EIFF 2021: The Deer King

This directorial debut from Studio Ghibli alumni Masayuki Miyaji and Masashi Ando is a dark, breathtaking epic with an emotional core

Film Review by Jack Richardson | 02 Sep 2021
  • The Deer King
Film title: The Deer King
Director: Masashi Ando, Masayuki Miyaji
Starring: Anne Watanabe, Hisui Kimura, Ryōma Takeuchi, Shinichi Tsutsumi

It’s hard to think of an animation studio held in higher esteem, with a more boundless influence, than Studio Ghibli. At first glance, you might think The Deer King is just one of many Ghibli-inspired projects that dot the anime landscape. True, both co-directors Masashi Ando (a long-time Ghibli character animator making his directorial debut) and Masayuki Miyaji helped create some of the studio’s best-loved films. But look closer, and you’ll uncover a film darker, and more eerily resonant, than you imagined.

The film takes place in a world where the formerly noble nation of Aquafa has become a vassal state of the Empire of Zol, breeding resentment and prejudice. When a harrowing disease that only affects Zolians spreads, Van and Yuna – a former warrior and his adopted daughter – must join the legendary doctor Hohsalle in discovering a cure before the epidemic becomes unstoppable.

The Deer King is breathtaking. Thick forests and mountains glistening with snow surround beautifully detailed towns and villages. Ando’s acumen as a character animator is on display: the disparate cast of characters are dynamic, full of joy, fear, regret. Sure, there are some visual echoes of Princess Mononoke, but the film rarely descends into derivative territory.

In the age of COVID, all films featuring deadly pandemics are going to seem somewhat timely. Colonialism, political intrigue, and connection to the land are also addressed. However, the film really shines in its quieter moments. The bond between Van and Yuna is incredibly moving, and even when the film loses its way in a somewhat muddled narrative, they are the epic tale’s emotional core.

If you’re looking for the next Spirited Away, The Deer King may disappoint. But if you embrace its dark and stunningly realised world, you’ll discover some cinematic magic all its own.

The Deer King had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival

Jack Richardson is a student at the University of Edinburgh and part of Edinburgh International Film Festival's Young Critics Programme. For more on EIFF's Young Critics Programme, click here

Read more about Edinburgh International Film Festival at theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-festivals/film, and follow our coverage on Twitter (@theskinnymag), Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheSkinnyMag) and Instagram (@theskinnymag)

Want to receive the best of the Scottish cultural scene in your inbox every week? Sign up to our mailing list!