King of Thorn [いばらの王 Ibara no Ō] (2009)
Starring Kana Hanazawa, Eri Sendai, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Akiko Yajima, Sayaka Ohara, Kenji Nomura, Misaki Kuno, Shinichiro Miki, Kousei Hirota, Tsutomu Isobe
Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
The premise in King of Thorn closely follows that of a horror movie, however it never really feels like a horror movie. This may simply be that I’m not a huge horror fan, and not all that attuned to the genre conventions. But as much as this uses the tried and true formula of trapping a diverse group of people in one spot and then slowly killing them off one by one, it never tries to amp up the terror. It’s all about adrenaline-pumping action and head-scratching conspiracies.
This was a pretty enjoyable film all things considered. Since I’m not much for horror, the downplay of its creepier elements worked well for me. Perhaps the biggest problem is that once they start explaining all the mysteries, you may well become even more confused. The film delves into the kind of metaphysical weirdness that anime is so often fond of. I would love to give you more of a heads up, but explaining anything beyond that would just be spoiling the plot. Also, I’m not quite sure myself just what was going on. I’ll need to watch this one again someday to see if it actually makes sense. Just make sure you go into this film knowing it’s going to get weird.
The premise itself is very good at setting up a truly hopeless situation. A new disease breaks out that slowly turns people to stone. It’s invariably fatal, and completely incurable. Then an obviously evil company invents that good old standby of science fiction, the cryogenic sleep capsule. But only a select number of infected people get chosen to sleep away the years until a cure is found. The applicants are chosen by lottery, and then sealed away for a brighter future.
It turns out that the future isn’t all that bright, though. When they wake up, the facility is covered in thorny vines, and man-eating monsters have infested the place. The doctors and staff are nowhere to be found, and the entire facility seems to be shut down. They have no idea how long they’ve been asleep. And oh yeah, they’re still dying because they haven’t been cured. Now that’s a shitty way to start the day.
It takes a while to set up all the details and the first half hour may seem a bit slow, but it never bugged me. It actually does a very good job of keeping things moving and introducing the characters along the way. And let me tell you, when they first wake up in their new hell, things turn real brutal, real fast. I won’t give much away, but there were 150 patients put in cold sleep, if memory serves. After about 10 minutes in the overrun facility, it weeds that number down to just the seven main characters.
The most important of these characters is a teenage girl named Kasumi. She has a bunch of psychological issues too elaborate to detail here, but her biggest problem is that her twin sister, also infected with the disease, was not chosen by the lottery. This has left her feeling guilty and lonely from leaving her sister behind, leading to a lot of drama that becomes very influential to the plot.
A tattooed guy with an attitude problem named Marco also shared much of the plot focus, but his story is never really developed much. His primary purpose is to be a major badass and kick the stuffing out of the monsters. Honestly, he kicks a little too much ass. So much that it becomes a bit unbelievable. But then who doesn’t love a guy that kicks the stuffing out of monsters?
The other characters are less important, but one is a little boy who seems to think their whole situation is some kind of video game. He constantly claims the monsters and events are from various games he has played, and presents some important information about them. This seems like an idiotic and contrived plot device, but once they explained why he knows about the creatures, I wound up impressed by the trick.
One thing that never gets explained, though, is how the characters communicate with each other. Kasumi is Japanese, Marco said he was British (I think), and one of the other characters is an Italian politician. So how are they all speaking the same language? It’s a small problem all things considered, but it still loitered around the back of my mind and bugged me from time to time.
A bigger issue is that the disease is never explained. Its origins and function seem almost forgotten, even though the early parts of the film make it a central issue. This may however just be me misunderstanding that confusing final part of the film. It might have mentioned it and just slipped by me. Someday I’ll get around to watching this again and see if I understand things any better.
Other problems crop up in the visuals, namely in the form of obnoxious CG. King of Thorn showcases both the best and the worst of modern animation. The traditional animation is rich and smooth. The backgrounds may not be the visual masterpieces of Makoto Shinkai, but they are still excellent and full of vivid detail. But that damn CG just keeps getting in the way.
Some of it is actually very impressive. The four-legged monsters that are the primary enemies in the film look like they could almost blend in with the traditional animation. In fact, they almost look as good as the CG in Summer Wars. But where that film used restraint and good taste, this film just shovels in as much CG as it can. And while those monsters looked nice (relatively speaking), most of the other CG elements looked pretty awful.
In the end, a really great premise and some good action outweighed my misgivings this time. The story was intriguing, even if I didn’t fully understand it, but I have a hunch it will make at least a little more sense upon re-watch. The pacing, which can be the biggest problem in anime films, felt smooth and natural. The action was gripping and exciting. Not even the annoying CG and odd plot conundrums could keep me from enjoying this one.