The Dagger of Kamui [カムイの剣, Kamui no Ken] (198)

Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Mami Koyama, Tarô Ishida, Yuriko Yamamoto, Ichirô Nagai, Kaneto Shiozawa, Takeshi Aono, Kazuyuki Sogabe, Takashi Ebata

Directed by Rintaro

Expectations: Moderately high. The trailer was awesome.

Before I get into anything concrete, I should preface this review with a quick bit on my knowledge (or lack thereof) of anime. In the 90s I saw a few, but nothing truly captured my imagination. Then I saw Spirited Away and I realized just how good the genre could be. From that point forward I sought out more Miyazaki films and was equally impressed with each of them. Despite working solely within animated films, Miyazaki had all the trappings of a traditional director, and being a firm believer in the auteur theory, I naturally latched onto him. I made a deal with myself to pretty much only watch his films when it came to anime; he was a name I could trust. Then I watched Whisper of the Heart a few months back, and I realized the fallacy of my personal pact. Clearly there were other films out there in which Miyazaki was not the director that were done just as well. I silently decided to one day re-visit anime in its many forms and truly give it a good ole college try. Enter one of my co-workers, who’s much more of an anime dude than I am. He suggested me this film, and after an initial internal struggle with myself, I decided to watch it. And I’m glad I did.

The Dagger of Kamui tells a somewhat complex story of betrayal and death, but it’s all told from the point of view of our hero, Jiro. The film opens with an unseen assassin murdering his mother and his sister, and when Jiro walks in and finds them, the townspeople immediately accuse him of doing the deed. They always knew he’d do it too; he was found in the river as a baby and was not actually one of them. This event sets into motion the entire film, as Jiro gets taken in by the kind and mysterious Tenkai and taught the ways of the Shinobi via a kick-ass montage of Jiro running along ocean waves and jumping between tree branches.

Don’t get all excited for loads of ninja action though. While the film does feature a lot of action, it’s more of a character piece than an action film. All the fights are handled quickly and many feature hyper slo-mo imagery and bright lights that obscure a lot of what is going on. While you might have a few questions about the action, it’s never in doubt what is happening; the images tell the story of the battle expertly, just not in as direct a way as you might expect. Even when it’s a little unclear, the action is exciting and incredibly entertaining to watch, not to mention skillfully animated and super cool. The fight with Oyuki, the female ninja, was especially good, as she dodges Jiro’s blows by turning herself into a flock of bugs/butterflies/winged creatures/something. Then she multiplies her body into four distinct images of herself, and just like a determined child of the 80s playing his NES with religious zeal, Jiro must summon his inner strength and determine which is real and will accept his strikes. Of course, all this plays out while a killer 80s guitar riffs the shit out of the soundtrack. The action in the first half is counterpointed with small, tender moments as well, such as when Jiro is injured during a fight and runs off to hide. He stashes himself under a fallen log, and longingly stares at a mother bear and her cub as they forage through the field.

Original, heavily edited US release from 1987.

There is great acting contained with the voice work, a fact that becomes readily apparent once a few of the revelations have come out about Jiro and he confronts a flamboyant secondary character who earlier drugged him and killed another of Jiro’s loved ones. Their exchange seems to carry the same weight as any equivalent scene would have in a live action film, and is a real reminder to me just how impacting anime can be. Where American animation is almost always reserved strictly for kids, anime can transcend any age range you try to shackle onto it (depending on the work, of course). Deep, character-driven, resonant scenes such as this remind me of traditional, live action Japanese films, and it is in these moments when I am most impressed with anime.

The film is an adaptation of a series of novels and it shows. This is one of the film’s real faults, as after the first hour, it becomes slower, somewhat disjointed and more episodic than the opening half. Jiro takes a trip to America, resulting a few Wild West scenes (and even a showdown), but it’s over and done with quicker than you can become accustomed to the new setting. It feels like there was enough story to spread out over a couple movies (or conversely, edit into a more cohesive single film), but instead we get The Dagger of Kamui as is: entertaining, if a bit long and muddled in sections. For instance, one part late in the film contains a huge moment that’s been built up the entire film. Instead of playing up the suspense within the actual moment, it happens rather quickly and nonchalantly, with the characters moving on to the next objective without even a break. Some of the moments like this work, but this specific one (and I’m being vague on purpose so as not to spoil) could have been much, much better if allowed some room to breathe.

The Dagger of Kamui deserves a better DVD presentation than it currently has in the US. The video quality is noticeably old (but still totally watchable), probably coming from a dated VHS master instead of something struck just for the DVD release. The imaginative color and image design break through this imposed haze, but I imagine what it could look like, fully unhinged, in a release worthy of the film’s quality. Anime is still very much a fringe culture in America, but I think films like this would resonate with anyone who enjoys Asian cinema and I’d love to see this get a stellar release.

The Dagger of Kamui was thoroughly enjoyable, even if I did have some issues with the way the second half plays out. The story and characters built up in the first half were more than enough to override this though. It’s a grand, far-reaching adventure that packs in a bit of everything into its narrative: from samurai tales to wild west saloons to Japanese history. Even if you aren’t an anime fan, I think this one would be enjoyable to someone who likes Japanese films, and especially if you have a soft spot for ninjas and trippy visuals. It gets far out, man, and it’s so good when it does.