There are levels of disappointment in this world. We all should know this by now. Finding out your latest crush is not at all like you thought is somewhere around the level of a mild case of indigestion. Not getting that pay rise you’d hoped for registers somewhere around that punch-to-the-gut level. Discovering the last Tim Tam is gone is upping the ante somewhat to the equivalent of a great gaping hole in existence, worse if it directly follows the other two levels.
And then there’s Kamui.
Of course, you might have been experiencing warning pangs for this level long before the end credits, but, like me, you probably figured it was just due to lack of sleep or something. After all, Kamui’s got everything going for it – a great look and a talented cast, decent action and a fantastic score. And it’s about ninjas. That automatically awards it points for Awesome, without even taking into consideration the fact that there are pirates involved. Pirates! And ninjas! Versus each other! I mean, seriously, how could this movie be anything but brilliant?
And right there, you have set yourself up for a 9 on the Richter Scale of Disappointment. Watching, you have to assume that it was made for a purely domestic audience and those early adopters of Viz (and earlier still, Eclipse Comics) back in the 80s who actually know that Shirato Sanpei is like the Tezuka Osamu of ninja-genre manga, because otherwise Kamui is in fact anything but brilliant. From the outset, it suffers from that age-old syndrome of trying to cram volumes of establishing context into one-and-something hours of cinema time. Not an easy thing to do, as we all know, and some films manage it and some don’t. Kamui, sadly, falls into the latter, not the former, category.
Teeing off at the green, Kamui’s epically traumatic childhood is compressed into a five minute introductory narration complete with illustrations, giving you a disjointed picture that’s a little more difficult to follow than it should be. There’s in no way sufficient detail to connect with the character on an emotional level, and Kamui — as is the way with almost all ninja stories – looks to be a pretty emotional story. Fair enough, you find yourself thinking. It’s not like this is the first movie to ever short-cut a big back story, and clearly we’re all here for the ninja action anyway, so bring it on sooner rather than later, right? Unfortunately, everything about the original story must have been big, because this sense that there’s more than just a superficial motivation to each of the characters — from the inexplicably crazy horse lord and his randomly evil wife right down to Kamui’s reluctant ex-ninja comrade and his teen-angsting wannabe girlfriend — is present throughout.
It’s disappointing in the extreme, because everything else about Kamui is great, and it would have been a genuinely brilliant film if not for this foundational flaw in the story-telling. Matsuyama Keniichi, who proved himself beyond a doubt as L in the Death Note movies and shone even brighter in the spin-off L: Change the World, pretty much carries the film, and he doesn’t do it alone. Of particular note, Kaoru Kobayashi as the fisherman Hanbei almost steals the show, and Koyuki, whose career has a pretty impressive filmography, including Kitamura’s Alive, some of award winning scriptwriter Eriko Kitagawa’s best TV shows, American made The Last Samurai, and the upcoming live action film Space Battleship Yamato, does pretty well herself.
And then there’s the ninja action, which includes a bone-crunching, wince-inducing opening fight sequence, plenty of sneaky ninja tricks, some fantastically effective use of CG effects and possibly the best ninja running you will ever see outside of Naruto. Sure, some of the wire-stunts could be a little more realistic and the pirates, who provide some much needed levity (perhaps unintentionally in the case of the grand finale), only appear at the end, but that’s neither here nor there. We’ve all forgiven worse, particularly those of us with a bit of a thing for Japanese live action films. But there’s too many why is this happening’s, where did they come from’s (and you shouldn’t even be asking that question when ninjas are involved) and what’s going on’s to really camouflage the fact that the writers obviously struggled to coherently translate the story to screen. And when it comes to a movie that could have been great — should have been great — that’s a whole new level of disappointment.