IT CAME FROM HULU: King of Thorn

There are occasionally strange differences in what are monetary successes in anime and live action as far as what is popular and what gets ignored. There are plenty of titles that make bank in anime that flounder when they transfer to the real world for various reasons. On the flip side, there are titles I could see being at the very least moderately popular if they were originally made for the theaters or primetime television that don't catch on at all when animated. While Monster enjoyed its fair amount of popularity in Japan, the anime adaptation's release in America tanked to the point where most of the people involved with releasing and marketing it talk about it in almost the same tone as a neighbor trying to explain how your dog just jumped out in front of their car. Keep in mind most other anime that have been on American television have had proper DVD releases, but the numbers were so bad on the first season DVDs of Monster they had no hope of recouping even with the gained television audience. However, if this same series was created by HBO or AMC, the same audience that ignored it would be helplessly addicted even as it would likely be equally as good no matter the format. This brings us to the subject of this column's streaming movie available for the budget-conscious anime fan: King of Thorn.

By all reports, the movie didn't really find a large following even if it was shipped off to some film festivals before its release in Japan. It received a decent treatment in the US with a proper Blu-ray/DVD release, but it didn't really have much traction beyond a few reviews here and there. I imagine if this was a live-action movie and they cut the right trailer, it would be at the very least a modest hit. With solid mystery and conspiracy draws, accessible symbolism and framing devices, and enough action and excitement to keep general audiences enticed, it could work. The same elements would also make a very forgettable Sci-Fi Channel (I refuse to use its kitschy marketing name) original movie if put in the wrong hands. So does the actual product that made it to release deserve to be box office gold regardless of if its actual success, or is it more Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus? It's a little bit of both, actually.

King of Thorn is a Sunrise production based on a manga by Yuki Iwahara. It's December 12th, 2012 (Or 12/12/12), and the end of humanity has begun. ACIS, or the Medusa Virus, has struck in New York City and is quickly spreading throughout the world. As its name would suggest, the disease literally turns people to stone (Physiologically impossible, but just roll with it). With no apparent cause and a 100% fatality rate, the world is in a state of panic. The march of the virus is covered in news briefs discussing the political and social fallout of the epidemic rather than showing the death tolls. It's a nice turn on an otherwise very pedestrian opening that's not helped by an opening montage in New York that cannot its contain its need for symbolism and visual motif. The opening shot on the Statue of Liberty (That has a crown of thorns. GET IT?!), the date being all the same number on the year the world was supposed to end in the Mayan calendar, a quick flash of a religious billboard, and someone dropping roses (Which have THORNS). I think the only thing not trying for meaning is the Chihuahua with the, "I Heart Maria" sweater. It reminds me of The Mothman Prophecies, an otherwise decent horror movie that had to irritatingly force moth imagery into everything. The first scenes are a little more clever than it seems at first glance, but it comes off like the work of someone out of film school who wants to show how much knowledge his crushing student debt gave him.

One thing of note before continue: The official translation calls it the Medousa Virus based on a graphic put up at the beginning of the film. It should also be noted the same graphic has "until"spelled with two ls, and later on, a month on a computer readout is listed as "Octorbor." The Japanese crew didn't properly vet the English spelling of everything. It's the Medusa Virus. Everybody knows it's the Medusa Virus. Let's move on.

A solution is brought to light by a chemical company Venus Gate. Its spokesman Mr. Vega promises to put 160 people infected with the virus chosen by lottery into cold sleep until a cure is found, so mankind can still survive no matter the toll the disease takes. The announcement is cross-cut with a meeting of the United States' National Security Agency, where it's revealed Venus Gate hasn't actually manufactured chemicals in years and is funded primarily by a doomsday cult and Mr. Vega used to be high up in the Russian military before he supposably went mad. Their theory is Venus Gate intentionally leaked the Medusa Virus and is using its cold sleep facility in Scotland as a Noah's Ark before releasing something else to completely eradicate the rest of humanity. They plan to take down the facility in an operation knowns as "Sleeping Beauty," which just happens to be the fairy tale the movie uses as a framing device. How about that?

After that, we meet the people who will be living for at least a decent amount of the movie. A motherly blonde, a child who constantly has his head tilted down at a video game, a grumpy cop and a mouthy convict, an employee of the facility who holds a cross necklace a bit too meaningfully, and the main character, Kasumi. Kasumi was selected while her twin sister Shizuku will likely be left to die. After an explanation of their cold sleep and the A.L.I.C.E. computer system that will manage their health (Have these people learned nothing from the Resident Evil movie about using Alice in Wonderland references for your compound management system?!), they're put into their sleep tubes whereafter an unknown amount of time, they wake up to find something has gone wrong. Very wrong.

The facility has been overrun by massive growths of thorny vegetation and an array of deadly, seemingly impossible creatures. About 150 of the 160 residences in the chamber are killed almost immediately by mutant bats that literally eat people's faces off, a man-eating plant placed where the elevator should be, and general panic. Both of these creatures disappear almost immediately after they're introduced, by the way. They're replaced by lanky, nearly blind monsters called "Demonsaurs" that seem to prefer entire human heads as their delicacy of choice. The child of the group (Names are given far later in the movie than one would expect, likely playing off the feeling that nobody in the group truly knows anybody else or their motivations) suggests that the creatures are enemies from his favorite video game, but that couldn't possibly be true... could it? And some of the monsters seem to suffer from the Medusa virus even though it's never affected anything but humans before. Also, one survivor seems illogically frightened of Kasumi. What does this all mean? Mostly not what you'd expect.

