Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji’s The Deer King may not be the only animation at this year’s EIFF, but it does have the distinction of being the only anime feature. And for fans who have relied on home entertainment releases and the likes of Netflix for their fix of Japanese style animation over the past year and a half, it’s a welcome arrival. If any film was made for the big screen, it’s this epic tale of rebellion and redemption.
After a bloody war, the land of Aquafa has been overrun by the Empire of Zol which rules with a heavy and brutal hand. Citizens suffer imprisonment or, worse still, are put to work in the mines as slaves. One of them is Van, originally the leader of a group of warriors who opposed the invaders, and is now on the run after protecting a little girl, Yuna, from a marauding pack of wolves, which carries a mysterious but deadly disease. Escaping to the countryside, the two find a peaceful existence in a village but the disease still runs rampant and the Emperor’s men continue to hunt Van, leading to a confrontation that has much more than the life of one man and one girl at stake.
The opening sequences, with their mix of traditional bold anime and a softer, almost watercolour, style have an air of familiarity, one that’s distinctly reassuring. That’s because of the two men behind the cameras – Masashi Ando in his directorial debut, after work on The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, Miss Hokusai and Your Name, among others, and Masayuki Miyaji, who was assistant director on Spirited Away – bring a dream team pedigree with them. And it shows. Some of the initial themes taken us into well-trodden territory, especially for animated works: an oppressed population, conquest, environmental damage. But it soon shows its maturity in its satisfyingly complex characters – Van, in particular – a world drawn in detail and, of course, the its stunningly lush animation.
Its topicality is unavoidable, with young doctor, Hossal, steadfastly pursuing a cure for the wolf-borne disease, one that Van could be carrying, and the importance of medical science as a weapon against crisis can’t fail to strike a chord. Yet, alongside its more universal themes and sweeping landscapes, The Deer King is equally an intimate family story, all surrounding the relationship between the heroic Van and his extrovert adopted daughter, Yeun. Their relationship is beautifully developed and the subtle facial expressions of the characters make the more domestic father and daughter scenes just as visually impressive as the large scale, epic action in the latter stages of the film.
Rich in ideas, themes, myths and legends, The Deer King introduces us to a world full of conflict and oppression, much of which has been caused by outside influences which are never shown on screen, but one where the possibility of a more peaceful life can never be eradicated. As the end credits roll, we see what life held for some of the characters in the years following the story’s conclusion, but all we really want to do is spend more time in their world. For all its challenges, it’s fascinating and beautiful. Ando and Miyaji have announced their arrival to the anime world in impressive style, marking themselves out as names to watch.
Anime, Action | Cert: 12A | Edinburgh Film Festival, 22 and 23 August 2021 |Dir. Masashi Ando, Masayuki Miyaji | The voices of Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hisui Kimura and Ryoma Takeuchi.