The Dagger of Kamui (Kamui no Ken)

The Dagger of Kamui (Kamui no Ken) 1985

Sometimes I feel like society’s tendency toward hyperbole in language dilutes words a little – and sure, language is always changing and that’s exciting… and maybe I have my own inclinations toward exaggeration at times but I reckon The Dagger of Kamui really is an ‘epic’ film.

Superficially, it is over two hours long but I was thinking about the other elements – geographically it features Japan, Russia and America and the storyline is essentially inter-generational; more, there’s training and trekking through the seasons, duels and battles, a treasure hunt, a promise of revenge and finally toward the end, the backdrop of war as Japan’s final Shogunate collapses.

Personally, the revenge story is focused around young ‘foundling’ Jiro who has been misled by a corrupt monk, the blocky, even stone-like and formidable Tenkai.

During Jiro’s search for not only the truth about his family (and who was responsible for their deaths) he goes through a lot of the classic coming-of-age aspects you’d expect to see but that doesn’t mean The Dagger of Kamui was predictable, precisely. There are plenty of twists (though one in particular seemed to push the bounds of coincidence or design) and our hero’s kinda mournful face makes up for his taciturn nature in some ways.

Part of what I really enjoyed was the way the film (and obviously the novels too no doubt) really think big – and I also wonder what sort of research both writers undertook? Because historical figures are littered throughout (even Mark Twain when Jiro reaches the USA!) and it seems like there were deliberate parallels drawn between the Ainu and the Native American tribe Jiro visits – I can’t figure out exactly which tribe they’re meant to represent but the French girl is an odd inclusion.

Related to this, I can’t decide whether the portrayal of Sam is a bit tone-deaf and/or whether it just takes the film a while to get around to calling out slavery for the bullshit that it is.

So who’s this one for?

Well, it’s pretty violent at times but more often than not it’s done in a heavily stylised way with coloured flashes and almost ‘floating’ fight-scenes that perhaps approximate slow-motion I think, along with some great bright colours. Having said that, the DVD I have is not remastered or restored etc so you won’t quite see that brightness in my screen caps.

But otherwise, if you like samurai or ninja* films and big epics, I think you’d enjoy The Dagger of Kamui, as Rintaro and Madhouse made something striking, I reckon – right down to the OST, which is almost a throwback to 1970s rock but it also features Balinese kecak vocals – which here are percussive chants that become quite menacing in the context of the film.

A classic for sure but maybe a classic to action-epic fans more so.

5 Stars

* I found it interesting that shinobi were shown as both villainous and heroic – in contrast to a lot of Western portrayals perhaps, but I also didn’t necessarily notice much disdain of shinobi that I would have thought samurai characters would show. Maybe I just missed it 🙂

Thanks to the Classic Anime Museum for reminding me of this film too – check out Josh’s review here.

Metropolis (Metoroporisu)

Metropolis (Metoroporisu) 2001

Metropolis was fascinating and I know I’ll watch it again – mostly for the visuals and direction rather than the story perhaps (which is kinda conventional but not boring by any stretch).

But setting that aside for a moment, another aspect that I found really interesting was the many links to one of my all-time favs: Astro Boy.

Now, obviously I’m writing about a 2001 adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga – so his style is all over the film and the ‘look and feel’ of these 1949 heroes and villains are one day developed further when he creates Astro Boy, and then of course, tweaked again in this 2001 film. It was nice to see a lot of those hallmarks really faithfully recreated by the Madhouse team actually, and maybe not unsurprisingly considering Tezuka’s successor/collaborator Rintaro was at the helm.

So what I got to see was something enjoyably out-of-step with the chronology; it was really fun to see a host of familiar faces – like Skunk, that seemingly immortal jerk! And of course he’s not the only one, you’ll notice Ban/Daddy Walrus, Kenichi/Astro, Duke Red/Temnu+Dr Elefun among others too (and for those like me who crave some comparison images, I’ve put a few shots below).

(I tried and failed to find a gif showing Kenichi’s bulky/Astro-like legs and even kinda Popeye arms, but you can see the development/reiteration of characters here.)

The other aspect that Astro/Tezuka fans who might not have watched Metropolis yet will notice is the way the heroes seem to be striving for robots to be treated fairly – and a common theme to sci-fi; that the villains are quick to blame robots for all the ills of society. I won’t go into the plot here, but that’s one of the key motivators for villain Rock, who is a pretty nasty fellow.

Another somewhat recurring theme I think most folks will have noticed across a certain amount of anime (and one which appears here too) is an attraction to Christian themes and symbols, and so in Metropolis there is a Tower of Babel/pride element to the film which is pretty effective and makes for a big finish too.

While I’ve been sorta rhapsodising a bit about some of the irregular things I liked, I want to say again that while the level of animation and setting detail is stunning, the story isn’t as strong. For example, I felt like the main characters (esp Kenichi and Tima) didn’t really get enough time to interact and build their relationships. Or maybe I just wanted more dialogue and a touch less CGI?

And maybe I was a bit disappointed in the story balance because Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) is credited with the screenplay – so on paper, it sounds pretty ace, huh? Rintaro directing an Otomo-penned adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga! With just those elements alone the film should be Out of This World Good – and in many ways it is… but I dunno, maybe if it had been a little longer? Had room for just a few more scenes between characters here and there?

Still, despite my gripes – it’s surely a modern classic, and one that brings together that Golden-Age* Science-Fiction feel, social issues and a Film Noir aesthetic (right down to its jazz OST) really well.

5 Stars

Quickly, I’m mentioning again how much I enjoyed the direction – I’m really curious as to how much storyboarding was inspired directly from the manga actually.

But in any event, here’s one aspect I loved: compositions like these really show the immense scale of the city and add to the kind of latent menace to the place too, and the idea that the characters are really facing something mammoth.   

* Maybe I’m a little off re: the exact era/influence here, but it doesn’t feel like New Age sci-fi of the 60s and 70s and it’s doesn’t feel like 20s/30s pulp either.