Since I started writing this blog I’ve found one thing more difficult than anything else. Half of the series I want to cover are LONG and require a lot of viewing or reading before I can finish my articles. Because of this I’m going to try and regularly cover shorter stuff like anime movies, OVAs and occasionally a short manga with only a few books. As you’ll know if you’ve followed my blog so far I want to bring attention to some lesser known titles wherever possible. I racked my brain all of last week trying to come up with something that was overdue a re-watch that would make a good article. There were quite a few candidates however one of them seemed to scream at me from my DVD shelf.
Madhouse’s 1985 theatrical anime movie The Dagger of Kamui (Kamui No Ken- Kamui Densetsu).
The film was directed by Rintaro who you may know for anime adaptations of some of Leji Matsumoto and Osamu Tezuka’s manga creations. The animation director was none other than Yoshiaki Kawajiri; interestingly he was the first anime creator whose work I ever recognised. This was because of the large amount of his films and OVAs that made it into the UK video market in the 90’s and his distinctive character designs.
The film follows the adventures of Jiro, an adopted half Japanese, half Ainu boy with a mysterious heritage. When he is still a child his adoptive parents are brutally murdered and due to a misunderstanding (he picks up the dagger used to slay his parents) he is thought to be responsible and is driven from his home. He then bumps into a revered and famous priest called Tenkai. Tenkai helps him escape safely and after learning what happened to him helps him track down the murderer of his adoptive parents. He tells Jiro his parents were killed by a one armed ninja and has the men under his employ track this man down. Tenkai’s men wound the man severely, giving Jiro the opportunity to take his revenge.
He offers the young Jiro the chance to study the art of Ninjitsu and become a Shinobi under the tutelage of his friend Shingo.
Some years pass and Jiro is now a fully fledged Shinobi. After finding a clue to the whereabouts of his real mother he finally manages to be reunited with her only to discover a shocking truth, Tenkai is not what he seems and he has been using Jiro all along for an incredibly sinister purpose…..
This film really does redefine the word “epic”. Jiro’s journey to stop Tenkai takes him from his native Japan all the way to America and back again!. It’s beautifully animated too, Madhouse did some great work in the 80’s and 90’s and much of it holds up to this day. Kawajiri’s stamp can be seen on the characters though not quite as much as some later productions in which he had more creative control.
Like many Japanese stories focusing on ninja in live action, anime and manga, the battles are fantastic and portrayed beautifully. As is often the case their powers are shown in a near supernatural light. They’re able to create illusions, move with superhuman speed and jump incredible heights. Of course they also use traditional Ninjitsu weapons such as swords and shurikens (throwing stars) and poison.
The violence in the film is portrayed with a kind of beauty and grace, lines of shimmering light illustrate the path of swords cutting through the darkness and the camera never lingers too long on the violence. The film is quite restrained on the gore front. Often if a spray of blood is shown it’s coloured in such a way that it’s almost like a torrent of red light is erupting from the enemy rather than a more realistic arterial spray. Though body parts are severed and heads split in two, the more bloody moments are shown in silhouette and every action scene is shot in a slow and deliberate way which makes every fight stunning to look at.
It’s not just the fights that look nice either. The film looks beautiful all the time which is a lot to do with the locations. Jiro’s journey is constantly taking him to new places, all of them interesting. It also has some unusual visual techniques as well. It uses split screen to show three perspectives at once, a moment where a scene is framed into a box and then sinks off into the distance of a new scene, psychedelic flashing (which later became a kawajiri trademark) and also the traditional “speed lines” background which was a staple of action anime at the time.
Jiro is a likeable character who endures a lot throughout the course of the movie including the deaths of many of his friends and allies. He’s shown to be caring, thoughtful and intolerant of injustice. Early on he helps a boy whose father is murdered and he also shows mercy to one of his deadliest enemies in a pivotal scene that’s an important part of the plot.
The soundtrack is extremely fitting and adds to the epic feel of the film. There are quite a few action scenes with no dialogue in which the music booms with thunderous drums as Jiro cuts through a number of opponents and voices chant in a mystical fashion.
If I had to criticise anything about the film it would be that its running time is a tiny bit too long. It never outstays its welcome but the pacing towards the end of the film does suffer a little.
The voice actors are really good too, Hiroyuki Sanada instills Jiro with a lot of humanity, particularly in his scenes with Oyuki, a rival female ninja. Taro Ishida is suitably gravel voiced and authoritarian as Tenkai, his voice often shifting to a more sinister tone when his darker side is revealed. Mami Koyama also gets a chance to shine as the conflicted Oyuki who has some truly memorable scenes.
All in all Dagger of Kamui is an excellent film. For me it ticks all the boxes of what you want from an action film, a revenge film and a ninja film and it does all of that with more humanity than is normally associated with the ninja genre. It also features excellent animation for a film that’s 35 years old. To sum it up, it’s an old fashioned adventure with heart and some cool visual flair.
Oh and it has a Ninja Versus Cowboy duel. How can you not love that?.
TRIVIA: Hiroyuki Sanada the voice of Jiro may be familiar to you if you’re an avid TV or movie fan. He has been in a large number of Japanese and American movies and TV productions. He played Ryuji in the first two Ring movies, had a part in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai and was even a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company once. Did I also mention he’s best buds with both Sonny Chiba and Jackie Chan? Sadly his role in Kamui is the only time he’s worked in animation.
An edited version of the film was released in 1988 in North America long before the uncut version was made available by Animeigo. The cut version was titled “Revenge Of The Ninja Warrior” which may have confused some fans of Japanese star Sho Kosugi’s American made ninja film “Revenge Of The Ninja“.
Many of the characters in the film are based on historical figures from the time period. One of the western ones will be obvious but some Japanese figures less so. Check out Animeigo’s liner notes on their website for a detailed history lesson.
The film is based on 5 novels by Tetsu Yano.
Availability: To my knowledge the film has never been released here in the UK on any format but Americans are in luck: as previously stated Animeigo have released the film on VHS, laserdisc and DVD. The DVD is still available from retailers like Amazon US and Rightstuf. I currently own this disc. It’s an old transfer and doesn’t appear to be digitally remastered but it’s not a hugely expensive release to pick up.
Animeigo have been releasing a couple of OVAs on Blu ray recently via Kickstarter and though they haven’t given any movies the HD treatment yet I’m hopeful that this will eventually see an HD re-release.