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A man and his deer stand on a mountain top looking up at the northern lights Image: Production I.G/GKIDS

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The Deer King director brought every lesson from Princess Mononoke to his epic fantasy

Masashi Ando, a student of Studio Ghibli, explains his vision for a new tale

Masashi Ando learned from the master, and he’s not afraid to admit it. A quarter of a century ago, Hayao Miyazaki — the most influential figure in global animation since Walt Disney — broke a remarkable three-film streak of complex-but-kid-friendly fare with Princess Mononoke, an epic blending period fantasy and sociocultural criticism with a tender, multifaceted relationship at its core. Ando was Miyazaki’s chief animation director, and responsible in part for its memorable character design. And its fingerprints are all over his directorial debut, The Deer King, which is now out on digital platforms and coming to Blu-ray on Oct. 18.

“I really think Princess Mononoke is inside of me, and I really can’t wipe off what I had contributed, or what that movie had done to me,” he said, through a translator, earlier this year. “I do think, when I saw the final cut of the film, I realized that it was really thanks to Mononoke that I was able to visualize some of the aspects in The Deer King.”

For lovers of Miyazaki’s film, that’s clear from the get-go. Adapted from Nahoko Uehashi’s fantasy novel series of the same name, and co-directed by another Ghibli veteran, Masayuki Miyaji, The Deer King is something of a piece with Mononoke in both story and style. Its protagonist is an exile in a land torn apart by human rapacity. He is afflicted by a curse that threatens that land even further, and is preternaturally gifted in combat despite the gentle heart barely concealed by his survivalist’s demeanor. He is prone to quiet kindnesses toward those he encounters and fiercely protective of the one he loves. Over the course of his adventure, he makes friends and enemies on many sides by sticking to his commitments and principles despite the inevitability of the cost. And he rides a deer.

Van, a scruffy man in his 40s wearing a brown and tan robe, puts one hand on his deer companion while looking forlorn Image: Production I.G/GKIDS

Van is the last survivor of a guerrilla resistance group of the Aquafa people, who were enslaved by the victorious Zol empire after years of conflict. After the mine where he toils is attacked by wild dogs, he escapes with a young girl, Yuna, for whom he cares as if she were his own daughter. But Van is bitten during the getaway and infected with a mysterious illness, called Black Wolf Fever, that has ravaged his homeland — although it doesn’t seem to affect him as it does so many others, particularly the Zol people. (The book series was published starting in 2014, but after nearly three years of a pandemic, it’s hard not to pick up on some eerie parallels between Van’s world and ours.)

After rumors of Van’s survival circulate, a Zol doctor, Hohsalle, seeks him out in the hopes of finding a cure for the disease, which has infected the emperor himself. Elsewhere, plans of a rebellion are hatched, and Van, Yuna, and Hohsalle are pulled into the center of a growing conflict they all hope to avoid.

The film’s nearly two-hour run time is only 20 shy of Mononoke’s 133 minutes, but it’s bursting with ideas that could have played out to even greater lengths. The Deer King deals with nuanced politics of a colonized realm and the motives animating its factions.

“The novel is very long, complex, and there’s a lot of information,” Ando said. “That was the appeal of the novel, but also what made the movie very difficult to make — so in the end, out of all the things that happen in the novel, I decided to focus on the relationship between Van and Yuna, and made that the center of the movie.”

That choice is both the film’s key strength and its Achilles’ heel: Van and Yuna’s relationship is a moving emotional and narrative center for the film, but their dominance of the narrative comes at the cost of its other characters — who, Ando said, played more prominent roles in Uehashi’s books. “Those who read the novel know that it is not just about Van,” he said. “The point of view in the novel changes, or the action happens and Hohsalle’s doing one thing while Van’s doing another. Hohsalle’s story is parallel to Van’s story.”

Van bursts with electricity as he grabs his sword and plunges into battle in a close-up shot
A little girl with big blue eyes and brunette pigtails wearing a salmon-colored robe looks up from where she’s sitting on a rock
A buck stands in a forest with sunbeams bursting through the trees
A cloaked woman pulls back an arrow with her bowstring in a battle position Image: Production I.G/GKIDS

In the film, on the other hand, Van’s and Hohsalle’s journeys are entwined. “With Van as the center of the movie,” Ando said, “we really had to include Hohsalle, so they had to meet. That’s why, in the movie, I made it so that Hohsalle is included in Van’s journey to get back Yuna.” This is after the two are separated in its second act — a fellowship of circumstance that feels a bit too neat to go unquestioned.

While sometimes muddled, The Deer King is worth a watch for the animation alone, with its lush background illustration, a keen sense of movement, and deceivingly smooth special effects when the film’s more mystical elements take center stage. Above all, the character design and animation are a marvel, in part because the constraints presented by the film’s taciturn dramatis personae demanded greater attention to minute visual details.

“I was really hoping that the character designs would really express the backgrounds of each character,” Ando said. “For a character who doesn’t talk much, their eyes have to say a lot, so I made sure that Van had bigger eyes. Also, you’ll notice that he tends to be looking far ahead in front of him. I was hoping that by doing that with his eyes, I could give a sense of what kind of man he is: He’s always looking far ahead, looking somewhere in the distance. But that changes when he’s with Yuna — his eyes come closer, they’re more focused. I was hoping that those sorts of visual cues would express the relationship, the feelings towards Yuna that he has.”

The Deer King is not the year’s best anime — not that a year that brought new films by both Mamoru Hosoda and Masaaki Yuasa to American shores made the competition for that title any easier — but if the film’s animation is any indication, Ando’s next film might just be a revelation. It takes time, after all, but like many students, by the tale’s end, there’s a chance of becoming the master.

The Deer King is now available to rent on Amazon, Apple, Vudu, and other digital storefronts.

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