JAPAN 2009 Directed by: Yoichi Sai Written by: Kankuro Kudo Manga: Shirato Sanpei Produced by: Akira Morishige, Yui Tamae Cinematography by: Tomoo Ezaki, Junichi Fujisawa Editing: Isao Kawase Music: Taro Iwashiro Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Koyuki, Hideaki Ito, Kaoru Kobayashi, Suzuka Ohgo, Ekin Cheng, Yuta Kanai, Sei Ashina, Anna Tsuchiya
KAMUI GAIDEN, based on the LEGEND OF KAMUI manga published in the 60’s, has little in common with most of the contemporary manga adaptations out of Japan, largely thanks to the original series: set in feudal Japan, KAMUI tells the story of Kamui, a young, low-born ninja who tries to flee his clan seeking freedom, resisting to follow the destined path. Very soon he is branded a traitor and the other ninjas are trying to hunt him down to make sure their secrets are safe and stay within the family. Kamui, determined to lead a life free from rules, hierarchies and orders very soon discovers that even freedom has a price – and the question is if he’s willing to pay it.
If it wasn’t for some gimmicky effects you couldn’t tell that KAMUI is based on a manga. Usually that’s a good thing and for half of its running time KAMUI is a real treat, lavish, elegant, beautifully filmed and choreographed, just like a dream. Then, the initial fascination starts to wear off and a lot of flaws get in its way.
First of all, Kamui has no personality whatsoever. He is a cold killer with no ties to anyone, no emotions, no remorse, driven by revenge and his will to stay independent. The bit of character development we can see later when he starts to have feelings for a girl and gets closer to some of the fishermen is not enough to speak of real character development. There’s no fire burning, just some twigs smoldering. There are no big emotions hidden underneath the surface and there’s very little conflict within him.
Secondly the story doesn’t go anywhere: it’s like playing catch for two hours, and we already know who’s going to win. Sure, some of its more intimate moments and dialogues are moving, some sequences and plot twists are interesting, but overall KAMUI is mostly beating around the bush. So we stop caring after a while and enjoy the visual bonbons.
Last but not least KAMUI has entirely lost the manga’s subtext: originally reflecting Shirato Sanpei’s leftist convictions KAMUI dealt with ideas like breaking away from the fate assigned by the elite, oppression and the rule of the upper class. Bearing in mind that KAMUI was most popular in the mid 60’s one can easily understand that it is not about individualism (the way it would be interpreted today), but about paradigm change.
Every work of art is influenced by its zeitgeist, and THE LEGEND OF KAMUI was no exception. Watching KAMUI today shows that the movie lacks relevance and as this is the 21st century has no more use for the ideals of the original. Consequently, all that’s left is the story of a loner, a killing machine in pursuit of something intangible, a story of shinobi, ronin, destiny and betrayal.
In its best moments KAMUI is captivating eye-candy, a poem of blood and death; what it fundamentally lacks is a reason to fight for. And so we see our hero battling hordes of enemies, but without love or affection Kamui could as well be dead. Maybe he will be. The ending is as pointless as the two hours preceding it. Quickly KAMUI is gone with the wind.