As I type out this review, I am presently nursing a nasty sore throat/ear ache double whammy. Uncomfortable as those flu-like symptoms may be, I cannot complain too much as things could be worse. I could for example be suffering from the Medusa Virus that is plaguing the Earth in the animated movie King of Thorn. Any unfortunate person afflicted with said condition, as hinted by the disease’s name, is doomed to be turned into stone. With no cure in sight the Venus Gate Corporation have devised a plan to save the human race from potential extinction. Using state of the art cryogenic technology they plan to freeze 160 people and keep them in suspended animation until a vaccine can be developed. Protagonist Kasumi Ishiki is one of the lucky few randomly selected to take part in the project, although any joy of being spared from Medusa’s petrification is tinged by the fact that her twin sister will not be joining her in the deep sleep – fating her to an assumed rocky demise.
Sibling separation anxiety notwithstanding, Kasumi agrees to slumber in a Venus Corp cryo capsule, but when she eventually awakens from the deep freeze it becomes apparent that something has gone horribly wrong. Rather than being greeted by jubilant scientists who have discovered a cure for Medusa, Kasumi and the other sleepers find that the castle housing them has fallen into ruin, encased in a tangle of giant thorny vines. Overgrown flora is the least of their worries however as the sleepers are not alone. Patrolling the facility are man-eating abominations who hunger for a snack of recently thawed humanoid. In order to survive the ordeal, Kasumi eventually bands together with a small group of fellow survivors seeking a way out of the complex as well as answers to what has happened to the world during the time they slept.
King of Thorn is presently available to buy in the UK either as a standalone DVD release or as part of a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Manga Entertainment. I’d recommend the movie to anime fans that like science fiction mixed with a dose of survival horror. The animated feature is based off a six volume manga series, which in turn draws inspiration from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. The similarities between the fable and this movie, about a napping heroine trapped in a thorn-covered castle, are there for all too see. That said it’s hard not to make a connection between the two given that one of Kasumi’s associates spends the early part of the film reading out excerpts from the aforementioned children’s book. Fans of the manga should be warned that the film makes quite a few changes to the original source material, although that should come as no surprise given that condensing six comics into a two hour flick means that some narrative sacrifices have to be made.
When it comes to anime I tend to favor a series over movies, as numerous episodes give creators more leeway in telling grander tales. That said I did enjoy King of Thorn. Within the limited running time director Kazuyoshi Katayama is able to squeeze in a lot of story whilst at the same time preventing the plot from imploding into a convoluted mess. Trying to unravel the mystery of what happened at the cryogenic lab will keep viewers on the edge of their seats and the story does a good job keeping you guessing on what will happen next. You’ll get subtle hints pointing to a twist, but just when you think you have things sussed you’ll get hit with a dramatic revelation that derails how you think things were going to pan out.
Those seeking gruesome action need not worry that King of Thorn will get bogged down in its story. Kasumi’s group frequently comes across all manner of creatures, lurking within the castle’s dark corridors, ensuring that there is never a dull moment. The tension is further compounded by the looming threat of the Medusa Virus that can instantly strike down any of the survivors without warning. The bloody encounters between the human cast and the monsters hounding them are always exciting, although I wish the creators hadn’t opted to use clunky CG animation to draw the creatures. Based on the quality of the film’s traditional 2D artwork the creatures would have looked more menacing had they been hand drawn, not to mention how jarring it is to see CG monsters interact with 2D characters and environments. It’s a complaint I have with a lot of modern animes, but for whatever reason Japanese studios seem adamant to shoehorn computer effects into their works.
Visual effect distractions don’t however detract from what is a very entertaining movie. Character wise, the cast don’t distinguish themselves from the stereotypes you normally find in similar films, but the fast paced unpredictable plot ensures that you won’t dwell on those shortcomings for too long. Kasumi comes across as an uninteresting timid girl at first, but the adversity she faces toughens her up, not to mention that when her backstory is fully revealed we learn that she is a more layered protagonist than initial impressions suggested. The movie’s finale proves to be a little far fetched, making me wish that the story would have stayed more grounded within plausible sci-fi, but for fans that have grown up watching the likes of Akira it is certainly tolerable within the realms of whacky Japanese animation. King of Thorn won’t go down in the annuals of history as one of anime’s great works, but it succeeds in telling a more captivating tale than the weak horror movies Hollywood usually churns out.