You love ninja and samurai stories, I love ninja and samurai stories… we all love a good ninja or samurai story. Here in the west we have the epics of ancient Europe and the American western to delight our tastes in mythology, but for some of us there is a draw from an alternate source, the native myths of the East. Anime’s representation of a skilled man (or woman) is numerous: Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin and Ninja Scroll just to name a few. But what if we can marry the samurai genre with the western genre into a film? Yup, that’s been done before… ever heard of 1985’s The Dagger of Kamui?
Even if one is not much into action, ninja skills, or sword mastery, The Dagger of Kamui can still be a worthy watch; even if only just once! The Dagger of Kamui equates the definition of the big epic expensive action film, with an art house twist. Big… no no no… more like say, HUGE! Take a break my friends because this is one of those long journeys that spans Japan, Russia and then the wild west of America. Now that is quite a tour! You even get to meet historic figures like Geronimo and Mark Twain too. What?! And this is still considered a ninja, or samurai film? Or perhaps the ultimate shonen fighter? That may be stretching it, but does it matter? Nah, not at all. Just remember, to tell a large epic journey will take some time and this film is long, two plus hours long. And no intermission either (except the pause button, shh! it’s a secret), so be prepared.
The Dagger of Kamui is a great example of ‘the hero’s journey’. The Hero with a Thousand Faces has now reached 1,001; a quick nod to you Joseph Campbell! Our hero is Jiro who is in no better terms, a bastard. He is an illegitimate child adopted into a loving family and also an individual whose heritage is partly Ainu, the native culture of Japan that was once frowned upon. Needless to say the kid is not well liked, or respected for no fault of his own except the ignorance of those around him. These elements don’t help when Jiro returns home to find his mother and sister murdered. Take a guess who gets the blame with no due process? With a dagger in hand that will unlock many clues of his origins and destiny, Jiro goes on the run to at first find the murderer of his family and then… well, that’s the beauty of being on a quest… it’s open to discovery beyond imagination.
The story may be huge, the music is funky, with electric guitar and traditional Japanese drumming, but the visuals are a sight to behold. This is one gorgeous movie. Backgrounds are lush. Motion is fluid. Colors are bold. The fight scenes are like expressionist paintings that have come to life that could easily pass as a psychedelic experience. No surprise really as this was made at Madhouse, a studio which seems to have two quality settings in the visual department… amazing and fantastic. That and with a director like Rintaro, the ocular experience triples if not quadruples with his use of editing, color and dynamics. Let me go back to the fight scenes again. They are not like the usual brawl. Think more in terms of a well choreographed dance in a lucid dream you can only have at midnight where all around is magic and wonder to behold and see. Conflict becomes poetic art; danger becomes beautiful.
80s anime cinema has many standout choices. Many originate from well known directors, franchises, or are just at the right place at the right time. The Dagger of Kamui can fall into line with say the Fist of the North Star film for being a big action epic where our hero has to face up against a his major arch rival in the end, but The Dagger of Kamui is a completely different beast altogether. Some action films are just that, an action film. But there are those action films that are blessed to have been created by an auteur studio and an auteur director as well. There is something special about these movies, even though they can be a little long winded. The Dagger of Kamui is one wild ride!