KAMUI GAIDEN, comic roots vs. adaptation-itis after a decade of digital ninja (part 3)

Well, folks. I TRIED. I really did try to write a fair, even, and generally supportive piece on KAMUI GAIDEN. But seriously… how can it possibly live up to the source? This is even more compounded by some terrible effects, proving that digital ninja have NOT come that far since Owl’s Castle in ’99, and neither has the decision-making process of what to film practical, what to fake via CG, and what to not even attempt knowing the results will likely suck.

There are merits to the this film, and I’m VERY happy it’s available on DVD in English and subbed, so if you don’t want to hear the rants of a crumudgeonly geek stuck in decades past, yelling at these new ninja movies to keep off his lawn, then skip on down to the end where despite my venom I ultimately find several reasons to reccomend this film.

Enjoy!

KR

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Kamui… is it filmable?

Why yes, with green-screen filmmaking and CG effects, those soaring tree-top grappling moves and ninja pirate vs. airborne shark fights can finally be brought to “life,” no problem. The answer… YES.

Ask once more. With feeeeeling.

KAMUI... IS IT FILMABLE?

The profound and prolific manga, as much an artistic milestone as it was a commercial success. A protagonist reinvented over the decades, evolving each time as socio-political climates changed. Years and years of character building and message-laden narratives.

Do you amalgamate the 60’s character with the 80’s version? Summarize wholesale chunks of editorial? Pick one out of a dozen brilliant storylines? Ignore the manga and adapt the more 2-dimensional (pun intended) vintage anime?

The answer this time is not so easy. No amount of computer power can negotiate those waters…

Nevertheless, we now have a big-budget live-action Kamui movie. So how’d they do?

THE SKINNY: Kamui Gaiden (aka Kamui: The Lone Ninja) is Japanese Academy Award-winner Yoichi Sai‘s adaptation of the “Island of Sugaru” story arc from the 80’s relaunch of the Shirato Sanpei manga. In it, the young fugitive ninja (Ken’ichi Matsuyama, perhaps best known as ‘L’ in the Death Note movies) weary of continuous conflict with vengeful pursuers (you cannot leave the shinobi life!) finds anonymity and shelter in a remote fishing village. On the verge of rediscovering his own humanity, fate, and the inevitable shadow set, close in again with dire results for both Kamui and the innocents around him.

Rounding out the cast in this emotionally complex tale is Kampachi – a fisherman whose penchant for making lures out of the hooves of nobleman’s slain horses gets him into all sorts of trouble, his wife Sugaru – coincidentally another ninja on the run unable to trust our hero, and their daughter Sayaka – a potential love interest representing the allure of a normal life.

Seeing to it that never happens is a one-eyed ninja leader charged with exterminating the fugitives, a crew of creepy shark hunters and their pirate-ish captain who is more than he seems – twice! Oh, and the eeeeeevil lord whose horse ‘donated’ a leg for fishing lures comes into play once or twice more, too.

It’s A LOT of ground for one movie to cover, plus they crowbar in origin flashbacks and start the movie with some ‘character defining’ fight scenes. In typical adaptation style, they hone in on signature scenes and character beats.

Kamui’s unique brand of unarmed ninja combat is essentially pro-wrestling moves delivered with lethal severity from high-up in tree tops.  The “Izuna Drop” is like a German suplex with a hang-time long enough for dramatic conversation between the combatants. The 1969 anime series did a great job in conveying these super-powered grappling spots. The 2009/10 film? Well…

OK. Yeah. FAILURE of both composition AND compositing. Guess these familiar tree-top combat scenes (homaged in Ninja Scroll and myriad other media) aren’t so filmable after all.

Maybe everyone was just too stuck on fealty to the source to admit what just could not be shot convincingly. Manga and anime can defy physics because their artistic abstractness immediately grants a suspension of disbelief. Trying to render the same outre combat with a mix of practical footage and photo-realisitc digital animation is always going to be jarring to a viewer’s sense of natural movement.

Kamui also had a signature sword move – “Kasumigiri” – mesmerizing a charging opponent into striking the illusion of a second self. This is, in fact, superbly portrayed in the film, a real win for both the director’s photographic work and the digital crew’s post-production compositing.

Unfortunately, this excellent scene, complete with a sad, jazzy piece of music that harkens back to Samurai Spy, is immediately followed by outright laughable computer animated deer running through the woods, and a cliff leaping scene sub-par even by Saturday morning Power Ranger standards.

Then, we get to the water…

Yep, just about every scene involving H2O is green-screened, so of a radically different color palate, soooo fake, you are taken completely out of any mood previously set by the film. Makes one question the decision to adapt the Sugaru Island arc at all. Notice the wooden boat that’s not even getting wet. Wet wood changes color people!

And don’t even start me on the sharks!

Alright – pause here. It is impossible for me to completely bag on a movie that has a guy doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu MMA moves on a shark. We’re swinging on a pendulum into psychotronic awesomeness here, and the awful CG sharks make it all the better being so bad.

And that’d be great… in anything other than a Kamui adaptation.

This is supposed to be grim, dead serious, heart-wrenching stuff. It’s borderline arthouse material if done right. I want the emotional starkness of a sea-side samurai flick like Hideo Gosha’s Goyokin here. Not something that makes Jaws 3-D look good by comparison.

And while I’m ranting like a spoiled kid, wanting other directors from other eras to have had a hand in the fantasy film that lives in my twisted head, let’s talk the village itself.

