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King of Thorn

The movie King of Thorn is a creature feature, in which hysterical people are trapped in surreal environments, menaced by man-eating monsters from bad dreams. Horror writer Stephen King said the best way to see such films was “with your arm round your girl’s shoulders (or your guy’s) and a big speaker stuck in the window. You make up the second feature.” Down boy!

However, King of Thorn is more than just a monster B-flick, and it’s the other stuff that rewards repeat viewing. It starts strong, with a weird apocalypse – people are succumbing to a disease that literally turns them into stone. In the opening minute, a petrified girl plunges from a New York skyscraper and smashes on the ground. A millionaire says he can protect a small group of randomly-chosen people by putting them into cryogenic slumber under a Scottish castle. The rugged location is highly impressive, though mostly shown off in the early scenes.

Among the select few is a schoolgirl, Kasumi, racked with guilt that she’s been chosen instead of her far stronger sister. After tearful goodbyes, and a pinky-swear on a clifftop, Kasumi is put in the cryotube, supervised by a motherly computer called Alice… and the fun begins. The group awakes to find their subterranean room has been infested with giant thorny roots and hungry monsters on wings, claws and stalks. In short order, most of the humans are slaughtered, leaving Kasumi and a handful of survivors to struggle up the killer castle.

On one level, it’s an old-fashioned disaster-survival movie, of the kind that began with the 1972 Poseidon Adventure. There’s even a swim-through-the-underwater-passage sequence, although the film’s explosions and shoot-outs owe an equal debt to Aliens. But over that, the script weaves a very clever dark fantasy, shaped round the Sleeping Beauty story. Which, if you recall, also had a castle slap-bang in a deadly thorny forest…

The Sleeping Beauty motif reportedly wasn’t in the original King of Thorn manga by Yuji Iwahara. For British viewers, the film’s deployment of fairy-tale tropes around a vulnerable girl (think Alice) strongly parallels the Doctor Who stories by the programme’s current showrunner, Steven Moffat. Perhaps the Japanese filmmakers added the fairy-tale with an eye to foreign audiences. Sleeping Beauty is, after all, a Western story, though the writers might have also been influenced by Production I.G.’s Jin-roh, itself threaded with a bleak Red Riding Hood strand.

While the Japanese Kasumi is the main character, her companions are from various countries, including a geeky German gamer and a black American cop (as well as a venal Italian politician, looking even more topical now than when the film opened in Japan!) The multinationalism is more obvious in the excellent dub, where Kasumi is voiced by Brina Palencia; she was the boy Ciel in Black Butler, the wolf goddess Holo in Spice and Wolf and Rei in the recent Evangelion movies.

On the Japanese track, Kasumi is voiced by the even more prolific Kana Hanazawa, who’s in many big anime of the moment; she voices the cheery Nessa in Fractale, Shiro in Deadman Wonderland and Mayumi in Steins; Gate. Her other roles include Tsukimi in Princess Jellyfish and Suou, the girl in Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor. It’s especially interesting to watch that last character alongside Kasumi in King of Thorn.

The film is directed by veteran Kazuyoshi Katayama, whose director credits range from the 1988 OAV of Appleseed (not to be confused with the CGI remakes) to the series The Big O; he was also among the directors on Doomed Megalopolis. But perhaps he was helped on King of Thorn by his experience, 25 years earlier, on another anime about a girl in a gnarly, surreal forest. For Katayama, once upon a time, was assistant director on Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

But you don’t have to know that; just enjoy King of Thorn as a fun monster flick, with some deeper, darker themes snarling from the shadows. Given Sunrise’s fame, and the quality of its work – check out Code Geass!it’s surprising it’s made so few ‘standalone’ films over the decades, though that might be changing. Sunrise teamed up with the Ascension studio to make the much-praised afterlife film Colorful; it also made Psychic School, both shown at Scotland Loves Anime. Maybe the studio’s preparing a scary Cinderella, with killer mice and exploding pumpkins.

King of Thorn is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray on 22nd April.

King of Thorn Trailer

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