The Deer King is an epic fantasy anime film from 2021 co-directed by Studio Ghibli alums Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji. The film follows imprisoned warrior Van who saves the life of young girl Yuna while avoiding an outbreak of a plague. Full of gorgeous settings and complex world-building, the film, unfortunately, loses itself in subplots and minor characters. GKids brings the film to Blu-ray with an excellent A/V package complemented by a limited run of special features. Recommended.
The Deer King is a 2021 anime adaptation of two novels from author Nahoko Uehashim published in 2014. Delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film ironically deals with the complex affairs of socio-political perspectives during an outbreak of a deadly plague. While there are many films attempting to grasp the sheer weight of our own global pandemic, this fantasy folktale presents the terrifying reality with a glimmer of hope.
The film opens with a text crawl explaining how invading forces from the Empire of Zol have enslaved the peaceful Aquafan people and forced them to work in underground mines. However, temporary peace has been instituted after the deadly Black Wolf Fever spread through the Aquafa region causing a massive outbreak killing many Zoli people. Van is a stoic ex-warrior working the mines when the wolves suddenly attack, killing captors and inmates alike. He survives the deadly bite but is imbued with strange supernatural powers. Escaping with a young girl named Yuna, the two flee in hopes of a better life as pseudo-father and daughter. The Zoli dispatch medical expert Hohsalle and tracker Sae believe Van’s blood holds the cure to the plague.
On the surface, The Deer King seems ripe for audiences expecting a Lone Wolf and Cub plotline. The larger-than-life Van and his adorable accomplice roam the countryside learning the ways of the wild Pyuika deer and how to defend themselves. However, once our two besties are caught up in the larger political elements of the story we lose that momentum. Spending time in the Zoli Empire reveals staunch nationalist values that balk at the notion a virus could harm them. Behind the scenes, Aquafa leaders are striving to use the disease as a weapon to wipe out the Zoli nation hoping to avoid another all-out war. Van and Yuna are the narrative focus but when they are sidelined for political grandstanding and complex subplots it becomes challenging to endure.
Throughout the film, there are many gorgeous moments that signal the two director’s previous connections to Studio Ghibli features. The Deer King works in the same fantasy folktale themes as those films but here the production lacks the intricate details in story and design. Still Ando and Miyaj have condensed a massive two-volume epic into a singular narrative that shines through its memorable characters. I had a wonderful time with the film and its sprawling world full of relevant issues and exciting storytelling.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Deer King arrives on a Blu-ray/DVD Combo set from GKids. The Region A Blu-ray is housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a double sided artwork sleeve. Loading the BD-50 disc you are presented with the GKids logo before landing on the Main Menu screen with scenes from the film playing above typical navigation options.
The Deer King is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic 1080p image that looks fantastic. Primaries are bright and dynamic with pleasing saturation levels. Inky black levels complement the moody Earth tone color palette in action sequences and nighttime scenes. The animation quality is very good but lacks the intricate detail seen in other anime releases of late. Animals in motion are the film’s bread-and-butter as are the dizzying dream-like states Van falls into during his journey. Though the feature was animated digitally there are hand-painted backdrops that add a wonderful lived-in aesthetic to the film.
The Deer King arrives on Blu-ray with a solid DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track in both Japanese and English. The two handle the epic tale confidently. English dub and Japanese dialogue tracks are presented clearly through the center and front channels. Surround elements whether scoring or effects are in constant play adding atmosphere and tension. LFE rarely punches above the texture save for a few heightened moments of intense action.
GKids provides enough bonus content for fans of the feature including an interesting featurette with the English dub voice cast. Start with the Introduction from And before moving through the other elements on the disc.
The Deer King is awash in great ideas that are executed in rapid-fire resulting in a beautiful story that is constantly at war with itself. The sheer number of subplots, world-building cues, and minor characters flood the film pulling our attention away from Van and Yuna. The parallels to our own socio-political struggles with an outbreak are quite obvious, giving the story a deep connection to audiences. I would love to see this tale unfold through a franchise or a limited streaming series to flesh out the narrative better. GKids brings the film to Blu-ray with an excellent A/V package and enough bonus features for those interested in digging deeper into the voice production. Die-hard anime fans may want to steer clear of this one, but for casual viewers, I’d say it’s Recommended.