DirectorMasashi Ando, Masayuki Miyaji
Release Date(s)2022 (October 18, 2022)
Studio(s)Toho (Shout! Factory/GKIDS)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: C
The Deer King (aka Shika no ou) is an anime adaptation of the epic fantasy novels by Nahoko Uehashim. The screenplay from Taku Kishimoto necessarily simplifies and condenses most of the backstory from the books, dispensing with much of that history via a simplified opening title scrawl. There’s an uneasy peace after the Kingdom of Aquafa has been ravaged by war with the invading forces of the Empire of Zol, which broke off the conflict due to an outbreak of the deadly Black Wolf Fever in Aquafa. Van (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), a former soldier, has been enslaved by Zol and forced to work in their mines, but a sudden reappearance of the plague wolves wipes out nearly everyone, captor and slave alike. Despite being bitten by one of the wolves in the attack, Van manages to survive the infection and escapes the prison along with an orphaned child named Yuna (Hisui Kimura). Van wants nothing more than to leave conflict behind him and lead a quiet life in the countryside with Yuna, but when news of his immunity to the fever reaches the imperial scientist Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi), Van once again finds himself drawn into the conflict.
The Deer King is the feature directorial debut of Masashi Ando, who co-directed along with Masayuki Miyaji. Both of them had come out of the Studio Ghibli factory, with Ando having worked as a key animation director and a character designer on films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. As a result, there’s an inevitable Ghibli influence all throughout The Deer King, especially in the way that it blends its naturalistic elements with high fantasy. Ando and Masayuki chose to handle most of the world-building elliptically and focus on the main characters instead, so the story can be challenging to follow, especially since so much of it is left unexplained. Aquafa feels like a living, breathing world that operates in the background of the main storyline, but the way that this world works can be confusing at times. Still, it’s the relationship between Van and Yuna that drives the film, and Ando’s character design work does a fine job of bringing the pair to life. Despite all of the complex fantasy trappings that serve as a backdrop for The Deer King, the heart of the film is really just a simple variation of Lone Wolf and Cub. However wobbly the surrounding narrative may be, that core still shines through.
The Deer King was animated digitally, primarily using hand-drawn 2D elements, although a few 3D background elements were used as well. The 1.78:1 framed image is generally crisp and clear, aside from a few sequences that add an intentionally gauzy, diffused look to the proceedings. Everything runs at a healthy bit rate, with little in the way of noise, banding, or compression artifacts. The gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds are rendered precisely, and the stylized color scheme seems to be reproduced accurately. The colors tend toward muted earth tones for most scenes, but more intense bursts of color are added at appropriate moments. The visuals aren’t necessarily as complex as those in a Studio Ghibli film, but they’re still effective in supporting the fusion of naturalism and fantasy in The Deer King.
Audio is offered in Japanese and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles. The dub isn’t bad, but needless to say, the original Japanese track is preferable due to its superior voice acting. Either way, it’s an active mix, with a consistent sense of ambience in the surround channels at all times—the viewer is always immersed in the sounds of nature, including animals, insects, dripping water, and various reverberant effects. There’s plenty of directionalized effects during action scenes as well, with the sounds tracking the path of the images. The score by composer Harumi Fuuki sounds powerful as presented here, and it fuses well with the visuals.
The Shout! Factory/GKIDS Blu-ray release of The Deer King is a two-disc set that includes a standard definition copy of the film on DVD, as well as a slipcover that duplicates the artwork from the insert. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- Bringing the English Dub to Life (13:57)
- Interview with Masashi Ando (17:43)
- Introduction from Masashi Ando (2:01)
- Design Gallery (42 in all – 3:47)
- Trailers (5 in all – 5:13)
Bringing the English Dub to Life features an interview with voice director Carrie Keranen, as well as with voice actors Griffin Puatu (Hohsalle) and Ray Chase (Van). While it’s going to be primarily of interest for fans of the dubbing, they still have valuable things to say about the characters and themes in the film. The Interview features Ando providing his thoughts on what sets animation apart from other media; since it’s starting from a completely blank slate, complex ideas must be built up through simple imagery. He also identifies some of his influences in that regard, including Dances with Wolves, Ride with the Devil, and especially Mad Max: Fury Road. As a person with a background in character design, he spends some time analyzing each of the main characters and his approach to how he designed and animated them. He starts with a distinctive silhouette, and adds character quirks on top of that. It’s not an especially lengthy interview, but there’s some interesting material here. The Introduction is even briefer, but Ando does ask viewers to think about the parallels between his film and the pandemic.
While those parallels certainly exist, especially since The Deer King was produced during the pandemic, they obviously weren’t a consideration when Nahoko Uehashim wrote the books, and they’re still just background texture. The most important thing is still the bond between Van and Yuna, and as long as you keep your attention on that relationship, you’ll enjoy The Deer King.
- Stephen Bjork