What would you do if the world was coming to an end and you were given a way out? Or you thought you had a way out? King of Thorn tosses you straight into that world. Yes, apocalyptic-themed sci-fi is all the rage these days, but King of Thorn isn’t just another “2012” blow ’em spectacle. There’s something much deeper and more philosophical at work in this one, and it’s far more satisfying, if still a bit short of what it really wants to be.
Kasumi Ishiki is one of a group of 160 people selected by lottery to go into a state of suspended animation to escape certain death at the hands of the Medusa/Medousa virus. (The film spells it “Medousa” while most other materials for King of Thorn spell it “Medusa.”) It’s a new virus of unknown origin that petrifies its victims soon after infection. The aforementioned group has been selected by the Venus Gate corporation for the cold sleep program. Now, if that really worked we wouldn’t have much of a movie. So, things go wrong. Horribly, horribly, massively wrong when Kasumi and the other sleepers wake up to find their facility over run by hideous creatures and thorns. It’s not spoiling much to say the group gets winnowed down exceptionally quickly to Kasumi and six others, including a very buff and tattooed British guy named Marco with an attitude problem, a young boy named Thomas, an woman in her early 20’s named Katharine, a feckless Italian senator named Alexandro, and a former cop named Peter, all of whom have the virus.
If that were it King of Thorn would be nothing more than a horror survival movie. But it isn’t. There is a lot more at work here, despite FUNimation’s marketing saying otherwise. Yes, there is a lot of death to be had as Kasumi and the rest of the group stumble their way through each other’s personal secrets and the far nastier secrets buried in their holding cell, an ancient Scottish prison. Yes, the movie is ultimately set in Scotland despite everyone speaking Japanese. Just go with it, it works. Every turn in the castle leads to another secret, and another revelation about the true nature of the castle and everything else surrounding Venus Gate, Medusa and A.L.I.C.E., the computer program that is supposed to be caring for the castle.
The end result of all of this is both interesting, and a bit of a mess. The production crew, including director and writer Kazuyoshi Katayama whose best known work over here is Big O, have made an incredibly interesting product that is also incredibly frustrating. The plot manages to go past twisted and jumps right into convoluted. There’s a lot of talk of dreams and God, among other mixed influences. The end result is more frustrating than it should be as there are a lot of really intriguing ideas at work, but they don’t come together as well as they really should. There are also some ideas that seem like they could have been included, but weren’t, so it gets a little more frustrating, but it’s more nitpicking than anything else.
The animation is spectacular overall, especially when the action kicks in. There are a couple of bad moments that stick out like sore thumbs, but everything else looks great. The extras list include a roughly 30min panel session from Hong Kong that’s not particularly interesting; a frustratingly short 10-minute interview with the director by an Japanese anime critic that is really fascinating; the original short film that they pitched to Sunrise to get the project rolling; and a series of trailers for the film.