In Kazuyoshi Katayama's King of Thorn, adapting from a manga book series of the same name, the world endures a plague called the Medusa virus that carries an appropriate outcome given the name: it eventually turns those infected into stone. Ten million people have died from this potentially bioterrorist phenomenon, which carries a 100% mortality rate, and it's looking like the effects might persevere and spread without a cure. Luckily, a research group (with a religious undercurrent) called Venus Gate possess a potential solution for a group of around 160 hand-selected people infected with the virus, where they're suspended in cryo/"cold" sleep -- where their vitals are monitored and dreams controlled -- as they work to implement a treatment. That includes Kasumi, a teenage girl with an infected twin sister who wasn't selected. They're suspended as planned, expecting to be in that state for quite some time ... until a small group of subjects, including Kasumi, awake to discover the facility in a peculiar, overgrown state.
The barbed, overrun atmosphere becomes a crucial asset in King of Thorn, focusing on a grim and dangerous visual tone to create this other-worldly spirit right out of the starting gate. Intimidating chords of thorns dangle deep from the facility's ceiling, which provoke alarmed questions in those who've awoken to this sight: why has this happened, and does it have to do with the Medusa virus? Before they can get their bearings and even really contemplate these questions, they're met with another element of the wild overgrowth: massive dinosaur-like creatures with a ferocious streak. These don't seem like anything within the spectrum of natural evolution they've seen, however; they seem almost like villains from a video game, as the youngest member of the group points out, with the rest of the facility appearing almost like its levels. Everything within this surreal environment isn't adding up, especially when the group discovers a computer revealing the time that's really passed.
From there, King of Thorn transforms into a moderately routine supernatural survival horror film, more than a little reminiscent of The Thing and Deep Blue Sea in their focus on low-lying isolation and fear of what's around the corners of the Venus Gate facility. Their gun-toting sprints between locations are juxtaposed with exposition about what's been going on in the facility; stories about the creation of the artificial intelligence monitoring the place and the nature of the beasts' presence break up moments where they're fending off the monstrous tongue-lashing beasts. Yet there's very little tangible terror or horror to grasp onto here, outside of the occasional blood-splatter that plays into the storytelling, only factoring into the murky mythos and history surrounding what's potentially on the Earth's surface. That sense of anticipation behind learning about what's out in the thorn-engulfed world provokes more interest than the slowly-mounting body count and the fierce dinosaur-like beasts.
A personal story runs parallel to these events though, the emotional thrust to King of Thorn, focusing on Kasumi and her twin, Shizuku, and how their relationship grew tighter and hits rifts once they were diagnosed with the Medusa virus. Scenes flash backwards to these moments as a way of intentionally juxtaposing with the imagery we're shown; scenes of a bloody razorblade and a fraught conversation on a seaside cliff emphasize their closeness and desperation as the brutality escalates. I can't say that the emotional thrust achieves what it wants, though, because the link between them never ventures beyond a one-note expression of the closeness, aided little by the fact that they're copies of the same surface-level entity. There's not a lot to Kasumi outside of an unfortunate event that gives her a darker, introspective edge, and that emptiness carries over into the narrative's core purpose since, in truth, she slowly becomes more of a plot device than a character to invest deeper thought.
What kept me intrigued with King of Thorn was the mystery over whether everything's actually occurring or a part of an elaborate dream, playing into foreshadowing at the beginning of the film that hints at a construct similar to an infusion of Total Recall and Inception. Incoherent but stimulating metaphors about dreams and inner demons populate the manic progression towards the story's climax, yet the story loses its grasp on any coherent sole purpose the more it approaches a reveal, about whether we're seeing a frighteningly quick overgrowth of beasts and thorns or the gnarled, twisted fabric of a person's mental space. Like many other creative Japanese animations, it mushrooms out of control by hurling a swath of metaphysical elements at the audience in hopes that a percentage of those visually-gripping, figurative elements will stick. Some do, some don't, but the final expressions of King of Thorn's metaphorical chaos do leave one in a dizzy of speculation over the Medusa virus and the nature of dreams in this universe.
FUNimation have presented King of Thorn in a two-disc Blu-ray package, where Disc Two is a DVD version of the film that contains all the extra features of the high-definition disc. A cardboard slipcover arrives with this release, but it's not made to directly slip over the standard blue case: it's the size of a DVD package, only with wedged-in cardboard at the bottom to properly holster the inner Blu-ray case.
Video and Audio:
Normally I kick things off discussing the visual quality of the disc, but the pair of TrueHD tracks accompanying King of Thorn are a little too attention-worthy to ignore. The 5-channel original Japanese track is largely a terrific piece of work, keeping the edgy atmosphere well intact; outside of a few noticeably flat sound effects, like the sloshing of water and the blast of a gun, the range of dialogue and atmospheric elements are tight, clear, and aggressive. The English translation is what gave me a charge, where instead of sticking strictly to the Japanese subtitles, it deviates quite a bit in thematic context. One example: in the Japanese language track, a line of dialogue where a character states "Until the world ended, you mean!" has been modified in English to "Were, before the world went tits up!" That's an extreme case, but many other slight modifications give the characters more palpable, exaggerated personas -- and while amusing and graspable from a meta perspective, they often push the envelope.
No matter which language option you choose, you'll be pairing it with a largely exquisite 1.85:1-framed 1080p treatment of the artwork, which emphasizes solid lines, sturdy vibrant colors, and deep black levels that create a razor-sharp experience. A few issues will arise, such as some observable edge enhancement at times and the occasional jagged contour, but both the bold character models and the intricate backgrounds look exceptionally good. Often with deep, intricate thorns and foliage, the setting around these characters becomes the real draw to the Blu-ray experience; the slight gradation of deep and mid-greens and the slight fade of shadows on textured walls are retained with a respectful, keen eye for their ambience, largely familiar fare for those with experience in the medium but satisfying nonetheless.
FUNimation have provided a few supplements for King of Thorn, front and center being a Talk Event at Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (29:21, HD) where director Kazuyoshi Katayama and producer Yasumasa Tsuchiya discuss the film. The director prefaces the chat with a warning that he's low on motivation and wants to get on with drinking, but that doesn't stop him from aggressively and intelligently elaborating on decisions made about the film -- why he changed who lived and died in the ending, and why characters are different altogether from their personality in the books being the big ones. Those qualities pass over into the Director's Interview (11:32, HD), where he smartly chats with anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa about symbolism, unearthing subtle meanings in repeat viewings, and drawing in the audience for a condensed adaptation of the books. An original Pilot Film (1:54, HD) that encapsulates the production's tone and purpose has also been made available, along with a series of four Trailers.
King of Thorn sounds right up my alley: a slightly supernatural bioterrorist plague that turns its victims to stone; a rogue group of scientists who present a cure by putting people in cryo-stasis; and an overrun post-apocalyptic land overflowing with thorn-bushes and dinosaurs. Add the fact that all of it might potentially be the fabric of a collective dream among its subjects, and it sounds like an interesting hybrid of classic and contemporary science-fiction horror by way of Japanese animation. It's not as intriguing on-screen as it appears on paper, however, where perfunctory characters propel the story in a muddled, figurative direction that doesn't know what to do with the imagery and metaphysical context surrounding it all. The visuals are great on Blu-ray, but it all needed more coherent context to make it something to be relished beyond a one-off viewing. Rent It.