A viral contagion known as the ‘medusa virus’ sweeps across the globe, causing its victims bodies to spontaneously fossilise and shatter. A select number of the infected are cryogenically frozen inside a special facility on the Scottish coast, to be revived when a cure has been found for the disease. When the infected wake, they find the facility in ruins and overrun with massive alien vines. Monsters roam the corridors, and the human race appears to have disappeared entirely.
King of Thorn is a 2009 animated feature directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama and based on the multi-volume manga by Yuji Iwahara. It is a strange film – part science fiction, part horror, part fairy tale fantasy – but to be honest the earlier work it most resembles is Katsuhiro Otomo’s iconic anime feature Akira. The two share a cataclysmic sort of end-of-the-world tone, as well as a near-impenetrable explanation for what the hell is actually going on. The explanation does make a mad kind of sense, but it is questionable whether the satisfaction of knowing the back story compensates for the relatively tortured manner in which the film finally gets there.
The film focuses on a small group of surviving humans – although surviving is perhaps not the best word since each of them are dying of the medusa virus even if they avoid the carnivorous monsters. None of them are particularly compelling or sympathetic, with the possible exception of a young boy named Timothy – but he seems more amiable than compelling. The film’s protagonist is Kasumi, a suicidal teenager forced to leave her twin sister behind when cryogenically frozen. She is a traumatised and fragile young woman, and the film’s screenplay gives her comparatively little agency. Things happen to her much more often than she seems to make them happen herself. The remainder of the cast is filled out with a number of fairly ordinary stereotypes. The foul-mouthed muscular criminal, the cool-headed African-American police officer, the greedy middle-aged millionaire, and so on.
The character designs seem about as generic as the characters, particularly in the way the female characters are developed in a highly feminized, slender way, and the male characters are muscle-bound like a bunch of Masters of the Universe action figures. The various creature designs do not fare any better, and really the only visual highlights in the film come during its over-the-top, gleefully destructive finale.
Clearly in adapting a lengthy serialised manga to the screen, many liberties must have been taken with the story. I have not read the original work to compare it to the film, but there does seem to be quite a lot of truncating going on. The climax feels very rushed, and scrambles through too much material too hastily for it to make much sense the first time around. After 90 minutes of waiting patiently for some answers to the film’s various mysteries, it winds up more frustrating than thrilling.
Anime enthusiasts may find some solid entertainment out of King of Thorn, but in all honesty it feels like a rather minor work. There are simply far too many genuinely decent and exceptional anime features to be seen for most viewers to waste their time on a substandard one.