Although The Deer King marks Masashi Ando’s directorial debut and Masayuki Miyaji’s biggest role to date, their experience in the anime industry more than makes up for their inexperience in the director’s chair.
Ando has played a substantial role in the production of many of the biggest anime films of the last few decades. His work as animation director on Your Name helped drive Makoto Shinkai’s distinct visual realism to the next level by injecting the characters with the strong and energetic acting needed to elevate the story beyond many of the director’s previous films. While it is likely that Your Name and its phenomenal success is what allowed Ando the opportunity to step up to be a director for this film, his influence can be felt in key animation work in everything from Studio Ghibli classics to Satoshi Kon’s filmography.
Masayuki Miyaji has experience serving as a director on anime like FUSE and Xam’d: Lost Memories, and even acted as assistant director on Spirited Away. Even if neither man has taken up overall directorial duties for a major animated movie before, their work has more than earned them the chance to step forward and take charge. Then again, being tasked with adapting an award-winning and beloved high-fantasy novel series like The Deer King would make just about any director nervous with the responsibility.
Following a war lost by the people of Aquafa, the land and its citizens have been placed under the imperial rule of the Empire of Zol. Many are now forced to work as slaves, while a man known as Van is being kept prisoner in the salt mines where these people are being worked to their deaths. Suddenly, a pack of wild dogs attacks the mine, spreading a deadly Black Wolf Fever, killing all except Van and a young girl. Fleeing the scene, the pair find a peaceful life for themselves in the countryside, but the plague continues to spread through the land, putting him in the path of a doctor named Hohsalle who believes Van may be the key to a cure for the disease.
A Fantasy World, A Deadly Disease
The Deer King pitches itself as part-medical fantasy, part-allegory for the ills of colonialism and a rejection of our relationship with nature, and part-story of family beyond blood through its central relationship between Van and a young girl named Yuna. Which is to say that this is a film ultimately about considering our status in relation to the people and world we live in, breaking a chain of violence and destruction for the greater good.
And the movie thrives on this.
Much of this is thanks to the film’s setting. The Black Wolf Fever, as we learn early on, is a disease that only inflicts upon Zolians while sparing the people of Aquafa, although neither truly understands the reasons for this. It creates rifts between the two people that leave the Zolians feeling justified in their cruel treatment of the people and prisoners of the land they’ve conquered, even as they claim to hold a simple friendly alliance. Another thing keeping these people apart is their beliefs, with the Zolians believing in purity under God while denying the Aquafa people the ability to live their traditions because of a view that it is primitive and rejects their beliefs.
It’s a dense setting rich with lore, yet the film introduces these ideas quickly and clearly in a way that stops the viewer from feeling overwhelmed at how much there is to learn about this mysterious world. Within minutes we witness the plague and its deadly nature, learning of the threat of the wolves and the war that continues to divide even after the fighting has ceased. Yet the anime places trust in the audience that visuals will clue them to the situation without breaking pace for exposition.
Ultimately, this worldbuilding and conflict exists to elevate the personal and human story that defines this movie. For all we’re interested in the political intrigue and strategic maneuvering for power and getting to the root of this mysterious disease, this is because the conflict is elevated by the core messaging around the relationship beyond blood that forms between Van and Yuna.
Even if she hadn’t been dropped into Van’s life by happenstance, Yuna’s childlike innocence quickly transforms this reluctant savior into a caring father figure for his adopted daughter. Seeing their relationship flourish as she grows in confidence is another welcome sight to see as surviving the attack also provides them the opportunity to find the fresh start in life that both had desperately needed. Crucially, with so much of the story being found in the deep-rooted assumptions that divide everyone, even as a plague threatens their existence, their bond is welcomingly isolated from this and highlights a path into the future.
Plus, where the disease plaguing the land impacts on one group of people and not another, the idea of finding a way to survive and looking beyond blood and ideas becomes a core aspect of the story, allowing both world and story to complement each other throughout. Not only that, no plot thread feels underdeveloped or ill-conceived, each weaving together to craft a high-intensity and satisfying finale.
This is all elevated by some stunning animation from the movie’s all-star talent. With Ando also serving as animation director on The Deer King, he has brought on several talented animators to contribute to the film like Toshiyuki Inoue (an animation director and lead animator to another original anime fantasy film from recent years, Mari Okada’s Maquia), Yoshimi Itazu, Hiroyuki Okiura and more. All of them have experience with the likes of Studio Ghibli and beyond in the past, and have helped here to bring the film’s more hectic moments and intimate emotions to life.
The lively movements of the wolves in particular remind me of the fluid animation of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, with every step through the wilderness, footprints, and animals of all shapes and sizes being given a weight that grounds them in this environment. As everything comes to a head in the final act, it’s hard not to be left with a mouth ajar at the animation on display, just as much as you’re invested in the story.
And that’s without discussing the music. Harumi Fuki has crafted a classic fantasy sound inspired by Western folk music that complements its setting superbly, while thematically drawing a further dividing line between the two lands through their musical motifs.
I came away from this movie feeling exactly how I would want to when finishing a movie like this. The Deer King is a high-fantasy feast for the senses that builds an engaging story with a human core in between rich worldbuilding that leaves you wishing to stay with these characters and explore for longer. As much as the story ends with a satisfying conclusion, I’m left bargaining with the movie screen for even a moment more to immerse myself within this setting and its characters.
This is an anime that thrives by putting heart at the center of its epic fantasy journey. After a year of delays from its initial planned release, it is more than worth the wait.
The Deer King received a world premiere at Annecy Film Festival 2021. The film releases in Japanese cinemas on 10 September, and will be released in the US via GKids and the UK and France via All the Anime at a later date.