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King of Thorn
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by Jay Seaver

"Enough sci-fi action to satisfy the demanding anime nut."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "King of Thorn" is the sort of anime that, whatever else you might say about it, doesn't cheat the audience. It offers up top-notch animation and uses it to create a story that is both grand-scale and strange, with big, bloody action and bizarre ideas that are just a stepping stone to crazier things. It threatens to become too much, honestly, but it's never dull.

The time is the near future, and the world is beset by a new pandemic: ACIS (Acquired Cellular Induration Syndrome), which in its terminal stages causes the body to harden into a brittle, stone-like material, earning it the nickname "Medusa". Venus Gate, a company headed by shady expatriate Russian industrialist Ivan Vega, has built a cryonics facility in Scotland that can potentially hold 160 infected people for up to a hundred years, awaiting a cure. Among those chosen by lottery is nervous Japanese school girl Kasumi, escorted by her more confident twin sister Shikazu. Something goes terribly wrong after the group are frozen, though, and when Kasumi comes out of suspension, the chamber is filled with large, thorny vines and strange monsters. Soon it's down to Kasumi and a small group of allies - a prisoner, a nurse, a kid, a cop, and an elderly senator - to find a way out and solve the mystery of what happened.

There's no missing that King of Thorn (Ibara no O in the original Japanese) is a science-fiction/horror take on "Sleeping Beauty"; even if the gigantic mutant briars overgrowing a castle whose occupants were to sleep for up to a hundred years aren't a sufficient hint, the film makes a fair number of more direct references, to the point where one may be tempted to yell "I get it, already!" That is, for better or worse, what the movie is like; it has a hard time with the concept of "enough". If one underwater chase is good, two are better; a couple instances of a recurring bit like the Marco Owen character wanting to be called by his first rather than last name isn't as good as three or four; one crazy last-act plot twist being revealed just means it's time for the next one. I'm pretty sure that even the 9-year-old boy has a secret agenda. It's almost a brute-force approach to storytelling, and a little clumsy at times, but there's certainly never a dull moment.

Indeed, the action is non-stop and impressive as heck. Early on, director Kazuyoshi Katayama is willing to just imply how desperate the world situation is, so we get just as harsh a wake-up as the characters when they emerge from their stasis and all hell starts to break loose in a bloody, high-body-count sequence, followed by a desperate chase that occasionally slows down for some information but more or less lasts the rest of the movie. The movie plays rough - one class of monster seems to have specifically evolved to bite human heads off - but as a result the action packs a punch.

The animation quality is excellent as well; though mostly done in traditional "2-D" style, there's plenty of CGI assistance, generally for mechanical objects. There are very few times when motion gives way to limited animation or freeze-framing, and the screen is often extremely busy during action shots, not in terms of being confusing, but in terms of there being a lot of things moving. The animators are up for any crazy thing the story throws at them, but they also do well in things the audience might not notice, like the different body language they give to identical twins Kasumi and Shizuku.

There are bits toward the end when "King of Thorn" falls prey to the issues that plague a lot of science fiction anime - excessive philosophizing, high-concept escalation - but it's never paralyzed by them. It's always, first and foremost, a cool sci-fi action picture, and a genuine blast on that level.

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originally posted: 07/27/10 14:52:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/27/10 Ronald Holst about as enjoyable as a rootcanal 1 stars
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