Review: ‘The Deer King,’ a fantasy adventure from Japan about a soldier rescuing a girl

December 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Van in “The Deer King” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Deer King”

Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: The Japanese animated film “The Deer King,” which takes place primarily in various places in unspecified ancient time, tells the story of an exiled soldier named Van, who break out of prison, rescues a girl named Yuna, who’s about 3 or 4 years old, and they both go on the run together.

Culture Clash: Van and Yuna must avoid the spread of Black Wolf Fever, as well as the forces that wish to capture the king and the girl.

Culture Audience: “The Deer King” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films and don’t mind if they are bland and predictable.

Yuna in “The Deer King” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Deer King” had the potential to be compelling anime. Unfortunately, the movie fails to capture the adventurous spirit of the novels and is bogged down by clichés, trite dialogue, and frequently tedious pacing. The animation visuals and voice acting are perfectly fine. It’s the way that the story is told that is a disappointment.

Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, “The Deer King” is based on Nahoko Uehashi’s “The Deer King” novel series that began in 2014. The books were also made into a manga series. Ando makes his feature-film directorial debut with “The Deer King,” after previously being an animation whose work as an animation director on 2001’s “Spirited Away,” 2006’s “Paprika” and 2016’s “Your Name.” “The Deer King” had its world premiere at the 2021 Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

It’s not necessary to know anything about “The Deer King” books or manga series to understand “The Deer King” movie, which takes place in a fantasy world in an unspecified ancient time. The movie has an introduction that explains background information for the story: “The kingdom of Aquafa was once ravaged by the empire of Zol. Fearing the mysterious Black Wolf Fever, Zol ceased invading Aquafa’s Fire Horse territory. Despite later skirmishes, both nations held their own. Now, Aquafa is under the dominion of Zol. Today, the fever is thought to be no more.”

A soldier named Van has been held prisoner in a salt mine controlled by the Zol empire. A pack of wolves attack some and kill some people near the salt mine. When the wolves pass by Van’s jail cell, Van notices that a wolf has girl who’s about 3 or 4 years old, who’s trapped inside of the wolf’s mouth. Van later finds out that the girl is named Yunacha, but she goes by her preferred nickname Yuna.

Van gets the wolf to drop Yuna, but Van is injured in the process when the wolf bites Van. The wolf’s bite gives Van supernatural powers to break out of the jail cell. Van takes Yuna, and the two of them escape and hide out from people who who are looking for Van, who had been taken prison after the Battle of the Kashuna River. Meanwhile, Black Wolf Fever (also known as Mittsual), which was thought to have disappeared, has returned and is now rapidly infecting communities.

During their journey, Van and Yuna meet a confident young man named Hohsalle Yuguraul, who calls himself a “sacred doctor”; a loudmouth brute named Mokokan; a female warrior named Sae, who has been tasked with tracking down Van; the ruthless Lord Utala, who blames the Aquafese people for brining back the “curse” of Black Wolf Fever; and farmer couple Tohma and Kiya, who give Van and Yuna some refuge. Magical deer creatures named pyuika are mentioned many times in the story and have a purpose that is very obvious.

For a movie that is supposed to be an action-adventure film, many parts of “The Deer King” are actually quite boring, especially in the middle section. Van has a backstory that is eventually revealed, and it’s the most sterotypical backstory that you can guess for a soldier who was all alone in the world when he became a prisoner of war in a world that has been plagued by Black Wolf Fever. Van and Yuna predictably bond like a surrogate father and a child.

The voices of the “The Deer King” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “The Deer King.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Shinichi Tsutsumi as Van, Hisui Kimura as Yuna, Ryoma Takeuchi as Hohsalle, Tôru Sakurai as Mokokan, Anne Watanabe as Sae, Yutaka Aoyama as Lord Utalu, Chad Horii as Tohma, and Hiromi Kawakami as Kiya. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Ray Chase as Van, Luciana VanDette as Yuna, Griffin Puatu as Hohsalle, Luis Bermudez as Makokan, Erica Schroeder as Sae, Doug Erholtz as Lord Utalu, Stefan Martello as Tohmo, and Larissa Gallagher as Kiya.

“The Deer King” might satisfy people who will watch any type of animation, no matter what the quality is. But considering all the high-quality and entertaining animation that already exists, “The Deer King” falls short of what could have been offered in this movie. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a very impressive one and should have been a lot better, considering the level of talented animation filmmakers who were involved. “The Deer King” just lumbers along with no surprises and absolutely no clever thrills.

GKIDS released “The Deer King” in select U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022, after a two-night preview in association with Fathom Events on July 13 and July 14, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 4, 2022, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 15, 2022. “The Deer King” was released in Japan on February 4, 2022.

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