GREAT location – absolutely perfect. But what never gets fully driven home is the feeling of… well, home. Sanctuary.

There’s no ode to the everyman’s every day, or jaunty Kurosawa-like montage of jaunty fishermen doing their jaunty trade to a jaunty orchestral jig. There just isn’t enough contrast between the supposedly awful life he had before and the window to civilian paradise now luring him (like a fish) into letting his guard down.

They try. They surely do. You’re told things in narration, actors go through the motions. But whenever you even start to connect with a human being, they are suddenly replaced by a CG cartoon leaping around awkwardly. Or you cut to a fake ship in a fake sea surrounded by fake sharks, and somehow you’re supposed to care about the real guy composited onto the deck.

And here’s where I’m right back to the quandary I discussed in part one of this series – there’s no point in a negative review of this film. The problem lies in modern filmmaking at large. Adaptation-itis sets in, it needs to be a big hit so there’s a big studio budget involved, but even the biggest budget can’t pull off the demands of the source material, so you’re left with green-screened blue seas and digital dorsal fins.

The smarter play here would have been to write-out the shark hunters entirely, morph the villain into another villager (and there’s even a likely candidate in a sub-plot with a rival fisherman) and concentrate instead on earthbound conflicts both emotional and martial.

Earthbound… yeah.

Less complications. Less reliance on digital filmmaking.

Would have freed the director up to really work more with his lead. Don’t get me wrong, Matsuyama worked his ass off in training for this role, enduring multiple injuries in a plagued production. He got the sword grip perfect, and his low crouch run is an excellent innovation. Stunt directors/choreographers Kenji Tanigaki and Ouchi Takahito, who have done wonders with the likes of Donnie Yen, failed to capture the same results with this non-career-martial artist, though. The god-awful wirework makes the kid look bad.

Meanwhile, the non-action scenes, where he needs to hit strong, concise emotional beats, are just lost.

There are major pacing problems throughout, time spent in the wrong spots, scenes that should have been longer and more affecting glossed over in a relentless pace to service the property requisites. That’s one of the biggest problems here, and with a lot of other adaptations. I call out Zack Snyder’s Watchmen as another prime example.

COVERAGE.

There is such a concern to get to the next famous scene, fulfill the next geek expectation, you end up with a bloated, long-runing film that despite its crowdedness ends up rather empty.

Watching and re-watching this thing (four times now), I keep getting stuck on this one little innocuous scene that illustrates almost everything wrong with Kamui Gaiden:

The runaway ninja takes a moment to contemplate a beautiful shell given to him by Sayaka in a gesture of devotion. Those familiar with the manga know the significance. Would be a nice bit, but it doesn’t last long enough, we don’t really see the actor’s face under the often bad wig, the fake sea and sky are obvious, it’s supposed to be a sunlit scene yet he isn’t being hit by a warm light himself, etc. and so forth. (Come to think of it, there’s hardly a time when you get a good, up close facial expression throughout the film. And dammit, you need those!)

Moreover, the posture above, the pastel, raggedy layered costume, it just isn’t Kamui. Kamui is a coiled spring, cut like Bruce Lee, always on edge, always alert, unable to relax because he’s waiting for a knife to sail at him from behind any second. There is no slouch. There are no baggy clothes impeding him should combat occur. Sanpei drew him stiff, never relaxed, never at rest. By contrast, movie Kamui is always kinda frumpy or wistful. It looks like a good breeze could knock him over. His sandals are too big for his feet, giving him a clumsy appearance. Bad choices…

With all the attention paid to animating the impossible and digitized drama, it’s almost like they forgot to do what was totally in their real-life control – get the character right. The emotional poise is absent. The movie Kamui isn’t tortured enough, isn’t paranoid enough, can be taken by surprise. We’re told what his emotions are, not shown by either actor or director.

I’m not sure an actor lives who could play this role right, though. He’d have to be a real martial artist or at least a dancer with the same body control. He’d have to have the thousand-yard stare of a Ken Takakura alternating with the chilling blankness of a Tatsuya Nakadai. And he’d need to be of an age that you’d be alarmed such hardened adult traits are chiseled onto such a young man.

So again I ask…

Is Kamui filmable?

And in reality, the answer is the same as the aforementioned Watchmen.

If they did it, I guess it is… but why?

Kamui is possible in the same way non-alchoholic beer is possible. And the point of non-alchoholic beer is what?

Exactly.

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OK, so now that I got the poison out of my system, I do ultimately recommend seeing KAMUI GAIDEN. Here’s why:

• Shinobi-cinema needs its pot stirred, and this is new ninja blood.

• Audiences at large need to see a non-black-suit ninja film and expand their horizons of the idiom.

• Funimation put together a GREAT double DVD release, with two docos totaling 45-minutes of behind the scenes and making-of extras. Man does the lead actor take a beating…

Kamui as a property needs a shot in the arm and some new reprint editions, so SUPPORT!

• IF the digital DOESN’T break the deal for you, this can be a pretty damn good movie. Even an uninspired adaptation of such strong source material is bound to hold something intriguing to a new audience. There are some good fights, the supporting cast is strong, the weapons are great and I like the score.

• Despite my abusive diatribes, modern ninja movies are not a total loss. Red Shadow had great costumes. The Azumi films are pretty good sword-girl fodder. I like the core story and structure of Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, and, yeah, I’ll say this… KAMUI GAIDEN is arguably the best of this decade’s digital ninja.

KR

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