King empire

Review of “The Deer King”: medicine, family and empire

Based on a series of fantasy books by Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi, the animated film “The Deer King” opens with a chain of slave gangs forced to work in a salt mine. While they and their captors sleep, a pack of wolves enter the mine, biting hundreds and transmitting a deadly disease. Two humans manage to make it out alive: Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a former soldier, and Yuna (Hisui Kimura), an orphan toddler. The two escape to the countryside, only to find themselves driven in an effort to discover a cure for the disease that killed the others. The film, directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, follows Van’s tender relationship with Yuna and the lengths he will go to protect her, even as he finds nefarious forces stacked against him.

The mysterious disease only infects and kills the Zol people, who a decade earlier had invaded the nation of Aquafa, leading many to believe that the disease is the result of a curse that protects Aquafa. Fearing that his people’s hold on the region could slip if the disease spreads, Emperor Zol sends Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi), a doctor, to find a cure. Van, whose blood Hohsalle says can help those infected, lands at the center of two seemingly opposing forces: spirituality and modern medicine.

The film is tenderly crafted and brilliantly animated, with transitions that underline the communion between the earth and the human body. Its final moments don’t quite stick to the landing, but the characters all have clear motivations, and the political themes are clearly woven throughout but don’t dominate the film; they become secondary to depictions of the natural world and character relationships.

The deer king
Rated R for violence. In Japanese, with subtitles. Operating time: 2 hours. In theaters.