Now that Christmas is finally behind us, and at least most of us survived the coming of the Clause without loss of life or limb, let’s get back to talking about anime. Naturally, in honor of the horrors we have all survived, it’s a horror themed anime I’m going to be talking about.
What? Do I have to go over why Santa is a hellspawn again?
Didn’t think so.
This 2010 film from Sunrise and Kadokawa is actually a sci fi horror reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, but we’ll get into all of that soon enough. For now, you can put away your shotguns and take down the barricades until next season, when the Old One rouses from his slumber once more to feast on our dreams. Go on. I’ll wait.
All done? Groovy.
King of Thorn is the set in the modern day, where a strange new virus called Medusa has become a full scale pandemic. Medusa, in a nutshell, causes people to turn to stone, more or less. The film sort of explains the biology of this, but I’m not a biologist, so let’s just cut to the chase. Contraction of Medusa means death. There is no cure, and at the rate it is spreading, no cure will be found before every human on Earth is dead.
Which is when a company called Venus Gate steps into the picture. They have long been braced for such a disaster, and have been developing cryogenics so that humanity could survive a ravaging plague just like Medusa. However, they only have enough pods for 160 people, so after some key personal have been selected, a lottery will be held globally to determine who else will be allowed to survive.
Never mind that Venus Gate is secretly owned and funded by a doomsday cult, and some of those select personnel are cult higher ups, of course.
Among those who are selected to enter the cold sleep are Kasumi Ishiki, a Japanese high school student, who has already lost her parents to Medusa. Her twin sister, Shizuku, has also contracted it, but was not chosen to survive, leading to a great deal of uncertainty on Kasumi’s part. Prior to entering cold sleep, she tries to take her own life so her sister can impersonate her and survive, but is stopped by Shizuku.
Also present, a NYPD officer named Ron, a convict named Marco, a grieving mother named Katherine, and a little boy obsessed with video games named Tim. Last, there’s a doctor named Peter, who is not all he seems. There’s a bunch of others, but these are the central cast, so never mind the rest.
Arriving at the Venus Gate compound in Scotland, they, and the others, enter cold sleep, where they will remain for 100 years while an A.I. analyzes Medusa and develops a cure. However, when they awaken, the facility is overgrown with thick, heavy, thorn laden vines, and the survivors are attacked by horribly mutated creatures. Only the central cast survives this, and begins to wonder just how long they actually were asleep.
Things take a turn for the strange when they discover that only a few hours have passed since they entered the cold sleep, forcing them to confront the nightmarish creatures, which they find out have sprung from Tim’s favorite video game, and try to learn what happened during that few hours.
King of Thorn is based on a manga by the same name, written and illustrated by Yuji Iawahara, the artist for the manga of Dimension W, and the new Darker Than Black manga. However, condensing a story that ran for three years into a movie is not easy, so the story for the film is vastly altered from the one of the manga. The two only bear a passing resemblance to each other. If you are a fan of the manga and haven’t seen the film, brace yourself for that.
Which I consider obvious, but ya know how it is, folks. Gotta tell people that a three year story told in monthly installments is not going to be adapted to under two hours accurately.
Much of the plot structure for King of Thorn was taken from the original fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, rather than the more familiar Disney version, and Katherine routinely reminds us of this by reciting the story as the survivors move from one horrific encounter to the next. While that might sound a bit heavy handed, within the context of the movie, it actually does make sense, and there’s a solid narrative reason why she does this.
While we get very little time with the central cast, each of them is well written and allowed to stand out in their own ways. Ron is still a dedicated cop, end of the world not with standing, and everything he does is motivated by this. He always actively seeks to protect those around him, but takes no shit from anyone.
Katherine’s entire character arc revolves around the loss of her son, who died from Medusa. She was in the midst of reading him Sleeping Beauty, but he died before she could finish the book, hence her obsession with it. In Tim, she sees a chance to save a child, making up for the one she lost, and can be very fierce, and unpredictable, in that sense.
No, this isn’t some kind of pigeonholed role. The woman lost her child. Then she was selected to survive Medusa, the very virus that took her child. Then she woke up in a nightmare world, saw a ton of people get slaughtered right in front of her, and was faced with impossible monsters. That’ll make most people go off the deep end.
Figured that was obvious, but anyway.
Owen, unlike the rest, is nothing that he seems. Introduced as a convict who somehow got lucky with the lottery, his true nature, motives, and goals are slowly unveiled over the course of the film, transforming him from a brutal character willing to do anything to survive, to a truly noble hero, worthy of the Prince Charming analogy he holds in the story.
