The Reel Anime Festival is currently playing at cinemas around Australia and New Zealand, showcasing some of the best Japanese animation of the last few years. One of the big acquisitions of the festival in 2010 is King of Thorn, based on the serialised manga by Yūji Iwahara (Chikyu Misakai) and released theatrically in Japan in May this year. Director Kazuyoshi Katayama should be a name familiar to the anime faithful, with one of his earlier works being the now-classic Appleseed. More recently, he was responsible for Argentosoma.
The deadly Medusa Virus, a rapidly fatal disease that turns its victims to stone, sweeps across the globe. The high-tech Venus Gate offer to cryogenically freeze a small number of victims and revive them when they have found a cure, although there are some who believe they have developed the virus themselves as a biological weapon. Kasumi (Kana Hanazawa, Darker Than Black) has been selected to take a place in the cryo chambers, but is reluctant to leave her twin sister Shizuku behind. Taking their places in the facility, the patients are assured that the über computer ALICE will take care of their every need, including the control of their dreams, for a period of up to 100 years. When Kasumi and her fellow patients wake up, something is wrong. The facility is overgrown with large thorny plants, and vicious mutant creatures slaughter all put seven of their number. How long have they been under? It is up to the survivors to uncover what is going on, but is everything as it seems?
Simply put, King of Thorn is an instant classic. Weaving elements from traditional fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty through to modern survival horror conventions, the film creates something that is not simply a monster-fighting adventure for the boys, but rather achieves the near-impossible by constructing something that will appeal to a large cross-section of the anime viewing community. That said, the film deals with some weighty issues from suicide and depression to wholesale bloody slaughter at the hands of guns and monsters, so the little ones will do well to stay away from this. However, with the violence aside, this is something that could be as timeless as anything that Studio Ghibli has created in recent memory.
King of Thorn never quite takes you where you expect it to. Behind the video game aesthetic, quite literally in some cases (I won’t spoil anything by revealing why here), there is a beautiful story about finding reasons to exist. Many have written this off as a mere survival horror story, and there are definitely familiar motifs used throughout the film. Minutes after meeting the principle cast, we have a fair idea as to who is going to get picked off by the monsters, and in what order. Yet there is a constant reminder that there is something else going on deeper down the rabbit hole. Beautiful animation, combining traditional 2D cels and computer generated renderings, gives the film a visual sense of depth that viewers willing to let themselves go with the flow will also find rewarding in this epic film.
Reel Anime runs from 2 to 15 September 2010. Other films playing at the Reel Anime Festival include Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, Redline (which actually launches here before Japan) and the excellent Summer Wars.