Kamui: The Lone Ninja (2009)

First published by EyeforFilm

Sai Yoichi’s Kamui: The Lone Ninja resurrects a brand of hyper-stylised, ultra-bleak chanbara not seen since the Wakayama Tomisaburo-starring hexalogy of 1970s Baby Cart films, whose peripatetic heroes Lone Wolf and Son are perhaps best-known to English-speaking viewers through Robert Houston’s re-dubbed remix of the first two Baby instalments into the now much-sampled ‘video nasty’ Shogun Assassin (1980). Sai’s film, too, is a savage live-action adaptation of a celebrated manga (in this case Shirato Sanpei’s multi-volume series Kamui Gaiden published monthly from 1964-71), and its hero is likewise a formidable fighter turned fugitive in a world that is both culturally specific (Tokugawa-era Japan) and nightmarishly infernal. And as the red-splashed opening titles promise, there will be blood.

Before that, though, a brief prologue presents Kamui’s backstory in a series of inked panels that form the 17th-century equivalent of a manga, concisely linking together the hero’s and the film’s origins. Further references to the film’s comicbook source are to be found in the enigmatic old man who is often shown sketching the film’s scenes of violence as they unfold before him, and whose true identity will not become apparent till near the end – as well as in the free use of CGI not only to tweak the action sequences into gravity-defying excess, but also to lend a hyperreal aesthetic to much of the background scenery. This is a highly mannered cartoon world, but Sai’s steady grip on characterisation and drama ensures that all the florid fantasy remains rooted in the human domain.

Born to a poor village in the mountains, Kamui (Matsuyama Ken’ichi, ‘L’ from the Death Note trilogy) has dedicated himself to finding personal freedom in a time of rigid feudal hierarchy and social exclusion. So he travels from home and pursues the only avenue open to a low-caste ‘non-human’, becoming a ninja – only to break away from the clan and its strict code of obedience when all the ordered assassinations of folk little different from himself have become too much for him. His defection, however, makes him, and all those around him, punishable by death, and he now lives a life of constant movement, suspicion and violence as ninja-hunters hound him wherever he goes.

When chance casts Kamui ashore on a small island, he finds respite, companionship and even love in the home of carefree fisherman Hanbei (Kobayashi Kaoru), whose wife Oshika, aka Sugura (Koyuki), is also a renegade ninja, and whose eldest daughter Sayaka (Ohgo Suzuka) is all eyes for the young stranger. This new-found idyll, however, will not last long, as both Kamui’s troubled past and Hanbei’s more recent run-in with the effete, sadistic Lord Gunbei (Sato Koichi) prove to be problems not so easily left behind. When the Watari, a crew of breakaway ninjas turned professional shark hunters, arrive with their captain Fudo (Ito Hideaki), Kamui might just have found himself a community of like-minded rebels and lovers of freedom – or he might equally have been drawn right back into what he has been trying to escape all along.

In Kamui: The Lone Ninja, issues of humanism and class division are never far from the surface. The daimyo Gunbei treats commoners as the expendable instruments of his pleasure or wrath, but has, not unlike the similarly cruel Roman emperor Caligula, conferred a rank and title upon his favourite horse, Ichijiro. When the leg of ‘Lord Ichijiro’ is hacked off at the fetlock and stolen by Hanbei, Gunbei regards the theft as a direct challenge to his authority, and lashes out murderously, while his consort Ayu (Anna Tsuchiya) declares that 1,000 or even 10,000 severed human heads would not suffice to repay the loss of the horse. For Hanbei, though, the theft was no act of rebellion, nor targeted specifically against Gunbei, but merely a practical means to improve his livelihood as a fisherman – a precarious profession which, with its constant elemental ‘battles’, ever-circling sharks and its separation from hell by ‘only a plank of wood’, is closely paralleled to Kamui’s own perilous life on the run.

Where Kamui has realised that the blood which flows through everyone’s veins is the same – a realisation that has led him to turn his back on the path of assassination – Gunbei (in a chilling coda) will order that a decorative screen depicting key scenes from the story be painted, purely for his aesthetic enjoyment, with the ‘real blood’ of 100 or 200 randomly picked commoners. Amid such horrific iniquities and inequalities, the film asks, is true freedom ever possible for anyone but the privileged? And can the individual truly isolate himself or herself from the harsh realities of the outside world?

If you view Kamui: The Lone Ninja merely as an action film, you are bound to be intermittently disappointed, especially in its interludes on fishing and island life – although the fighting, when it comes, is as intense as it is inventive, thanks to a dizzying combination of wirework and digital effects. If, however, the film is instead regarded as a pessimistic parable of the nature of freedom, as well as a (sometimes gory) anatomisation of a society’s immovable class structures, then even these quieter episodes begin to ripple and resonate with their carefully crafted analogies and contrasts.

The film may be episodic, and its narrative may travel from mainland to sea to island to sea to (another) island to mainland while ultimately going exactly nowhere, but if Kamui, no matter where he is, seems always to be faced with similar alienation, mistrust and danger, this serves to portray a type of hero who has to run to stand still, in a world which has no room for his dreams of a better life. Here, Kamui’s endless struggle and suffering are all – but if that, and the film’s immense visual beauty, do not sound enough to keep the viewer entertained and enthralled, then there are always the CG megasharks…

Anton Bitel