Kasumi, on the other hand, is the real star of the story. Shy, meek, and timid, with a fear of being alone, she slowly becomes stronger over the course of things, moving from a passive observer to an active force as the truth of both their bizarre circumstances, and Medusa itself, is revealed. With that comes the revelation that she herself is not at all what she seems, and in fact, lies at the heart of the mystery, and may not even be human.
King of Thorn was directed, and had the screenplay largely written by, Kazouyoshi Katayama. If the name seems familiar, that’s because he was the assistant director and production assistant on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. He also directed the 1988 film Appleseed, and the first season of the 1996 series Those Who Hunt Elves. In addition to his director work, he has storyboarded shows like Samurai Champloo, Appleseed: Ex Machina, and Tiger & Bunny.
What I’m getting at here is that the direction of this movie is just gorgeous. Every shot helps sell the surreal nature of the story, from the early moments of the Medusa outbreak, to the final confrontation. Every frame both invokes the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as well as the horror aspects that the film brings in. His camera work is engaging, and drags you in with ease. This whole film is just beautifully handled, and really has a bit of a Miyazaki touch to it.
Ya know, if Miyazaki did sci fi horror.
The music was done by Toshihiko Sahashi, who you may have heard on such things Black Blood Brothers, all three season of Full Metal Panic, Gunslinger Girl, Hunter x Hunter, Mobile Suit Gundam Seed, and a whole ton of other stuff. Guys got a lot of freaking credits. He was even involved in Steel Angel Kurumi, which is really pretty obscure, I know, but a few folks will have heard of it, I figure.
In King of Thorn he offers up some his best work. The music takes the story seamlessly back and forth between the horror elements, and the fairy tale ones, with powerful and rich composition. The music is one of the more beautiful aspects of the film, really, as Sahashi goes full bore for the fairy tale aspects, underlying it with the kind of dread and menace Disney has taught us to forget about. It’s a stunning series of compositions, and just beautiful to listen to.
Animation wise, the movie is, for the most part, absolutely gorgeous. A rich color palette is at odds with the more horrific elements, but lends itself well to the fairy tale side. Gorgeous backdrops, excellent character designs, and mostly fluid animation make for a visual treat at almost every turn.
Almost, because there’s a fair bit of CGI animation in there that doesn’t always mesh seamlessly. It gives some of the creatures and vehicle shots a disjointed look at times. The creatures are usually in motion, and it looks better when they are, as the more dynamic it gets, the better it looks. The vehicle moments, however, look strange and stark against the often dream like quality of the Scottish coast where most of the movie takes place.
This is, to me, a minor nitpick, however, since I value story over… well, everything, really. I’ll watch bad animation for a good story over good animation with a bad story any day.
In terms of the plot, for the most part, it works really well. The set up sells the premise solidly, and the second act is a full throated survival horror. It’s the third act where things get kinda weird, and will either work or not, depending on your expectations and preferences.
I say this because much of the finale revolves around information we weren’t given earlier. One the one hand, there’s a reason in story for why that was. On the other, a lot of folks don’t like that because it feels that this stuff just came out of nowhere and makes no sense.
Which is kinda fair, I guess. Personally, I had no problem with the final third of the film, even when it gets all kinds of metaphysical, because by then I was invested in the characters and wanted to know what was going to happen to them. However, the story does get really out there in the last bit, and the explanation for everything will either work, or it won’t, depending on the viewer. So be advised, you may come away scratching your head and trying to figure out just what the hell happened.
Or you might find it deep. That’s on you to decide. I’m just a random dude on the internet. What do I know?
One last thing I will add, however, is that the movie never puts the camera on Kasumi in a sexually suggestive way, which is actually pretty amazing, considering she spends almost the entire movie in what amount to pajamas, and a good half of it wet. There’s no bouncy boobs and subtly tell tale nipple shots, is what I’m getting at. She is our protagonist, and she’s treated like it the whole time. Always a nice thing to see, at least, in my mind.
The English dub was done by Funimation, of course, and brings in a lot of their heavy hitters. Brina Palencia, Patrick Seitz, Chistopher Bevins, R. Bruce Elliot, Bob Carter, Luci Christian, and Monica Rial all provide voices for the dub, and do a damn fine job of it. This makes the biggest difference between watching it subbed or dubbed how much you want to read, as the two versions are all but the same otherwise.
Cause Funimation gives a shit, yo.
What? I can say yo. I’m old, not dead.
Overall, King of Thorn is a hell of experience, and a damn good film that weaves a famous fairy tale and strong horror elements together into a metaphysical tale of survival and self determination. It succeeds far more often than it fails, and only really comes up short depending on what you want and expect from an anime film.
Now go watch it, and start prepping for next years Attack On Claus.