CAPSULE: KING OF THORN (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Kazuyoshi Katayama

FEATURING: Brina Palencia, Patrick Seitz (English dub)

PLOT:  A group of randomly chosen global volunteers are cryogenically frozen to escape a petrification virus, but wake up to a world overrun by monsters.

Still from King of Thorn (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Thorn falls afoul of the anime conundrum: because we expect every Japanese sci-fi cartoon to look like a nightmare we had after eating expired sushi and make as much sense as a script where William Gibson and David Cronenberg alternate lines of dialogue, “weird” is actually “normal” for this subgenre. We could technically fill up all of our 366 slots with these efforts, but we reserve spots on the List for animes that are either highly influential, are that go above and beyond in the craft of WTF-ery. King of Thorn is a weird movie by anyone’s standards, but it lacks that extra level of brilliant insanity necessary to stand out from the pack in its crazy genre.

COMMENTS: “What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense!” one character tells another near the climax of King of Thorn. “I don’t want you to understand,” responds the accused. “It’s better that way.”  By this point in the story, the first time viewer might assume that response is the screenwriter’s personal confession. For nearly two hours the script has been juggling multiple plot hot potatoes like a worldwide virus, an apocalyptic doomsday cult, an advanced bioweaponry corporation, intrusive dreams and flashbacks, super-powerful artificial intelligences, correspondences to the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” and complex, psychologically rich backstories for the main characters, but as we reach the dramatic showdown it appears that all of these balls have been dropped in favor of a psychedelic explosion of mumbo-jumbo mysticism. Anyone who saw the movie in theaters without the benefit of the rewind button would be totally flummoxed by the plot; rest assured, however, that this complicated story does ultimately make sense, although it may take you two passes through the story to parse it all out. Things start out simply enough: the world is threatened by a fatal virus, christened “Medusa” because its victims turn to stone. One hundred sixty infectees from around the world are randomly chosen to be frozen in a cryogenic chamber housed in a Scottish castle, to be awakened only once there is a medical cure for Medusa. The first big twist comes when the one hundred sixty awake; the cryonic chamber is overgrown with huge, thorny vines, the facility is abandoned, and the skies are full of mutant bats that make quick work of most of the crew. Seven manage to escape down a side tunnel, only to encounter larger and more bloodthirsty beasties prowling the interiors of the castle. The survivors are a heavily tattooed convict, a black American cop, an architect, an Italian senator, a Japanese teenager who left her identical twin behind, an orphan boy who’s convinced that the castle’s monsters come from his video game, and a nurse who quickly assumes a role as the boy’s surrogate mother. As the plot thickens, it turns out that almost everyone has a secret identity or a deep dark secret; whenever one of the characters turns out to be exactly who they seem to be, it’s a huge shock. One by one, the survivors die off during a midsection of the film that plays  as an almost nonstop chase/battle scene, interrupted by clues that only deepen the mystery. Where did the monsters come from? Why does the little boy instinctively know where to go? How long have they been asleep, and why did they wake up? What happened to A.L.I.C.E., the supercomputer that was supposed to be taking care of them as they slumbered? Rather than answering these questions, King of Thorn keeps piling on more and more as its body count mounts. Reality melts away as the survivors penetrate the castle’s inner sanctum and the director breaks out the lysregic eye candy with fantastic vistas of floating castles, thorny vines entwining like Jack and the Beanstalk with a bondage fetish, and hallucinatory sequences with characters doubled and tripled and giant faces peering down from the ceiling. The visuals are impressive throughout, from the opening scene of a doll-like petrified woman plummeting from a skyscraper and shattering on the streets of New York to picture postcard shots of the Scottish countryside, but the finale pulls out all the stops. No matter how confused you get, King of Thorn satisfies the eye; after a second viewing, or at least a review of some key scenes, you should find it satisfies the mind as well.

King of Thorn has everything a sci-fi anime fan could want: psychedelic visuals, non-stop action, a convoluted, mindbending sci-fi plot, and Japanese schoolgirls in ridiculously short skirts. And yet, the movie has so far failed to gain a huge cult following among the otaku. Unimpressed anime fans raise two objections to Thorn. The first—“the manga was better”—is predictable and inevitable. The second complaint is unexpected, coming from a class that generally worships at the altar of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: Thorn is just too confusing. Of course, that criticism has no effect on us at 366 Weird Movies; to us, “confusing” isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “With a little tighter writing and a clearer exposition of the film’s central conceit, not to mention its somewhat bizarre climax, this piece could easily be ported over into a live action feature with someone like Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron or even Gore Verbinski at the helm… As it stands, you may be occasionally (or even more than occasionally) a little confused by King of Thorn, but it’s virtually guaranteed you won’t be bored.”–Jefferey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

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