If I seem to be making fun of this movie a bit much, it's because it occasionally comes off like a schlocky, cheap OVA from the nineties. In fact, director Kazuyoshi Katayama made one of the schlockiest titles from that time period, Doomed Megalopolis. The awakening sequence in King of Thorn has a particular mix of cruel and playful ultra violence that's reminiscent of all those over-the-top, out-of-print Manga Entertainment anime you stumble upon occasionally. However, this one has a lot more confidence in it direction, and even with a seemingly lower budget than many movies, manages to create the desired emotional effects. The massive deaths are properly brutal while the rest of the movie consistently has ominous angles, ever-so-slight movements in the background, and shots that create the right atmosphere in an uneasy and uncomfortable facility that mixes the familiar with the seemingly alien.

What isn't so skillfully done is the occasionally terrible monster CG, coming off as jerky, goofy, and outdated. The character animation and designs manage to find plenty of personality in an economy of motion, but there are some backgrounds and places, particularly scenes with many similar vehicles and objects, where it feels like there's too much copy-and-paste going on and glass surfaces are made dull, flat, and tinted to save on things to animate. A few shots in New York City seem to suggest traffic is nothing but taxi cabs. While they are certainly prominent in the big city, they are hardly dominant.

Unlike Doomed Megalopolis, we aren't focused on either hateful or boring characters, and the story is a gigantic onion of intrigue. There are layers upon layers of revelations, flashbacks, and twists, each slightly changing the way to look at the situation. Watching the movie three times, I've found most of the slight clues, hints, and misdirections to be handled quite well, and while the symbolism is laid on a little too thick, it's very accessible and easy to pick up so the movie's pacing never feels dragged down by the need to push the obscure. There is a character who shows up in the middle to be a gigantic info dump, but what he has to say is interesting enough to give it a pass. If you're one of those people who scour cinematic creations for plot holes in order to shout to the world, "AH HA!!!!! My genius has revealed the moment that immediately makes this movie CRAP!," you'll find a couple doozies in here, but if you're willing to go with the spirit of the venture (Note I didn't say turn your brain off. I'm ADHD and it's impossible to turn mine off, so I would never suggest such a thing), you'll find the structure is clever and fairly rewarding to someone who sees it multiple times.

Nothing's worth watching over again if the characters can't keep the movie engaging, though. The main focus Kasumi is an emphatic soul as she constantly grapples with survivor's guilt, being chosen to live when her sister who she sees as more athletic, popular, nicer, and smarter than her is left to die. The rest of the cast are people of varying shades of gray, but generally fall on the sympathetic side, and they each make genuine efforts to save each other even if they bear more responsibility for what's happened than they let on. When the prisoner asks for a gun from the former cop after the demonsaurs have them pinned down, there isn't a forced conflict of trust to create any false suspense. They're people who realize they need each other to survive and it doesn't make a lot of sense to do anything toeless those chances. They don't have particularly deep characterizations since they're constantly on the run, but enough is there for the voice actors to be able to mold a proper performance and for the audience to know and understand them by the movie's end. It's nice to have a movie with a horror bend that doesn't have me rooting for people to be killed. Except for the politician, but it's clear he's monster meat early on and he's out of the picture before he can even be a factor.

Like many adaptations of longer works (In this case, a 6-volume manga), there's obvious compression of the story. The film chooses to focus on primarily Kasumi and only flesh out the other details when necessary. A plot point involving a thumb drive with swaths of incriminating data is brought up and then literally dropped. A ticking clock element involving wristbands showing how far the Medusa Virus has developed in the cast is rarely utilized. On one hand, the movie never feels like it's dragging its feet to make sure all is explained when it's not particularly necessary (What the cult behind Venus Gate believes is never made clear, for example). On the other, there is a curious dichotomy between the scope of the movie's ideas and the heart that ultimately drives it. On paper, this movie is about a cornucopia of conspiracy fodder: Worldwide pandemics, cults, the end of the world, evolution, international espionage, and yet, what the movie REALLY is about is a simple wish between two sisters, and the journey of one to accept her survival, especially in the face of so much death around her. It does manage to mostly support the film, but there may be some whose reaction to what it amounts to is, "Wait, that's it?" especially given the lack of certain details that were likely
covered in the manga.

If this movie were made by Hollywood with the same general quality in adaptation (Yes, I know people who've had to deal with the nightmare of the industry. That's a big "if"), I could see it being moderately popular. Maybe not a blockbuster, but something along the lines of John Cusack's ventures into horror, Identity and 1408. Created with a reasonable budget, making a decent amount of cash, and getting a few acclaims in the process. As it stands, I don't find the adjectives "brilliant" or "excellent" near the tip of my tongue when it comes time to describe King of Thorn, but it certainly deserves a better look than the one it initially got. If it becomes some kind of cult classic, I wouldn't mind one bit. It smartly keeps its story elements close enough to the vest, the cast is a likable batch of people I care about, and I can hardly find a boring spot in its running time. Check it out if you have an open evening.


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