Dagger of Kamui Anime Review
Kamui no Ken
The Blade of Kamui
US Release By
Historical Ninja Epic
In the middle of the 19th century, the era of Shogun rule in Japan is nearing its end. Corruption in the government and warring between the factions vying for power have facilitated the rise of powerful Ninja clans, making use of lethal skills and mystic arts to attain their goals. Not all ninjas are evil--some are noble men, but are also apt to be manipulated by the clans they serve.
When a kind woman and her daughter are found murdered, Jiro, the abandoned child they found and raised, is chased from the village as a parent-killer. Left with nothing but the dagger he found by the body of his foster mother--the Dagger of Kamui--Jiro is taken in by Tenkai, a Buddhist monk and head of a powerful ninja clan. First allowed to take vengeance on his family's apparent killer, then trained in the ways of the ninja by Tenkai and his minions, it is only as Jiro reaches maturity that he realizes the truth about the evil clan and their apparent plan to take control of Japan. He flees and begins seeking not only a way to combat Tenkai and his minions, but to learn the truth about himself and his parents. Hounded by Tenkai's underlings and tormented by fate, Jiro begins his quest armed only with the mysterious Dagger of Kamui and a legend about Kamui, a mystical mountain somehow connected to both the dagger and Jiro's past.
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The Dagger of Kamui is a true anime classic, a historical epic full of action, intertwined fates, interesting characters, and subtle mysticism. It follows a grand quest across the changing world landscape of the 1800s, blending the framework of a ninja movie with the style of a reserved samurai drama to produce a film that has both exciting (yet artistic) action and traditionally reserved Japanese drama. It also manages a well-woven story that evokes a sense of greater purpose and the grand scale that the 19th century world held to its inhabitants, while still keeping the human drama at a realistic level.
Don't come looking for mindless action, and be prepared for a lengthy and methodically paced movie, but if you like Japanese history, tales of samurai and ninja, or just a great story, you will almost certainly enjoy the Dagger of Kamui.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
The Dagger of Kamui is a true anime classic, a historical epic full of action, intertwined fates, nuanced characters, and subtle mysticism. It follows a grand quest across the changing world landscape of the mid-1800s, illustrating the Japanese struggle between feudal honor and individualistic emotion both on a national and personal scale. Something like the Gone With the Wind of ninja movies, it is not a movie for every taste, but is impressive in both scope and execution for those willing to invest the time.
I would go so far as to say the Dagger of Kamui is the ultimate ninja movie. Not because of its spectacular violence or the protagonists' feats of stealth (though it has some of both), but because of its combination of grand scale, artistry, and down-to-earth human connection.
The story isn't artificially epic--the fate of the world isn't at stake (though the future of Japan is), and there are no demon invasions to be found. What there is is a sense of greater purpose missing from many heroic stories, and a sense of the grand scale that the world of the 19th century had to its occupants. The hero's quest takes him from feudal Japan to Russia to America's wild west and back. Though the juxtaposition of such disparate places is a little odd, the historical periods were in fact concurrent. I'll also add that the archetypal portrayal of the gunfightin' West is no more unrealistic than the movie's version of Japan.
In most respects--length and leisurely pacing most noticeably--the Dagger of Kamui is closer to a samurai epic than a ninja flick. The characters, likewise, have a Japanese subtlety and depth more at home in a samurai drama--an awkward pause or thoughtful silence often replace dialogue. The lines between good and evil are also blurry enough to make things interesting. The slow pace will definitely put off some people, but as long as you're patient enough to let the story unfold, you'll be treated to a grand tale.
The story takes place in something of an enhanced reality, but it is always grounded enough to maintain a connection to the real world. This keeps the characters human despite their larger-than-life rivalries and abilities, and helps the globe-spanning plot work. The plot is detailed but not convoluted; painted on the canvas of real events, it is intricate and laced together quite well. It does hinge quite heavily on coincidence, but an air of fate and mysticism throughout the movie makes that believable.
Its treatment of the supernatural is similar; there's never anything that you would call magic per se, but there are a number of characters who use illusions (very artistically rendered ones, at that) that seem supernatural, at least in the way they're presented to the viewer. Whether they actually are is open to some interpretation. I thought this toeing of the line between fantasy and reality worked quite well.
Don't take all this to mean that the Dagger of Kamui is devoid of action--it most certainly isn't, nor does it shy away from ninja-movie gore. In fact, it has some of the most beautifully rendered violence of any movie I've seen. That may seem like a contradiction in terms, but most of the action scenes--particularly those illusory battles--are animated in a style that seems almost like a dance or some kind of semi-abstract painting. The blend of action and art succeeds on both levels--simultaneously exciting and beautiful. It also features some of the coolest throwing stars of all time.
The rest of the visuals are equally beautiful, particularly for a movie of this vintage. The animation is smooth and full of artistic flourishes. The art has a distinctive look to it, as do the stylized character designs. The backgrounds are subtle, but richly painted, and there are a few shots of historic battles shown from a distance that deserve a good long look.
Although two obscure English dubs exist, AnimEigo has only released subtitled versions, and that's all I've seen. The acting is quite low-key for the most part, which is appropriate, and all of the main characters are given distinctive, believable voices by the capable cast. Interestingly, Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Jiro, was a first-time voice actor, though he was well known for live action performances.
