Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
People are Dying, Let's Play Chess
Based on the fantasy novel of the same name written by Nahoko Uehashi, The Deer King is directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji. This is Masashi Ando’s first time directing after working as a key animator or animation director on several Hayao Miyazaki films such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Satoshi Kon films such as Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika, and Your Name.
Masayuki Miyaji worked as a storyboard artist and directed episodes of Attack on Titan, Space Dandy, and Eureka Seven. Taku Kishimoto wrote the screenplay for The Deer King. Kishimoto previously worked for Studio Ghibli, but also went on to write Joker Game, Erased, and the remake of Fruits Basket. The Deer King is produced by Production I.G., which is the animation studio behind Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL, and The Origin of O-Ren animated sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 among many, many other animated TV series and films.
In The Deer King, the kingdom of Aquafa was once under the empire of Zol. Black Wolf Fever spread amongst the Zolians, but Aquafeans were believed to be immune. The Fire Horse territory was never invaded. Meanwhile, a man named Van was once a part of a band of warriors known as The Lone Antlers. He now works as a slave in a salt mine. The mine is attacked by black ossam dogs. Everyone dies except Van and a little girl named Yunacha (or Yuna for short). Now with an incredible power pulsating through his body, Van is believed to carry the cure for Black Wolf Fever and is hunted by the Aquafeans.
The Forest Chose You to Run Around and Kill People with Dog Bites
The Deer King feels like it’s trying to be a film in the same vein as Princess Mononoke. Heavily rooted in the forest and nature, the animated fantasy film shows a particular love to wildlife and deer or pyuika especially. The pyuika looks like a hybrid of a deer and an antelope and is the animal Van seems to have the most experience with.
The black dogs that carry this deadly fever swoop in like a rolling purple fog that then envelopes around people like a mass of water and dissipates like a liquid being poured down the drain. All of the fantasy elements in the film are the most intriguing aspect. The opening dog attack in the salt mine, the brief battle in the foggy forest with the enemies on stilts, as well as the last mystical half hour are the highlights of the film as blood pools on the ground, limbs fly through the air, and the majestic curse known as mittsual that courses through Van’s veins takes center stage.
But The Deer King chooses to showcase what feels like the preparations of war over the actual war itself. You see a lot of the emperor playing chess with his right hand man, you see the deadly effects of Black Wolf Fever on the average person, and you watch Van and Yuna as they’re welcomed into a small village while seemingly living a normal life. There’s also the doctor searching for the cure and the hunt for the man that survived the attack on the salt mine.
The Pyuika Whisperer
The element that’s lacking from The Deer King is a more detailed explanation of whatever the Inside Out is supposed to be. The fantasy material in the film seems to only be touched on superficially as the struggle between two empires overshadows what is easily far more compelling. You crave more dogs, more asshimi, more of the guy in the eye patch, more of the old man living in a tree trunk; these fantastical elements deserve to have more screen time.
Dialogue is the film’s focal point and The Deer King is slightly boring because of it. Being just under two hours in length, it gets tiresome watching people talk and lay around in the grass. Yuna is adorable, at least in the subtitled version of the film, but cuteness can only get you so far when the rest of the film feels so uneventful.
The Deer King is as visually gorgeous as any Studio Ghibli film. While its animation pleases on almost every level, its storytelling and pacing is lacking as the film seems to prioritize monotonous dialogue and petty human squabbling over anything remotely exciting.
© 2022 Chris Sawin