Stephen reviews: Kai Doh Maru (2001)

Kai Doh Maru [怪童丸, Kaidōmaru] (2001)

Starring Mitsuki Saiga, Shotaro Morikubo, Yurika Hino

Directed by Kanji Wakabayashi

I was drawn to this movie because of its visual style. And the promise of some samurai action. Samurai action is nothing new; making an anime inspired by ancient Japanese artwork, however, is something very unusual. Unfortunately, what I got was not as impressive as I wanted. The influence is limited to just the color schemes rather than the character designs or environments. Most of the scenery is muted and pale to give the impression of an old scroll, while vivid pastels color the characters and important objects. The contrast gives it a unique and interesting appearance, but that’s as far as it goes. In all other aspects, it looks like any other anime.

The opening scene tries to capture a scruffier look to the artwork, but it doesn’t help. I wanted it to look like a moving tapestry with all the characters looking like they had been painted centuries ago. I know that would be impossible to animate as well as I want, but they could have tried harder than they did. It doesn’t help any that most of the backgrounds are done in CG either. At least they took the time and effort to give the CG black lines so it doesn’t look totally out of place next to the standard animation, but it’s still disappointing.

So the visuals are a letdown, but how about that samurai action? Sadly, it’s a letdown as well. At only 45 minutes, at least 10 of which are credits, the film still manages to be somewhat slow paced, without a whole lot of action. What’s worse is that the biggest fight in the film is reduced to clumsy incoherence by the jittery camera. It’s bad enough Hollywood wants to ruin every action sequence it can with shaky camera work, but please leave that crap out of anime. The other action scenes aren’t as bad, but they’re also less impressive in scope and function.

It’s got weak visuals and weak action; now what else can it screw up? How about the story? There’s a ton of stuff going on, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it will suck you into a rich and complex plot full of subtlety and grace. It’s more just a convoluted mess. I’m going to try to keep this as simple as I can. It centers mostly on a love triangle of sorts. The main character is a girl named Kintoki, though for reasons never touched upon she is also called Kai Doh Maru, which they never call her again after the first 10 minutes. She is raised as a boy until her uncle decides to kill her father, at which point she is rescued by a guy named Raiko, whom she falls in love with. She then joins Raiko’s band of samurai. Her uncle’s daughter, Ohni Hime, never realized Kintoki was a girl, and fell in love with her when they were children. Now that everyone has grown up, Ohni is working with a lunatic young man to kidnap some young princesses and possess them with some weird, creepy magic.

Alright, let’s forget about the plot summary. I’ve gotten as sidetracked as the film trying to figure out what the story is actually about. It tosses in random subplot after subplot, none of which ever do anything. It wants to have all the elements of a great samurai epic: political betrayals, samurai rivalries, vengeance for murdered family members, romance, and creepy witchcraft. All that crap is there, but it never goes anywhere. It introduces a concept then prances off to the next one without thought or purpose.

There’s supposed to be some kind of political maneuvering with the princesses who were kidnapped, but it never really mentions who they are, or what the kidnappers hope to gain from them. The crazy guy is out to rule something, presumably the country, but that whole plot line is soon abandoned too. And then there’s Kintoki’s uncle, who never appears again after the opening. Shouldn’t there be some kind of quest for vengeance? Even the climax of the film is left unresolved. Kintoki has a final confrontation with Ohni Hime, but then the scene cuts to Kintoki leaving the room, and we don’t know what happened. I can’t spoil the ending, because nothing happens at the end to spoil.

At some point I realized that the story didn’t fall apart so much as it had never been assembled in the first place. I had hoped for a samurai epic with alluring visuals and kick-ass sword fights, which is apparently what the creators wanted as well, but all I got was a tangled mess. Avoid this one. It’s just not worth your time.

4 comments to Stephen reviews: Kai Doh Maru (2001)

  • Hahahahaha, wow. And I thought Hermes was bad and hard to get through! This was just awful. I couldn’t really make sense of it at all. I was intrigued to see the art style, but like you say it doesn’t capture anything of the look of classic art. My main issue is that it looks like someone turned the brightness way up, so all the blacks are gray. It makes it so hard to look at, and it doesn’t make any sense (unless there was some widespread, famous shortage of black ink during the period of art they’re attempting to replicate). At least it was short, but man it didn’t feel that way.

    • Oh, I did also want to say that I LOVED the idea of the opening scene, with its rough, sketchbook-like lines. Their execution of it wasn’t that hot, but it made it clear to me that it would’ve been possible to make a Blade of the Immortal anime that retained the art style of the manga.

  • Stephen

    Oh, man. I didn’t expect you to dredge up this piece of crap. Yeah, the plot for this one is even more of a clusterfuck than Hermes. It’s sad because so much of what they were trying to do was cool, but they just didn’t do any of it right. I agree with you about that opening. If it had been done better, it would have looked fantastic, but it just didn’t work out here.

    The fact that I was so disappointed by this one is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to seeing Princess Kagura. That one looks like a great animated version of classical Japanese artwork, and I think I can trust Ghibli to make a good film out of it.

    A good one to look into if you want something like Kai Doh Maru done well is Hakkenden: Legend of the Dog Warriors. Netflix still has the DVDs available, and it’s really weird and awesome at times, though it’s story is kinda incomprehensible and feels rushed. Still, it has some really good action scenes and really creepy demon fights. I have a feeling Kai Doh Maru wanted to be Hakkenden, but came up far short. Just watch out as there has apparently been at least one more later anime called Hakkenden, which looks pretty lame. The (mostly) good one that’s on Netflix was from the ’90s. I can’t guarantee that you’ll love it, but it’s a damn sight better than Kai Doh Maru for sure.

    • Hahahaha, I’ll probably be dredging up whatever you’ve reviewed that I can get my hands on. It’s fun. I used to do it for Jasper’s movies, too, when I had time.

      I’ve only seen a single still from Princess Kagura. I’m avoiding anything else if I can. It looks great, and if it can deliver on the general promise of what they went after in this one, it should be stunning. And it’s Ghibli, so stunning is kinda their thing.

      I’ll look into Hakkenden. With a subtitle like Legend of the Dog Warriors, I kinda have to!

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