The Dagger of Kamui
Back when I was first really getting into collecting anime in 1988, sources were so limited for anime information that word of mouth about a title was gold and synopsis pages were gospel, since legitimately translated anime was almost impossible to find. I first heard about The Dagger of Kamui by reading a synopsis booklet called "A Viewer's Guide To Japanese Animation," which was distributed for Baycon back in 1986 and printed for mass distribution in 1987. Although the film was never shown at any conventions I ever attended, the editor's note (which I believe was by Toren Smith) always stuck with me. That note stated simply, "Let there be no doubt--this is one of the most incredible animated films I've ever seen--it easily ranks with Nausicaa and Crusher Joe." For years, even though I was never a big fan of samurai films per se, I remembered that this was supposed to be a perfect example of anime.
Well, it is and it isn't. Perhaps the hardest thing to do when reviewing anime, especially anime that's over 15 years old now, is seeing it through the lenses that viewers at the time of a film's release must have had. In the American film medium, it's rather like setting the original Star Wars and The Matrix side by side. Regardless of the reader's opinion of the actual stories involved in each, each is seen as being its era's showcase for special effects and science fiction. But when one sees Star Wars now, the pacing seems awfully slow at times, the dialogue seems hammier than ever, and the graphics certainly can't compete. It still a good movie, but time is not always kind. Perhaps the same thing has happened for The Dagger of Kamui in comparison to more recent efforts like Ninja Scroll--our expectations are just very different.
To tell you the whole plot of the movie would be impossible, simply because The Dagger of Kamui is simply one of the most convoluted stories I've ever seen wrapped around an essentially simple tale of revenge. The basic story is this: young Jiro is wrongfully accused of murdering his mother and sister, who found him years ago floating down the river, and he must escape the lynch mob. He is taken in by Tenkai, a priest who leads Jiro to kill the man he is told is responsible for his father's death. Before long, however, it becomes clear that Jiro's father was a renegade shinobi who attempted to leave Tenkai's twisted unit of ninjas, and that Tenkai is actually the evil behind all the deaths surrounding his family. Over the course of two and a quarter hours, Jiro flees from Tenkai's henchmen (and henchwomen) while searching for a way to take the priest down.
Now if it were only that easy. The action takes place during the final days of the shogunate, and lots of the action takes place in and around famous battles in Japan during the mid to late 1800s. These actions are part of the plot, as Tenkai has his hands in politics. Jiro's journeys also take him to America in search of the treasure of Captain Kidd, which was originally his father's mission for Tenkai's ninja clan. He meets one girl who wants to kill him but can't. He meets another girl who's a native American...well, not really...she's American but she's lived in Japan...oh, never mind. Just take it from me...you can watch this film and still enjoy it without understanding everything, because you won't. There's simply too much going on. It's really not that hard to piece together, but the movie doesn't help you out much.
What really matters is whether or not this is an entertaining film. It is, really, but sometimes it's easy to get lost in everything going on. I may not be an anime purist for saying this, but I've never seen a film that so desperately needed to be edited by perhaps a half-hour to really focus the story. The first hour or so is really pretty great--the action sequences are still involving at this point, the story is clear, and nobody's leaving for America. It's when the movie gets into its second hour, during the search for Kidd's treasure, that Kamui falls apart. It lacks the constant tension of the first section, and it also gets silly--why in the world do we have to meet Mark Twain? We also experience a false ending at about the time you're ready for the movie to really end, so it's excruiating to actually keep going after that point. Mercifully, the actual ending of the movie picks back up to the pace of the beginning, so after the collective groan, things get better. This movie is only for the patient.
Animation-wise, this film is pretty standard for anime of the early 80s. It's clean and beautiful at times, but in the muted tones that are rarely seen in flashier shows nowadays. Some of the character design is a bit weak, and though most of the animation is good, it's no longer any sort of standard. The music is somewhat dated, but I was surprised at how much I actually liked the soundtrack. As far as content goes, the violence inherent in a ninja tale is there, and some of it is quite graphic, but it's done in a very artistic fashion. My wife, who is bothered by unnecessary gore in films and isn't an anime fan, didn't really have an issue with it.
So is it any good? That's the bottom line question, and I think I've been avoiding it. The cautious answer is, indeed, yes. I liked the whole thing, for better or for worse. It is not the classic some have made it out to be--it just doesn't stand the test of time nearly as well as it should. It's boring in parts, hard to follow in others, and some will obviously hate it. Nevertheless, the basic story is good, the characters are actually compelling, and the action worked for me. It's a hard call, but I did enjoy the film despite its flaws. I cannot recommend strongly enough to rent it first, though...I imagine I am in a small minority of people that will find The Dagger of Kamui worth the effort.
The Dagger of Kamui -- graphic (artistic) violence, extremely brief nudity, mild profanity -- B