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.