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.