Action / Thrillers, Films, Japan, Live-Action Manga, Martial arts, Reviews, Soundtracks, Wuxia / Swordplay

Kamui: The Lone Ninja

A very enjoyable manga adaption from director Yoichi Sai (Blood And Bones) and starring Ken’ichi Matsuyama (L Change The WorLd, Bare Essence Of Life), but ‘probably the best ninja movie ever’… what, really?

Based on the legenadry series created by Japanese artist Sanpei Shirato in 1964, Kamui: The Lone Ninja tells of it’s eponymous hero, played by Ken’ichi Matsuyama (Death Note, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler), a young man who has spent all of his life as one type of outcast or another. Attempting to find true freedom away from inherited cast and clan he turns his back on life as a ninja, making him a target for the ninja hunters led by his one time master Dumok (Ekin Cheung, Storm Warriors, Tokyo Raiders).

Kamui finds fleeting solace with spirited fisherman Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi, Princess Mononoke, Tales from Earthsea) who invites him to stay with his family. Yet even here Kamui discovers himself face-to-face with a long-forgotten nemesis, another renegade ninja with a deadly score to settle. And all the while the ninja hunters are setting a trap from which there can be no escape…

Director Yoichi Sai (Doing Time, All Under The Moon), together with co-scripter Kankuro Kudo (Ping Pong, Zebraman, Go), keeps the film close to its source, becoming as much about the social commentary that ran through Sanpei’s work as it does of great battles. (And presumably it’s where the storyline gets some of its ‘weirdness’.) The opening titles, perhaps cutest thing in the whole movie, actually use frames from the original manga to set the scene.

Here he greatly benefits from solid performances from a great cast that also includes Suzuka Ohgo (Memoirs Of A Geisha), Koichi Sato (Sukiyaki Western Django, Starfish Hotel), Koyuki (Blood: The Last Vampire, Kitaro) and Yuta Kanai (L Change The WorLd). Ken’ichi proves again just how compelling and increasingly versatile he can be, making sympathetic but believable lead.

Easily one of the better manga adaptions of late, it’s easy to forget beyond the seeming overwhelming trend that there’s something of a long history to live-action adaptations from manga, and from its predecessor martial art novels. A note that brings to mind two of the more successful efforts from the same period as the original Kamui manga, Zatoichi and Lone Wolf And Cub. The former expanded from a minor character in a novel, the later itself very close to the original material.

Arguably Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s work picked up where Sanpei left off, itself a well research commentary on social status both then and now. Of course, the film adaptions of Lone Wolf and Cub fell foul of the early 80s video nasties label. Though violent, the films embodied the original manga values and visual composition, making them both poignant and surprisingly beautiful.

With Kamui, Yoichi has created something rather similar, having some for the almost deliberate over-the-top approach of samurai and martial art movies from the late 70s and early 80s, like Lone Wolf, many Shaw Brothers films, and even Ching Siu-tung’s delightful Duel to the Death.

But ‘Probably the best ninja movie ever made’ as critic Tony Ryans said?. That quote may have been somewhat overused (largely by myself) but I admit it gave me high expectations for Kamui which were not quite fulfilled. The overuse of CGI is frankly distracting, as though animating humans may not quite look as bad as it used to, it’s still a bit weird. I’d rather see more clever use of wire work and editing. The recent Goemon did a better job (though admittedly you might expect that from green screen king Kazuaki Kiriya). Then there’s just odd uses of it in other places, like the awkward superimposing of water when the characters are on a calm sea, and so on – it just seems a bit cheap and needless.

Visually the film fails to really find a character for itself. It’s well shot but in quite a mainstream Western action movie bland sort of a way. The aforementioned comparison with those old Lone Wolf movies is not favourable.

So ‘best movie’? Perhaps if your reference point is Ninja Assassin or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but no, I wouldn’t go that far. But enjoyable, and with a deliberately open ended conclusion, I wouldn’t mind betting there’ll be more on the way soon…

Kamui: The Lone Ninja is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Manga Entertainment on 9 August.

DVD details

Distributor: Manga Entertainment (UK)

A good master of the film, it plays up some of the weaknesses in the CGI (at least on the DVD version. There's plenty of bonus material on the disc, but this seems to mainly be from press conferences and premiere screenings with rather a limited appeal.

About the author

Andy H
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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