Adaptations, in live action or animation, are the lifeblood of storytelling. We, as audiences, like to think that the magic comes from original stories, but, more often than not, that thing you love is an adaptation of a story originating from a different medium. In the case of animator Masashi Ando’s (Spirited Away; Your Name.) directorial debut, The Deer King (Shika no Ō) (2021), the story began as a novel from Nahoko Uehashi before being adapted into a manga through Kadokawa Shoten’s Young Ace Up website. In this case, The Deer King began as the printed word, was transformed into a manga, and then into an animated film, each time Uehashi’s words reconfigured to fit a new medium. Thanks to Shout! Factory, those who were dazzled by The Deer King can enjoy the work whenever they like on home video along with two featurettes, an introduction by Ando, a design gallery, and various marketing trailers for the film.
There exists two peoples, the Zol and the Aquafa, who had been engaged in combat for a long time as the Zol invaded Aquafa, seeking to seize its land and its people. In addition to suppressing Auqafa’s official army, there were also other groups led by smaller tribal warrior trying to push back against the Zol, but there is another force more powerful than any blade or weapon, an illness dubbed the Black Wolf Fever that seems to kill only residents of Zol. Many years later, the conflict seemingly ended and the virus gone, an attack on a mine in Aquafa, days ahead of the emperor’s visit to Aquafa, implies that not only has the virus returned, but that someone was bitten by an infected wolf and managed to survive. With that individual lies the key to ridding the world of the illness forever, but the journey to find him has far greater implications for the world has the strife-ridden Aquafans know it.
The narrative, adapted by Taku Kishimoto (Fruit Basket), is at once compelling and frustrating. There’s the obvious war-torn aspect and the virus (which hits too close to home in some regards), but there’s also a very tender exploration of grief and healing via found family and the detrimental effects of destroying conquered cultures. While the redemptive power of family is explored, as well as the quest to stop the virus, too little is addressed within the other aspects to make the audience feel like they’ve experienced a full story once The Deer King ends. The original printed version is two volumes, as is the collection of manga in the non-serialized version. Perhaps because Ando needed to condense everything down into a 113-minute movie items were lost or pushed aside, but there’s so much about The Deer King which dissatisfies upon the conclusion. This is a very rich world and there are many players, yet the audience only really gets surface-level exploration of several of them, making them little more than cutouts who spew dialogue to move the plot forward. Comparatively, the central characters of Van (voiced by Shin’ichi Tsutsumi/Ray Chase), Yuna (voiced by Hisui Kimura/Luciana VanDette), and the doctor Hohsalle (voiced by Ryoma Takeuchi/Griffin Puatu) are entirely fleshed out. Now, one would hope that three of the central characters would be, but their opposition is comprised of so many and their basic motivation is all we have to go on, making the larger imperial conflict seem like little more than background noise. Without getting into spoilers, it’s not a matter of expectations getting in the way as audiences come to expect a story of an indigenous population fighting against subjugation come to get their freedom by stories end, it’s that the issue of colonization isn’t addressed at all within the conclusion. On the one hand, having former soldier Van possess an arc that sees him avoid rejoining war, opting instead to focus on rebuilding a life with an adoptive daughter, is quite lovely and engaging. On the other, none of the larger issues are resolved, leaving the characters in a place that improves their lives over where they began at the start, but never concluding any of the connective aspects that made the story itself happen. Thus, there is dissatisfaction as we’re left to wonder why we spent so much time with people who didn’t matter in the long run.
Gratefully, where the narrative may not generate engagement as it jumps from area to area, character to character, to thicken the plot, the animation is truly beautiful in a classic sense. It lacks the innovative touches of recent releases Inu-Oh (2022) or Unicorn Wars (2022) or even the visual flourish of the more grounded Summer Ghost (2021), each also GKids Films-distributed projects, but this doesn’t make it dull or uninspired. Instead, it feels like watching a project from Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress) or Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). This is very much a compliment because The Deer King therefore appears both modern and out of time, rooted in the place of its story, not in when it was produced. This means that the people of the Zol-controlled age are designed and dressed as realistically as possible (indicative of Ando’s earlier work in animation), but the way the other-worldly aspects are presented put to use much of the modern animation styles (their visual vibrancy, their form, their physical presentation) evoking Ando’s work in recent releases. This implies a director who is fluid and imaginative, not locked into any one style, not beholden to his early influences, a storyteller willing to traverse the history of animation to produce the best version of the project he’s working on. This translates to a cinematic experience wherein, even if the narrative doesn’t grip you, the way that it looks will.
Whether you saw The Deer King in theaters or not, the home release includes both the original Japanese-language track, as well as an English-language dub. Both are available in 5.1 Dolby audio and there is a track for the deaf or hard of hearing. Additionally, for those who want a deeper look at the film, there’s a nearly 14-minute featurette titled “Bringing the English Dub to Life” that invites audiences to learn about the casting, recording, and general practices of dubbing from members of the English Dub Team. If you’re more interested in learning about the making of the film as a whole, jump straight to the nearly 18-minute featurette “Interview with Director Masashi Ando.” The home audience doesn’t know who Ando is speaking with, the interviewer replaced with title cards for each question, but Ando offers in-depth answers regarding the approach to character design and motivations (some of which, he indicates, differs from the manga or novel), how it felt to make the film during an actual pandemic, his feelings on the narrative, and plenty more. Though both of these featurettes are brief, each are valuable to those interested in elongating their cinematic experience with the film. There’s also a brief introduction from Ando included with the bonus material, so if you haven’t seen the film, I recommend jumping to that first before pressing play on The Deer King. It’s just over two-minutes and offers a greeting from Ando to consider while you watch. The remaining special features are an automated design gallery and trailers of various lengths and languages to promote the film.
I’m willing to admit that I’ve long past hit my limit on films depicting viruses. Doesn’t matter if it’s localized to a country or is widespread globally, living in a pandemic and seeing the widespread disregard for others makes any kind of empathy read as false on screen. Despite this narrative thread in The Deer King, the use of it didn’t disgust me quite as badly because of what it comes to represent: a reaction to the subjugation of an indigenous people and their customs. It is derogatorily referred to a curse by the Zol, for good reason we learn, and I applaud the storytellers from not looking away from the manner in which the aggressors and the invaded would use such a curse to their advantage, highlighting how none are innocent in the ways of war. Sadly, it was difficult maintaining any sense of care of interest in the face of all this. Especially given my own usual sensitivity to stories involving children, displaced or orphaned, the fact that I didn’t care was troubling, but with so many moving pieces, it became hard to follow the forest or the trees.
The Deer King Special Features:
- Bringing the English Dub to Life (13:58)
- Interview with Director Masashi Ando (17:43)
- Introduction from Masashi Ando (2:01)
- Design Gallery (3:47)
- Trailers (5:14)
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory October 18th, 2022.
For more information, head to GKids Films’s official The Deer King webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.