Both in terms of dialogue and music the Dagger of Kamui is a remarkably quiet movie. What background music there is is striking and unusual, a combination of a sort of tribal chanting, powerful traditional Japanese drums, and a more modern beat. If you're familiar with the Kodo drum troupe, their style has many similarities--no coincidence, since Hayashi Eitetsu, one of the film's two composers, founded Kodo three years prior to this work. Though different from the swelling orchestral themes you'd expect to go with an epic story of this scale, the soundtrack fits quite well with the visual style, and the silence in the remainder is well-suited to the general mood. The end theme, a blend of modern rock and Japanese folk song, is very pretty as well, and worth watching the credits for.
In summary, the Dagger of Kamui is not only an anime classic, it is probably the greatest ninja epic ever filmed and a fine movie in its own right. The visuals are beautiful, the characters and plot are deep and intricate, and the story is told on a grand scale that is rarely so successful in movies of its type. Don't come looking for mindless action, and be prepared for the length and slow pace, but if you like Japanese history, ninja movies, or just a great story, you will almost certainly enjoy this film.
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In a class by itself, with the closest parallel being the somewhat more action-oriented samurai drama The Hakkenden. Stylistically, it has some similarities to other weighty old-school classics like Harmageddon, Venus Wars, and even AKIRA. If you're interested in a very good ninja movie at the exact opposite end of the depth and style spectrum, have a look at Ninja Scroll (for gory stylized action) and Samurai Champloo (for goofy postmodern style overload).
Notes and Trivia
As always, AnimEigo's famed liner notes (as well as full credits and song lyrics) are available on their website, and in this case are extremely extensive.
The film is based on a series of five novels by Tetsu Yano.
The music in Dagger of Kamui is by Eitetsu Hayashi and Ryudo Uzaki, the former of whom was a founding member of the world-famous Taiko group Kodo. Both composers also have voice cameos in the movie.
As for the story, it's quite strange to think of a ninja hanging out in the Wild West, but the periods were in fact simultaneous, and this is one of the few chances to see it happen with a straight face.
The Dagger of Kamui was one of AnimEigo's first releases, but there are also two old VHS versions of it floating around, each by a different company. One is a full-length dubbed version called "The Blade of Kamui." The other is a different dubbed version released under the name "The Sword of Kamui," which apparently had about an hour of the movie cut out and somehow added an alien invasion to the plot if the text on the box is to be believed. I have seen neither, but I'd guess that the latter ranks with the "Warriors of the Wind" dub of Nausicaa as one of the greatest anime travesties of all time (though I do have to wonder what kind of creative dubbing they employed to get aliens into 19th century Japan).
There was a little-known video game adaptation of this story for the FM-7 computer, only available in Japan. It was of the text-based adventure sort, but with color illustrations.
US DVD Review
Based on AnimEigo's reputation, I'm going to assume it is because of a lack of good source material, but this is not much of a DVD. The Japanese audio (they didn't dub it) is clean if not impressive stereo, but sounds good for a movie of this vintage. The video, on the other hand, looks a bit washed out and rather soft, has some unpleasant color artifacts around sharp edges, and is interlaced--looks like a direct transfer from a video source of mediocre quality. This would've been a great film to see a Macross-style cleanup on, but the result, though a disappointment by videophile standards, isn't all that bad. The special features consist of some basic maps of the various locations Jiro travels to, a series of character bios, and the original theatrical trailer. There are also two sets of subtitles; one with full subtitling, and one that only translates onscreen text (of limited value to most viewers, since the dialogue is Japanese-only).
Rated 13-up by AnimEigo on account of some mature themes and violence.
Violence: 3 - Not gratuitous, but still quite violent.
Nudity: 2 - A couple of brief scenes.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Implied romance only.
Language: 1 - Not noteworthy.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Jiro: Hiroyuki Sanada
Tenkai: Gentaroo Ishida
Oyuki: Mami Koyama
Hanzoo Tokachi: Takashi Sotoyama
Captain Drasnic: Takashi Ebata
Tarouza: Michio Hasama
Oyaruru: Masako Ikeda
Chiomapp: Mitsuko Horie
Chico (Julie): Yuriko Yamamoto
Shouzan Andoo: Ichiroo Nagai
Sanpei: Takeshi Aono
Koozunosuke Oguri: Hidekatsu Shibata
Mark Twain: Iemasa Oyumi
Elder: Shiroo Amakusa
Sam: Kazuyuki Sogabe
Shingo: Kaneto Shiozawa
Uraka: Naoki Sugimoto
Genjuuroo Fujibayashi: Mikiko Terashima
Iga Chief: Kooichi Kitamura
Indian Chief: Yasuo Muramatsu
Tooami no Magoroku: Yasuroo Tanaka
Tsuyu: Yoshie Asai
Sayuri: Tomiko Suzuki
Jakal: Ryooichi Tanaka
Kinsaku: Masato Hirano
Magohachi: Kazumi Tanaka
Goldgun: Kazuo Oka
With: Fukunaga Eiichi, Hiroshi Endoo, Hiroko Emori, Hidehiro Kikuchi, Jun Takeyanagi, Yuuichi Kanemaru, Naoko Taniguchi
Okinba: Ryuudoo Uzaki
Shinban no Kikusa: Eitetsu Hayashi (Special Apperances)
Screenplay: Mamoru Mazaki
Director: Taroo Rin
Art Director: Takemura Kurao
Music: Ryuudoo Uzaki, Eitetsu Hayashi
End theme sung by Noriko Watanabe
Available in North America on subtitled-only DVD from AnimEigo. Was previously available on subtitled-only LaserDisc and VHS, also from AnimEigo. There were also dub-only VHS versions sold by different companies as The Blade of Kamui and The Sword of Kamui, the latter of which is heavily edited, and neither of which is now in print.