My day at the Marxist ninja cartoon marathon…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

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Dateline: Hollywood, CA — 9-14-2014

It’s not often I talk ninja cartoons with college educators, but today was the exception.

Jonathan M. Hall, a Japanese film scholar from Pomona College screened three episodes of Shirato Sanpei shinobi TV treasures at the storied Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of the LA Eigafest film festival. Interesting crowd primarily of academics, and me as probably the biggest ninja nerd in the room. Come to think of it, I’m usually the biggest ninja nerd in the room regardless of circumstance.

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Anyway, there I am seeing two episodes of Sasuke (1968) and one of Kamui the Lone Ninja (Ninpo Kamui Gaiden, 1969) on the big screen. One of the primary motivations behind this site’s creation was frustration of being a product of the 80s American ninja craze and never having the superior Japanese source media of decades previous available. Now, I was seeing these anime classics in a bigger and better format than any TV-glued kid in Japan ever did.

In a pre-show lecture, and post-show Q&A, Hall discussed the unique background of Sanpei — trying to live up to his father, a fine arts painter raising a son in tumultuous waters of left-wing politics and Marxist movements. (take a minute to Google some of this socio-political stuff if you want, I had to…) Somehow Sanpei comes out of it doing kamishibai performance art then manga and anime, replacing the marching proletariat with masked ninja.

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SASUKE in manga form and the DVD box set we’ll never see over here because life sucks…

Sanpei never looked to samurai or large scale feudal-era military action as a source for content of his epics, but rather redefined ninja as warriors of uncanny skill that despite living a brutal, lonely and disenfranchised existence became what millions of Japanese youth idolized. His shinobi were decidedly of the lower-class, victims of the system around them and oppression from a privileged minority above, but they had the tremendous strength and resolve to live-on as outcasts and loners — rebels even to their own kind and hunted for it. They were fantasy refuge for young kids struggling through school and office workers stuck in cubicle farms.

It also didn’t hurt that they had cool-ass exotic weapons and espionage gadgets right at the same time the James Bond movies went super-nova in popularity.

But it seems to me Sanpei was somewhat above the 60’s Japanese ninja boom. Sure, it can be argued that his Ninja Bugeicho manga, starting in the late 50s, was the compass of both editorial theme and a standard of excellence for a lot of the comics, cartoons and movies that would follow en masse, and yes, the offspring of that series — Sasuke and Kamui — were hugely popular and influential. But I think he would have created those properties regardless of whether ninja were popular mass media or not. Hall pointed out that the legendary GARO magazine that originally carried the Kamui manga, had a circulation of merely 80,000 per month, tiny compared to the more popular juggernauts that sold 4-5 million per week. GARO was a publication by artists and intellectuals for artists and intellectuals, and if the ninja explosion had never occurred he probably would have found an outlet in those niche-market pages anyway.

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But ninja did explode in pop culture, and four-plus decades later are a household word on every continent, have been redefined by American exploitation cinema, again by animated turtles and then again by video games and so on and so on. Hall’s presentation had a slant of exposing the political roots of fictional ninja to audiences more familiar with Mortal Kombat and Naruto, and indeed most of those on hand were seeing the 60s craze media for the first time. There was some surprise in the audience at how layered and emotionally complex even a kids cartoon could be, and universal shock at how violent and brutal they routinely were. One of the Sasuke episodes ends with a pack of copy-cat children trying to duplicate the ninja kid’s explosive tricks, and blowing themselves to death in the process, leaving a weeping father to bury the charred corpses.

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You don’t have to go far to find R-rating-level violence and gore in KAMUI… this sequence is from the opening credits.

That very quality is likely what kept these series off American shelves in the 1980s, when otherwise, anything ninja was squeezed for every dollar it could yield. Both series were rife with children wielding bladed weapons, innocents being killed, bursts of hyper-violence and despondent anti-heroes walking off into the gloom of night knowing tomorrow would only bring more of the same. While Japan’s parents were evidently fine with their kids watching such after school, there’s no way that stuff was going to play in the States.

