After a quick run-through of its story’s lore, the anime film The Deer King opens with a familiar sight: A poisonous purple wave crests a hill, ravaging the countryside, before it’s revealed to be a pack of supernatural wolves. Anyone familiar with co-directors Masayuki Miyaji and Masashi Ando’s work will see commonalities with Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, on which Ando worked as a supervising animator and character designer. That influence bleeds into The Deer King in myriad ways — most evidently the main character riding a kind of deer (“pyuika” in the story), and beginning the film with a magically infected arm.
However, beyond those superficial similarities, in building its world, The Deer King chooses to look at imperialism and political subterfuge instead of environmentalism. But even these elements are color for a story that’s fundamentally about fatherhood — rather than Princess Mononoke’s theme of young eyes being opened to the world’s cruelty, this is about the salvation of an old man’s soul. Main character Van’s journey with his adopted daughter Yuna unfolds in parallel with a medical mystery, as they cross paths with a doctor seeking a cure for the supernatural disease spread by the wolves of the opening, with all this happening amidst superstition and nationalist paranoia.
While the supernatural is very present in The Deer King, screenwriter Taku Kishimoto slowly and fascinatingly grounds even its most fantastical moments with medical logic. That tension is felt even within the characters, as the film wonders about the relationship between the physical body and the soul. Van’s adoption of Yuna saves his soul, but at the cost of his bodily autonomy, his arm now mysteriously linked to the natural world and no longer fully under his control.
Ando and Miyaji also temper The Deer King’s stranger elements through a mix of simple but expressive art direction with realistic detail and weight in its acting and action. Visually, it’s another feather in the cap for two directors with an astounding body of work. Its quieter, biophilic moments are realized with infectious spiritual fervor; tree roots and veins pulse and glow with otherworldly light, the background melting away in expressive cosmic colors. Despite these more spiritual threads, the directors relish the physical burdens of existing in this place, embodied in the slow and lumbering character movements rendered in precise detail, in keeping with its line of medical fantasy.
For all its detail, the film leaves a lot of history and struggle just out of view, tantalizingly implying a depth of backstory it’s only skimming the surface of. So many of its questions remain unanswered (perhaps unanswerable). Those open threads make it feel as though a resolution could be just around the corner, though it might be naïve to think that a complex multigenerational conflict could be so easily repaired. Though its initial sense of familiarity lingers, The Deer King’s delicate world-building plus its curious mix of the medical and the spiritual creates a strikingly different fantasy film.
The Deer King is now playing in select theaters.