The Dagger of Kamui
Jiro is a half-Ainu, half-Japanese foundling, who lives with his adopted mother and sister in a village that's suspicious of any outsiders, especially the Ainu. When his adopted family is murdered, the blame is pinned on Jiro, so he flees, still carrying the mysterious dagger that was used to murder his loved ones. A monk named Tenkai with powerful connections to the Tokugawa Shogunate takes him under his wing, and promises to research Jiro's mysterious heritage and who murdered his family while training him in the mystical ways of the shinobi. Once Jiro masters the ways of the ninja, Tenkai sends him out to track down his family's killer. Little does Jiro know that he is a crucial player in the Shogun's plot that spans two generations in the search for an astounding treasure. This hunt will make Jiro an outcast who must travel across the globe, find the treasure, and overthrow the Shogunate to exact revenge on his family's killers.
The Dagger of Kamui is an epic in the truest sense of the word: a massive film that covers decades of events through the eyes of a boy who ends up inadvertently helping some radical changes in Japanese history. It's based on series of five novels from one of Japanese sci-fi's most important figures, and seems to highlight every important event in those novels. This makes it feel a bit like a recap movie trying to contain 26 episodes worth of content in two hours, which makes for some clumsy and forced pacing, but with the help of director Rintaro's beautiful style and a compelling story, this becomes a movie that doesn't deserve its current status as a neglected and maligned artifact of the eighties.
Even though it's based on a series of novels, the movie has a very similar aesthetic to ye old-fashioned shounen comics pulp action. Its sense of action and story is more like the comics of Kazuo Koike or Tetsuo Hara than Ninja Scroll, a movie it's often unfavorably, and unwisely, compared to. It's a very shallow comparison- Ninja Scroll doesn't have much in the way of ninjas or scrolls, and was made nearly a decade later by a different director on a much larger budget. The only reason the two seem to be compared is because Ninja Scroll was such a giant in American fandom, so any other historical action anime was forced to measure up simply because the pool of anime knowledge in America was still pretty shallow in the nineties. The Dagger of Kamui could only be more different if it was actually a romantic comedy. Its action is stylized and less kinetic than Ninja Scroll, and has relatively realistic ninjas, at least for anime, since they have no real superpowers but plenty of mystique. It also channels a lot of Eighties movies kitsch, from its rocking soundtrack to its training montage. You might think that makes it a lot more like the silly Global ninja films that were very popular around this time, but no, that isn't a good comparison either. The Dagger of Kamui is a very serious anime, and worth taking seriously despite its obvious flaws. And it's a unique movie- I had to struggle for a long time to come up with a similar anime to recommend, but even Sword of the Stranger works about as well as Ninja Scroll. There's nothing else out there that compares to its style, massive story and crazed violence.
Uniqueness itself isn't a virtue, though for The Dagger of Kamui, what makes it unique is virtuous. Rintaro gives the animation a psychedelic feel, even when Jiro isn't tripping on a hallucinogen. The animation is very limited for a movie, at level that's comparable to TV series that were airing at the time, so characters don't move smoothly but seem to gracefully float from frame to frame, especially in its action sequences. I love the look and feel of this movie's style, which is part Fist of the North Star; part trippy, self-indulgent 70's French arthouse; and a vast array of other influences from the last sixty years of pulpy filmmaking.
This is appropriate for a story of such a vast scope. The secret world of ninjas, the culture of the Ainu, late-Edo period Japan, Shogun-era politics, American western expansionism, Native Americans, French princesses, pirates, and treasure hunting are all part of this epic movie. Is it ridiculous? It's beyond ridiculous- it's endearingly absurd, an appealing mish-mash of everything cool from the 1800's. Even its core revenge story is extremely roundabout, and that revenge is inspired by an equally extreme plot. This is an Internet culture movie before most people knew what the Internet was.
But I don't think that being absurd forgives every anachronism and meandering plot branch. The most notorious example of this 1800's potpourri approach is a cameo from Samuel Clemens. Mr. Mark Twain, one of the most fascinating and colorful characters of his age, ends up being little more than a sign post to direct Jiro toward the treasure. His portrayal is worse than some minor sin than being historically inaccurate, since that's the natural territory of historical fiction. He's just a milquetoast dues ex machina, and while I'm sure author Tetsu Yano simply wanted to pay tribute to an American legend in his original story, Americans would probably appreciate either a more colorful cameo or simply doing without that distraction. There are worse anachronisms- a legendary Japanese figure is suddenly killed by a ninja and there's a Native American woman who is secretly a French princess- but that's the most jarring instance for its bluntness.
But perhaps that's just a consequence of how quickly the story moves. It covers five novels worth of material, after all. In fact, for a two-hour movie that many people complain is too long, the large story and fast pace makes it clear that it's actually too short. While I find all the characters likeable and the villain perfectly hateable, the movie could really use some room to breathe and flesh out these characters some more. The story has plenty of weird plot twists, but most of them don't have any affect since there simply isn't enough time to give them impact. It's like trying to compact everything from Lord of the Rings into a two hour movie.
But that can't take away its best virtue- it is never, ever boring. It's endearingly kitchy, with lots of great action propelled by a memorable soundtrack that's part eighties rock, part Akira-esque sound collage with chanting and weird acoustics. You know, the WHOTTAWHOTTAWHOTTAWHOTTAWHOTTAWHOTTAWHOTTA Raphael wrote about in his review in the nineties. It's by no means an easy film to love, but it's worth loving for many of the reasons people will find it isolating.
An action epic that requires some patience from its audience, but is wholly worth the effort it takes to enjoy it. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: (Raph) Some minor profanity here and there, and lots of somewhat graphic scenes of ninjas getting killed. Kids would be bored out of their skulls by this one (for that matter, so would most adults). There is one casual nude scene that must have been incredibly brief because I missed it in the two minutes I went to go say "Hi" to my friends.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD from AnimEigo
Review Status: Full (1/1)
The Dagger of Kamui © 1985 Kadokawa Films
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