In a nation in the process of healing from the ravages of war, the ravages of a returning illness are coming to the forefront. The illness appears to be mystical in origin, but one doctor is convinced that scientific principles will make the difference. It will be up to this doctor, a child, and a quiet soldier-turned-prisoner-turned-protector to save the country from itself.
In an opening text crawl, it is explained that in the not too distant past, the Zol Empire attacked their neighbors, a country named Aquafa. The march of the soldiers of Zol was finally stopped in a region of Aquafa known as Fire Horse Valley. The explanation for this in the film is two-fold. First, a major battle occurred in which a unit of guerrilla solders named the Lone Antlers (due to the fact that all were mounted on pyiuka, a deer-like animal) wiping out most of a Zolian regiment in battle. Second, a horrifying disease referred to as both Black Wolf Fever and Mittsual, which only affected the Zolian soldiers, decimated the attackers. This disease spreads via a supernatural purple-ish cloud full of biting creatures known as Ossum Dogs. The effects shown throughout the film are horrifying, with bleeding wounds and spreading lesions. But Aquafa had taken too many losses of their own, and they surrender to Zol, signing a treaty and giving up much of their freedom and power.
But in the opening scenes of the film, in a salt mine run on the slave labor of prisoners from Zol, the Mittsual returns, wiping out the population of the mine. The only survivors are Van (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi), a former Lone Antlers leader, and Yuna, an orphan child who was the ward of another prisoner. Both are bitten in the attack, but the two escape into the surrounding wilds, and the story begins in earnest. To confirm the new attack of Mittsual, Dr. Hohsalle (Takeuchi Ryoma) is called in. It is soon discovered by the leadership that there were survivors of the mine disaster. Sae (Watanabe An), a tracker, is enlisted to hunt down Van. An interesting early plot point in the film is that multiple factions want Sae to find Van, but all for different reasons. The Zol leadership just want a prisoner recaptured. The Aquafa advisors are upset that a citizen of Aquafa had been forced to work in the mine, which was sacred ground to their people. And Dr. Hohsalle believes Van’s blood is the key to unlocking a cure.
Much of the next section of the movie is devoted the dichotomy of the search for Van on one side, and Van’s attempts to find escape and lasting peace in a rural village on the other. He uses his gifts at handling pyiuka to assist the villagers, earning himself the nickname The Deer King. He also begins to look on Yuna as a daughter, as we learn that he lost his wife and young son during the war. As the story continues, we are introduced to additional elements such as a visiting emperor, a mystical Dog King living inside of a tree, Aquafan advisors with questionable motives, and a clever solution to the new outbreak of Black Wolf Fever.
The Deer King was adapted by screenwriter Taku Kishimoto from a three-novel series from writer Nahoko Uehashi, and it is full to bursting with characters and story elements. Because of this abundance, the writing is where the film suffers the most. The opening text crawl feels insufficient to introduce viewers to the complications of this world and its story – its politics, its science vs mysticism struggles, and the strange supernatural elements mixed within. Given another half-hour to play with, it feels like the world could have been more richly explored. Without a doubt, there are great moments here. The standout sequence for me is the time Van and Yuna spend in the rural village. It is a place where Zol and Aquafa citizens have intermarried, and we see them coming together to build a strong community. We see Van at his best, using his gifts to help people. But these great moments are sometimes lost in the overarching plot, which can become confusing, and it’s not until the end before one can start putting (most of) the pieces together.
The Deer King was co-directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, both alumni of the famed Studio Ghibli – Ando as an animator and Miyaji as a second-unit director. Because of these Ghibli ties and some of the elements of The Deer King (mysterious blackish-purple disease, a deer-riding hero, a clash of science and the mystical), there are likely to be unfavorable comparisons of The Deer King to the Miyazaki masterpiece Princess Mononoke. And to be clear, Mononoke is the better film. But the experience of both directors does shine through here. The Deer King is well-crafted, appearing to have been predominantly done in hand-drawn style, with touches of computer animation placed in elegantly. It’s a beautiful film to look at. There is also an energy to easily fall into. Not something particularly describable, but enjoyable enough even when it’s not the most cohesive. Another strength of the film is the score, by Harumi Fuuki, which has an interesting mix of influences. On the whole, The Deer King is a strong enough film worth seeing, even to casual anime viewers.