ANIME & MANGA - Review
13:49 - 14th June 2013, by David West

King Of Thorn

Humanity's days appear to be numbered when the deadly Medusa virus sweeps across the globe. The mysterious pandemic is invariably fatal and petrifies anyone it infects, turning them to stone. As the plague spreads, the Venus Gate Corporation unveils a plan to ensure humankind's future. The company has built a cryonic sleep facility capable of putting 160 people into an ageless slumber, keeping them safe until a cure can be found for the lethal virus. People are selected by a lottery, and Kasumi Ishiki lands one of the coveted spaces inside a deep sleep capsule. Rather than being delighted by her good fortune, Kasumi is reluctant to leave her twin sister Shizuku behind, but accepts that she has no alternative.

When Kasumi awakens from her cryonic repose, she finds that the facility has become overgrown with massive, sharp thorns, and that hideous creatures stalk the darkness hungry for human flesh. With a handful of her fellow survivors, Kasumi sets out to discover what has gone so very badly wrong with the world they knew, and how long they have been asleep.

Kazuyoshi Katayama's feature length anime is a dark and occasionally violent science fiction thriller loaded with references to Sleeping Beauty and Biblical themes. The Sleeping Beauty parallels are not introduced with any great subtlety, as one character reads the tale aloud while everyone travels on a bus to the cryogenic centre, which, in true fairy tale fashion, is located in a gloomy, remote castle perched on a cliff above the ocean. Then, the castle becomes wrapped in a layer of massive thorn branches, like the ones that surrounded the slumbering princess in the fable, reinforcing the reference even further. The script is littered with classical allusions, from the artificial intelligence that runs the facility, which is called Alice (in a reference to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland heroine), to the Medusa Virus turning people into stone like the serpent-haired gorgons of Greek mythology.

The text is quite dense, and there are a lot of ideas competing for space, although that is not necessarily a weakness. King Of Thorn is not an anime that gives up all of its secrets on the first viewing, and more than one pass through the material can help unlock the puzzles of the plot. Once Kasumi and co. emerge from their sleeping capsules, the action kicks into high gear as the first wave of carnivorous beasts arrives to unleash a tide of terror and panic. Many of the creatures are rendered with CG animation, but it is generally smoothly blended with the 2D animation. The artwork is highly detailed, with vividly rendered locations and backdrops for the characters to explore as they search for answers and safety. The richness of the detail in the castle interiors adds to the sense of atmosphere, contrasting the modern, clean lines of the cryogenic chamber with the spiky, twisted thorns intruding unnaturally upon the formerly pristine space. Action scenes are desperate affairs as the survivors find themselves hunted and forced to flee through the sprawling castle. The strong production values really shine out in these sequences, keeping everything sharp and fluid, no matter how frantic the pace.

The script, adapted from Yuji Iwahara's manga by Hiroshi Yamaguchi and director Kazuyoshi Katayama, does an excellent job of throwing up red herrings and misdirection while teasing out the truth about what has happened. The central mystery only becomes deeper and more complex as Kasumi edges closer to the answers behind the transformation of the castle. Events become increasingly fantastic as the plot unfolds, but Katayama manages to keep the story emotionally grounded by staying focussed on the interaction between the survivors and the secrets in Kasumi's past. That said, the numerous twists of the tale do require that the viewer stays on their toes, and this is not an anime to pop on as background noise if you want to keep up with the plot.

At its narrative centre, King Of Thorn functions most effectively as a horror survival story, following Kasumi and six other characters as they face the ravenous monsters and threats that inhabit the castle. Each character has enough personality to make them interesting and distinctive, but hanging over them all is the possibility that they might be the next to die. That said, they do fit the survival movie archetypes to some extent - there's the big, tough, noble black dude; a little boy who needs someone to look after him and a woman who needs someone to care for; a grumpy old man whose outlook on life is essentially "You can't tell me what to do"; a computer nerd with glasses; and an ass-kicking guy with muscles, an attitude and lots of tattoos. Fittingly, Kasumi is the most developed of the bunch, with plenty of emotional baggage to lug about. Each person wears a bracelet that displays a white bar if they are free from the Medusa Virus, but which turns black at the first sign of infection, so in addition to the physical threat of the monsters, they all face the invisible menace of the virus - and both can strike without warning. It's a highly effective combination for maintaining a constant aura of suspense and danger. The design work on the monsters is decent, but not exceptional. In the grand scheme of movie monsters, they can't compete with the all time greats like the xenomorphs of the Alien films for sheer nightmarish awfulness, but they certainly exude bad intentions and implacable hostility.

It's undeniably outlandish, and the bizarre events of the second half stretch credibility to breaking point, but King Of Thorn is an ambitious anime that blends action, horror and science fiction. Kasumi is a heroine with some serious psychological issues, but she gives the story its emotional heart. The end result is occasionally gruesome, often surreal, and frequently thrilling.
SCORE: 4/5
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