From the opening frames it is clear that Kaidohmaru is an anime of distinction; it begins with a flashback told in scratchy black and white art and almost primitive animation. It takes a gamble with the viewer’s attention, and shows that the animators are willing to create their own style. If there is such a thing as arthouse anime, this is it.
When the obligatory “Five Years Later” title comes up and the real art kicks in, we are still treated to a distinctive vision: the animation is almost watercolour in its approach, with characters in muted pastels; in the numerous night scenes, they verge on two-tone. The backgrounds are 3D models, but almost entirely without textures, relying more on colour and lighting to make them blend perfectly with the 2D characters.
Those of you who just wanna watch samurai cutting loose can rest assured that when blood is spilled (and a lot of it is) it is vivid red. The action scenes are truly inspired, using handheld cam to convey the intensity of the violence and emotions. No real horses were harmed in the making of this film, but the animated ones had a helluva time.
Plotwise, the princess/heir raised as boy/samurai gives room for plenty o’ gender confusion and love quadrangles. The political setting is possibly too deep, with a degree of disappointingly expository dialogue required to bring you up to speed. The character designs are almost better than the running time allows them to be; with four great heroes and four interesting villains, there’s barely enough screen time for them all. The sound design and music are exceptional, evoking a haunted, doomed mood from the outset. The post-credits sequence recaps the story in paintings and poetry, leaving a melancholy closing note which repeats the black-and-white opening gamble; this is an anime willing to push the medium.
It’s no surprise that Kaidohmaru is from the creators of Blood the Last Vampire; like Blood, what we have here is a noble experiment verging on a grand failure; a singular, stylistic anime that packs a wallop into 40-odd minutes but leaves you wanting more. Still, for those 40-odd minutes, I was spellbound.