Animated by Production IG studio and distributed in North America by Children’s movies, The deer king is easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Finally releasing in the United States, the film is a fantasy epic about survival, love, and the resilience to choose the latter, no matter the justification for revenge. Masashi Ando’s directorial debut, the film is also co-directed by Masayuki Miyaji. A true team force, Ando and Miyaji brought to life a story inspired by the original book series of the same name by author Nahoko Uehashi.
The deer king takes place following a brutal war between the Zol and the Aquafa. As the Zols won, expanding their rule, the rulers of Aquafa pledged their loyalty, with the 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 himself as a leader among the Lone Antlers. One day, her solitary existence is turned upside down when a pack of wild wolves carrying a deadly and incurable disease, Mittsual, attacks, leaving only Van and a young girl named Yuna as the only two survivors.
Free at last, the pair seek a simple existence in the countryside but are pursued by nefarious forces who aim to either kill them or use them to control the mittsual under their control. Eager to protect Yuna at all costs, Van must uncover the real cause of the plague ravaging the kingdom and its possible cure, even if it means saving the Zolian people in the process.
Given the use of plague, imperialism, and nature, it’s natural for some to draw connections to the iconic Princess Mononoke, but to put it in the simplest terms, The deer king is incredibly unique. As a film, it stands outside any shadow of previous director-bound projects and instead creates a sweeping epic that highlights the importance of family. Not only how our connections to people keep them close to us, but how they save us. Most notably, 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 children do not have to endure the pain that those who came before them.
Van and Yuna’s relationship is delicate and kind, but it doesn’t start out that way. Over the nearly two-hour runtime, we see Yuna awaken a sweetness in Van that seemed almost lost to her. Said at the beginning of the first act, Van sums up what the film contains: “Once again, I am a survivor.”
Van survived the war, but he also survived the loss of his wife and child. Now he survives imprisonment and a bite that should have left him infected but keeps him alive. Survival is central to the film, and time and again we see Van pull through, but it’s not until the end that we see his reason for surviving, and ultimately his reason for risking everything is Yuna. He’s a father beyond biological ties, and the sweet growing trust between Van and Yuna is a core strength for every moment of fantasy magic displayed in the film.
As the magic of nature becomes more prominent and the pain felt by the Aquafa people becomes clearer, their family ties allow the story to not completely choke in revenge and instead focus on the importance of leaving a different path for young people. Whether it’s the song of King Zol entering in place of his father, Yuna’s survival, or the doctor’s goal to create a cure for the mitsual, there is another choice that ends up saving lives, not taking them. That said, The deer king is not a “love conquers all” story. No. Instead, it’s a story about how love can begin the process of change to keep those after us from feeling our pain.
Now, there are still things up in the air, especially the future of Aquafa and its people who fought for their independence or the leaders who acted selfishly along the way. Although the film’s epilogue provides emotion and answers some questions, it leaves the thread of anti-imperialism that began in the film’s opening questionable, fell somewhere in the second act and never really picked up.
These small story gaps are easily filled by the film’s pacing and overall focus on creating atmospheric scenes that work in every way. From the phenomenal animation that captures the wonders of nature and life, to the catchy score that accentuates every moment, and in the character design and actions, every element of The Deer Kings sung.
The deer king stands as a testimony to the future, and in times as troubled as ours, it seems necessary. I desperately want to see the old choose to save the young instead of themselves, and as my hope for it actually fades, seeing it on screen heals. While it’s clear that Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji carry some of the Studio Ghibli aesthetic into their art, their story is theirs. The deer king is emotional, gripping and energetic from start to finish and a world I’m grateful to have been able to step into, if only for two hours.
The deer king hits theaters July 13, 2022.
The deer king
The deer king stands as a testimony to the future, and in times as troubled as ours, it seems necessary. While it’s clear that Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji carry some of the Studio Ghibli aesthetic into their art, their story is theirs. The deer king is emotional, gripping and energetic from start to finish and a world I’m grateful to have been able to step into, if only for two hours.
Kate is co-founder, EIC and CCO of BWT. She’s also a certified Rotten Tomatoes reviewer, host and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Was it necessary?. She also handles all PR dealings for comics, manga, movies, TV, and anime. She holds a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and religious studies focusing on the impact of pop culture on society.