Animated by studio Production I.G and released in North America by GKids Films, The Deer King is easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Finally getting its United States release, the film is a sweeping fantasy epic about survival, love, and the resiliency to choose the latter regardless of how warranted revenge is. A directorial debut for Masashi Ando, the film is also co-directed by Masayuki Miyaji. A true force of a team, Ando and Miyaji have brought to life a story inspired by the original book series of the same name by author Nahoko Uehashi.
The Deer King takes place in the aftermath of a brutal war between the Zol and the Aquafa. While the Zol won, expanding their rule, the Aquafa leaders pledged fielty, with Aquafians still fighting for their independence. In it all, former soldier Van toils in a salt mine controlled by the ruling Zol empire, a prisoner and shadow of his former self as a leader among The Lone Antlers. One day, his solitary existence is upended when a pack of wild wolves carrying a deadly and incurable disease, mittsual, attack, leaving only Van and a young girl named Yuna as the only two survivors.
Finally free, the pair seek out a simple existence in the countryside but are pursued by nefarious forces that aim to either kill them or use them to control the mittsual under their control. Intent on protecting Yuna at all costs, Van must uncover the actual cause of the plague ravaging the kingdom—and its possible cure, even if it means that he saves the Zolian people in the process.
Given the use of plague, imperialism, and nature, it’s natural that some will draw connections to the iconic Princess Mononoke, but to put it in the simplest of terms, The Deer King is stunningly unique. As a film, it stands outside of any shadow of previous projects connected to the directors and instead crafts a sweeping epic that showcases the importance of family. Not just how our connections to people keep them close to us, but how they save us. More particularly, the film beautifully captures the wonder of children and the impact they have on the adults around them. Highlighting the important task of ending cycles of violence so that the children do not have to endure the pain that those before them did.
The relationship between Van and Yuna is delicate and kind, but it doesn’t begin that way. Over the nearly two-hour runtime, we see Yuna awaken a softness in Van that seemed all but lost to him. Said early in the first act, Van sums up what the film holds: “Again, I am a survivor.”
Van has survived war, but he’s also survived losing his wife and child. Now, he survives imprisonment and a bite that should have left him infected but instead keeps him alive. Survival is the core of the film, and time and time again, we see Van pull through, but it isn’t until the end that we see his reason to survive, and ultimately his reason to risk everything is Yuna. He is a father beyond biological bond, and the sweet growing trust between Van and Yuna is a grounding force for every fantastical moment of magic displayed in the film.
As the magic of nature becomes more prominent and the pain felt by the Aquafa people comes more into focus, their familial bonds allow the story to keep from full throttling into revenge and instead focus on the importance of leaving a different path for the young. Whether that’s from the song of the Zol king who steps into his father’s place, Yuna’s survival, or the focus of the doctor looking to create a cure for the mittsual, there is another choice that ends in saving lives, not taking them. That said, The Deer King isn’t a “love conquers all” story. No. Instead, it is a story about how love can begin the process of change to stop those after us from feeling our pain.
Now, there are elements left up in the air, particularly the future of Aquafa and its people who had been fighting for their independence or the leaders who acted selfishly along the way. While the film’s epilogue provides emotion and answers some questions, it does leave the thread of anti-imperialism that began in the film’s opening to question, dropped somewhere in the second act, and never truly picked up again.
Those small story gaps are easily made up by the film’s pacing and the overall attention to creating atmospheric scenes that work in every way. From phenomenal animation that captures the wonder of nature and life to the rousing score that accentuates every moment, and in the character designs and actions, every piece of The Deer Kings sings.
The Deer King stands as a testament to the future, and in a time as troubled as we are in now, it feels necessary. I desperately want to see the old choose to save the young instead of themselves, and while my hope for this, in reality, is waning, seeing it on screen was healing. While it’s clear that Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji carry some of that Studio Ghibli aesthetic in their art, their story is their own. The Deer King is emotional, engrossing, and energetic from start to finish and a world I’m thankful I was able to step into, if only for two hours.
The Deer King is playing in theaters on July 13, 2022.
The Deer King
The Deer King stands as a testament to the future, and in a time as troubled as we are in now, it feels necessary. While it’s clear that Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji carry some of that Studio Ghibli aesthetic in their art, their story is their own. The Deer King is emotional, engrossing, and energetic from start to finish and a world I’m thankful I was able to step into, if only for two hours.