Masashi Andō did not mean to make a movie about the COVID pandemic when he started work on The Deer King. The story, after all, is taken from a fantasy novel series by Nahoko Uehashi that was published back in 2014, and the film was announced in 2018. However, as this animated film premieres in AMC theaters in Grapevine and Arlington this week, a pandemic fable is what it’s become, and that makes it different, if not necessarily better, than the other anime films I’ve seen this year.
The story takes place in a mythical kingdom called Aquafa, which is in an uneasy alliance with a more powerful kingdom called Zol. The Zolians wanted to take the place by force, but were prevented by a disease called black wolf fever, a fatal illness spread by wild dogs that the Aquafese seem curiously immune to. One of Aquafa’s warriors, Van (voiced by Shinichi Tsutsumi in the Japanese version and Ray Chase in the English one), is working as a slave in a Zolian salt mine when a pack of said dogs goes on a rampage, tearing up soldiers and slaves alike, though the fever kills most of the victims. Despite being bitten, Van is left as the only survivor along with a little girl named Yuna (voiced by Hisui Kimura and Luciana VanDette). The now-free man finds a home in Yuna’s nearby village, but he’s being pursued by both a tracker (voiced by Anne Watanabe and Erica Schroeder) who wants to kill him and the royal physician (voiced by Ryoma Takeuchi and Griffin Puatu), who thinks Van’s blood could be the basis for a cure.
Andō and co-director Masayuki Miyaji are both helming their first feature, and they both have gleaming resumés that include Spirited Away, Paprika, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and Your Name. I find their animation to be pretty while lacking the last bit of invention that distinguishes the great geniuses of anime. The worst moments here come from Van’s attachment to a cute kid following the loss of his own children.
I do like the treatment of the doctor, who turns out to be the moral center of the drama. I’m given to understand that the film’s story is somewhat changed from the one in the book, which I haven’t had a chance to read. He’s up against superstitious priests who think the fever is a curse from the gods, as well as the royals of Aquafa who’d rather not see a cure developed because the disease is their hold over Zol. He tries to work out the logical reason why the pandemic singles out the people of Zol, saying, “Diseases don’t care what country you come from.” Amid all the magical doings in The Deer King, his belief in science is what stands out. Would that still be the case if we weren’t living through a pandemic? I don’t know, but since we are, this anime film is worth catching in the multiplexes.
The Deer King
Voices by Shinichi Tsutsumi and Ray Chase. Directed by Masashi Andō and Masayuki Miyaji. Written by Taku Kishimoto, based on Nahoko Uehashi’s novel. Rated R.