However, chunks of Sasuke and Kamui were actually licensed for release outside of Japan in the 80s. English dubs found limited priced-to-sell VHS releases under names like Kiko-Boy Ninja and Search for the Ninja, and episodes were included with Remco’s Secret of the Ninja action figure play sets. The pictures were rather wretched quality then, haven’t aged well, and will likely never see the light of day in any sort of remastered official release.

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Back-of-box art from a low-resnt VHS release of KIKO-BOY NINJA, recorded on EP on on elf those featherweight bargain bin tapes, so yeah, NOT the best quality. And if you’re under 30 you have no clue what I’m talking about here…

The entire run of Kamui was syndicated to TV in Mexico and South America under the title Kamui: El Ninja Desertór, and I believe both series saw the light of day in Italy as well. Then of course VIZ released The Legend of Kamui, albeit at the end of the craze. Most of us back then didn’t even realize it was a ninja comic based on the lack of black hooded assassins on the covers, plus tastes were changing. It was a good thing too late to be the ‘super-ego’ the craze had needed all along.

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SO… some four decades later there we are in a packed theater, marveling at the brilliance that was Shirato Sanpei. The themes of the lone warrior fighting the good fight despite the societal machinery around him resound just as strongly. I mean, who hasn’t idly fantasized about just saying F-this to the gigantic soul-grinding world we know we can’t change, packing a sack of shuriken and living out in the woods with your pet falcon? We all have, right? Right?

Keith J. Rainville

This 1:6 figure of the manga KAMUI is likely the closest I'm getting to the Lone Ninja lifestyle.
I’d live the minimalist lone-ninja-in-the-woods lifestyle, but then I couldn’t buy stuff like this vintage 1:6 manga KAMUI figure, so nope…

VN REVISITED: Airborne combat in LEGEND OF KAMUI

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 0

Originally published June 2009

With the movie [now in wide release], I’m re-reading and re-loving Shirato Sanpei‘s second run of Kamui manga. The godfather of ninja comics debuted the character in 1964, then re-imagined the property as a more grown up and severe manga in the 80’s. Kamui Gaiden was a critical and financial hit, crossed-over into anime, and inspired [the live action film.] Eclipse Comics made history when they published a 37 issue run in the U.S. as The Legend of Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Story – the first such importation of a Japanese title to our shores.

Here are some terrific combat panels from that run. Sanpei really had a knack for movement, and loved these leaping and tumbling attacks. Despite the amount of dynamic action, you can still ‘read’ what is happening, clearly see the techniques at work and how the killing blows are delivered. Aspiring artists have plenty to learn here:

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The grocery list of things I love about this series is long indeed. Kamui is the archetypal skilled loner on the run, trying to leave behind his warrior life but needing those resented skills to survive constant pursuit. It’s a great structure, and over it Sanpei laid some emotionally challenging stories. You could never get too attached to a character, never too comfortable with a setting.

I also love characters with limited arsenals used in increasingly innovative ways. Kamui’s signature short sword and reverse grip technique dispatched 90% of his enemies. A few kunai or shuriken here or there, sometimes a grapple line, were pretty much it.

Eclipse released 37 issues total, starting in 1987. It was late in the ninja craze here, and rarely did the signature black suit appear on covers, so the title may have failed to find the audience it deserved. These gems can be found cheap on eBay, even in complete runs.

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The first translated story arc, an incredible parable of struggling fishermen and the inescapability of one’s destined trade, was later collected into two trade paperbacks by VIZ, with reduced art. I prefer the original [stand-alone issues], which often had liner notes on the historical subject matter or the artist’s craft.

KAMUI anime designs

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

From the art book companion to the 1969 animated Kamui theatrical compilation film and 26 episode TV series. Some great designs here by  Shuichi Seki, faithful to the Shirato Sanpei manga originals but with that rough, sketchy look popular in contemporary anime like Tiger Mask.

We compared the dynamic fights of the original manga, this animated version and the overly CG “live-action” film here. The conclusion… they just can’t compare.

When you have one central character in the same outfit, using the same gear, over 26 shows, you have to mix it up when it comes to the side characters and especially the villains. TONS of personality in these.

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