The Deer King is meticulously crafted. Ando and Miyaji give life to their fantasy kingdom through detailed characterisation; whether it’s a nose scrunch or a flying punch, every physical movement has been carefully considered. With ideas and an aesthetic that are certain to strike a chord with Studio Ghibli fans, The Deer King is at once fresh and pleasantly familiar.

Published 24 Aug 2021

Tags: Animation Masashi Ando

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Written by Emily Shuman