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Thursday, September 20, 2012

KING OF THORN -- Blu-Ray/DVD review by porfle

What starts out as an intriguing sci-fi tale loses its way in director Kazuyoshi Katayama's KING OF THORN (2010), which ends up as a collection of hit-and-miss scenes searching for a satisfying whole.

This visually compelling anime epic begins with some gorgeous shots of New York City, where the suicide of a young girl suffering from the dreaded Medousa virus--she leaps from a tall building and her petrified, dried-white body shatters on the pavement--heralds the start of a catastrophic new epidemic that will threaten the world's population.  Billionaire chemical tycoon Coral Vega offers to place 160 lucky subjects into "cold sleep" pending a cure, in a Scottish castle science facility overseen by his shadowy religious cult "Venus Gate." 

When this "Noah's Ark" of preserved humanity is inadvertently awakened after some unknown calamity within the facility, they find themselves surrounded by huge, thorn-covered plants and beseiged by vicious mutant creatures that seem inspired by somebody's nightmare (which they were, thanks to their computer caretaker "A.L.I.C.E." reading their thoughts during cold sleep).  Seven survivors find themselves in a fight for life as they try to escape the castle and discover what has happened to the world during their sleep, however long it may have been. 

After an extended sequence in which much exposition is delivered via simulated news broadcasts, we see the 160 traveling by bus caravan to the Scottish castle in a series of semi-photorealistic shots that mimic reality but with a heightened pictorial beauty.  It's one of my favorite passages in the film and some of the lush backgrounds here look as though they may have come from Studio Ghibli (which is mentioned in the closing credits). 

A couple of typical anime schoolgirl types, Kasumi Ishiki and her twin sister Shizuku are on one bus with Katherine Turner, an introspective woman who likens their current situation to the "Sleeping Beauty" fairytale, and a little boy named Tim who will find striking parallels in the perilous events to come with the videogames he plays on his Game Boy.  (Neither of these similarities will be coincidental.)  Kasumi has been chosen for cold sleep and her sister is merely there to see her off, but they will both play key roles in what occurs later on. 

Other characters include wisecracking bad boy Marco Owen, a convicted computer hacker with a hidden agenda; Ron Portman, a burly African-American; Alexandro Pecchino, an Italian senator who bought his way into the program; and Peter Stevens, an engineer who, as it turns out, created the cold sleep capsules for Venus Gate only to then contract the Medousa virus himself. 

Once inside the facility, KING OF THORN becomes an uneasy combination of clinical-looking sci-fi and feverish gothic fantasy-horror.  While the survival story is intermittently suspenseful, with plenty of shoot 'em up action and serial-style escapes, I found the group's constant clashes with the "demonsaurus" creatures and other fanciful beasts to be tiresome after awhile. 

Likewise with Kasumi's constant angst-ridden memories of twin sister Shizuku and all the teasing glimpses of how both girls secretly fit into the overall scheme by Venus Gate to do whatever it is they're scheming to do, which I found more unfathomable with each passing scene.  The plot becomes unnecessarily complicated to the point where I had no idea what was going on half the time, and thus found myself merely concentrating on the impressive but confusing visuals.

The Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Funimation is in 16x9 widescreen with English and Japanese 5.1 sound and English subtitles.  Extras include a Q & A with the director and producer, a director interview, and several trailers and TV spots. 

Based on a manga that is comprised of several volumes, KING OF THORN perhaps tries to squeeze too much story into its running time and ends up cluttered and uninvolving after a promising start.  I would recommend it to anime fans for the animation and artwork alone (although it relies a bit too much on CGI for my taste), because it really is nice to look at.  But what is obviously intended as a deeply emotional finale left me feeling pretty indifferent to it all.

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