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King of Thorn

Survival horror goes deeply psychological

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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King of Thorn

King of Thorn

Image courtesy Pricegrabber

When a disease that petrifies the body begins ravaging the world, a select few who have the illness are chosen to be placed in suspended animation until a cure can be found. Their slumber is disturbed when the cryo-chamber they’ve been placed in is overrun with giant thorny vines and monsters out of a nightmare, and the surviving patients have to band together to escape the complex and discover the truth of what has happened.

A mixture of Resident Evil-style survival horror and psychological thriller -- a la shows like Blue Gender, this lavish-looking anime feature film ends up in places not hinted at by the opening scenes. It goes from being a generic SF/horror story to something a little more special, thanks to its focus on the characters and their very specific plights.

Pros
  • Multilayered, psychologically-drive story that doesn't just present us with a shooting gallery of bad guys.
  • Striking animation in the action sequences.
Cons
  • About fifty percent too much plot for its own good.
  • Some plot threads left dangling by the end, maybe as a bid for a sequel.
  • Director: Kauyoshi Katayama
  • Animation Studio: Sunrise
  • Released By: Kadokawa Pictures
  • Released Domestically By: FUNimation Entertainment
  • Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
  • Age Rating: TV-MA (violence, blood, language, thematic material)
  • List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray / DVD combo)

Anime Genres:

  • Drama
  • Horror
  • Thriller
  • Science Fiction
  • Action
  • Psychological

Related Titles:

  • Blue Gender
  • Resident Evil: Damnation
  • Shiki

A lottery for the doomed

A disease called “Medusa” is ravaging the world, and it’s aptly named: after contracting it, a victim only has a few months before they literally petrify. Only a mysterious company named Venus Gate appears to have a solution. They plan to take one hundred sixty infected people from around the world, freeze them in suspended animation, work on a cure in the interim, and then re-animate them only after a cure has been found.

Among those selected for this program are a Japanese girl, Kasumi Ishiki, whose sole family consists of her twin sister Shizuku now that their parents both succumbed to the virus. Shizuku has followed Kasumi to the Venus Gate facility—set underground below a massive castle—to say goodbye, something Kasumi finds harder to do than she realizes.

Kasumi also encounters several of the other patients: Katherine, a blonde woman in her twenties with a curious obsession for a certain storybook; Tim, a chipper six-year-old fixated on video games; Ron, an embittered policeman; Peter, an uneasy engineer; and Marco Owen, a hulking, tattooed animal of a man. All of them seem skeptical about Venus Gate’s motives and the program itself, but what choice do they have?

Are the lucky ones already dead?

An indeterminate amount of time after they’ve all been put to bed in the giant cryo-vault below the castle, Kasumi wakes up to find everyone else has also been awakened to a nightmare in progress. The vault’s been overrun with giant thorny vines; batlike creatures scream down out of the rafters, tearing at people’s faces; the one elevator out of the vault has become a bottomless pit with an octopus-like beast waiting below.

By the time the dust settles and a few survivors have clawed their way out—including Kasumi and those described above—the situation looks dire. With no weapons, not much trust between the few who are left (Marco and Ron really don’t like each other), and no clear idea of how much time has passed or what dangers lie ahead, the few who are left have to survive as best they can.

At this point, most people watching King of Thorn may have a pretty good idea of where things are headed. There will be a Resident Evil-style survival-horror aspect to the story, with the characters doing a lot of running from various monsters (and, eventually, shooting at them once they find weapons). There will also be some unpleasant secrets revealed about Venus Gate and the Medusa virus, and there will also be some psychological headgames involving each character’s background. And the supercomputer that runs everything will turn out to be cuckoo (paging HAL 9000 in 2001: a space odyssey). Even the petrification virus is a lift, more or less, from Hiroki Endo's manga Eden: It's An Endless World!. Check the boxes off as you go down the list.

So, yes, all of those things surface in due time, but each of them comes bearing some additional surprises that I honestly wasn’t expecting. The real nature of the virus turns out to be so outlandish, so far outside what you’d expect from the story’s setup, that it almost comes off as an act of one-upsmanship on the audience. You’ll either swallow it whole, or put a bruise on your forehead smacking it with the heel of your hand.

Maybe the real monsters aren't the ones prowling the halls

The most crucial parts of those revealed secrets revolve around Kasumi (as you might also have guessed by now), but in a way that requires us to drastically reinterpret a number of things we’ve seen before. She’s not the person we, or she, thinks she is—that much anyone can figure out—but how she is that way comes as something of a shock, and sets the stage for the movie’s (literally) earth-shaking climax, which involves a berserk computer, a Cthulhu-esque abomination the size of a small mountain, and … more. A lot more.

Such stuff runs the risk of being so over-the-top it becomes silly, but it works thanks to being grounded in someone we’ve spent time coming to care about. The other major character to emerge and provide a base for the story is Marco—who is, again, not who we think he is. He grows from being a little too mercenary even for his own good into something resembling a hero, and is also not the mere meathead he likes to make people think he is. Kasumi picks up on that early enough to get his façade to crack a bit.

King of Thorn may have a bit too much plot for its own good, but it also comes wrapped in plenty of good-looking animation—in particular, the scenes where the human survivors fight off the lizardlike monsters skulking around in the bowels of the facility. Some of that animation, both of monsters and humans, was clearly done via CGI in much the same manner as the OVA Freedom, where peoples’ bodies are digitally generated but their faces are animated by hand to seem that much more realistic. The technique’s improved a bit since Freedom was released; here, it still looks artificial, just not quite as artificial. It does come off better than, say Vexille or Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker, where the faces look as synthetic as everything else and are correspondingly less compelling.

The end of the movie is infuriating, in how it allows a number of key questions about peoples’ fates to just drop entirely out of the picture—to say nothing of what happens to the rest of the world. Maybe a sequel was planned, which would make it a little too much more like the Resident Evil movies for my taste. But the good things here are very good indeed, and I give them credit for offering a story with a bit more ambition than to end just because all the right bad guys have been killed.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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