Japan Cuts 2010: KING OF THORN Review

[King of Thorn screens July 11th as part of New York's Japan Cuts festival.]

You already know this:  it's not unusual for feature-length anime to represent a wild amalgam of different genres sutured together--military hardware and sorcery will team up to battle giant monsters who evolved from the ghosts of psychic alien kids.

This opportunistic mix 'n match approach to genre can be slightly maddening to non-fans but I'm happy to report that the awkwardly but intriguingly titled King of Thorn, which gets its North American premiere at Japan Cuts on July 11, pulls together its various generic strands quite respectably. Director Kazuyoshi Katayama consistently manages to hit the story's notes of action, mystery, horror, and sci-fi in a way that seems natural and unforced. In fact, that's one of the many pleasures of the film, the way it shifts gears unexpectedly but doesn't give the audience whiplash. Whether any single element will thrill fans of a given genre--will the head-munching "demonsaurs" satisfy gore-hounds, for example?--is an altogether different question, but one has to admire the overall ambition and thought that's been put into this production.

Based upon a manga by Yuji Iwahara that I haven't read and know nothing about, King of Thorn definitely feels like it's been condensed from its source material. As a result, you'll experience a feeling of either textual richness... or jumpiness, with ideas, events and characters coming at you faster than you might ideally want to process them. What helps the uninitiated, though, is that the set-up will feel familiar without seeming too derivative. With a haunting opening scene set in New York, followed by some lengthy exposition about a global plague called "Medousa" [sic], the film starts off by recalling I Am Legend and similarly themed films. Faced with the prospect of human extinction, a shadowy team of technologists launches a Noah's Ark-type project à la 2012. Then, after a group of specially selected Ark-dwellers wakes from their cryonic slumber to find their supposedly safe environment overrun with odd and inexplicable terrors, the film begins to look an awful like last year's Pandorum. Didn't see it? Well, when a deep space crew revives to learn that anarchy reigns and that nasty monsters are running rampant, its members must embark on a quest to discover how things got so terribly messed up.

So while there's some strong overlap here, the difference is that King of Thorn strikes me as a lot smarter. Or maybe it isn't, really, and that's just my perception. Maybe I'm just overly impressed with the references to classical mythology and the psychological import of fairy tales ("Sleeping Beauty" plays a key part in the plot and imagery). More likely, I can't help noticing that while Pandorum starts sharp and gets more conventional (and dumber) on its way to its ho-hum twist ending, King of Thorn gets decidedly brainier as it progresses to its impressive twist-upon-twist ending.

Better still, nothing from the early parts of the film is ultimately meaningless, which helps redeem passages that at the time might seem random or precious. The weird yet intense relationship between a pair of twins (I know, it sounds like a cliché), the usual assortment of character types thrown together (cute child, hunky bad boy, et al.), the overall trippiness of the setting/mood when they first wake up--all of it signifies something, and the end result is a conclusion which is strangely satisfying.

Yet for some viewers the pretty standard pursuit sequences, the impossibly high-pitched female voices, and the occasional air of self-importance will be off-putting. But that's anime to me--those sorts of things come with the territory to some extent. In fact, the only reason I mention them at all is that King of Thorn is screening at a festival, Japan Cuts, where it's the only animated feature, so it may gain the attention of audiences that don't normally go for anime. By the way, the animation itself, although generally quite strong, is uneven in places, especially in certain establishing shots of a Scottish castle that look both flat and textureless.

Still, I doubt the animation quality, or even the characters, is the reason to see King of Thorn--it's the ideas. Perhaps, in fact, the film is guilty of being too cerebral and not emotionally satisfying. Even so, it definitely shares something important with most of the other films in the Japan Cuts lineup:  it makes you think.

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