“Kamui: the Lone Ninja” is a live action adaptation of the legendary Japanese manga created back in 1964 by Sanpei Shirato, directed by Yoichi Sai, previously responsible for the harrowing Takeshi Kitano drama “Blood and Bones”. The film is a wild fantasy adventure, which enticingly offers not only ninja action and the usual clan wars, but also pirates, sharks, and battles on the high seas. Written by Sai and Kankuro Kudo (“Zebraman”, “Ping Pong”), the film features an all star cast headlined by Matsuyama Kenichi (Detroit Metal City), with support from Koyuki (“Blood: The Last Vampire”), Ito Hideaki (“Umizaru”), Tsuchiya Anna (“Sakuran”), and Ohgo Suzuka (“Into the Faraway Sky”), with an appearance from Hong Kong star Ekin Cheng (“The Storm Warriors”). The film now arrives on region 2 DVD and Blu Ray via Manga Entertainment.
The film is set in 17th century Japan, and follows Kamui (Matsuyama Kenichi), a young ninja whose wish for freedom and to live his life by his own rules pushes him to leave his clan of assassins in search of his destiny. This doesn’t sit too well with his former colleagues, who set about hunting him down, determined to punish his betrayal with death. After he saves the life of a fisherman called Hanbei (veteran actor Kobayashi Kaoru), he winds up living at a small beach village, where he finally finds some measure of peace. Unfortunately, his presence soon stirs up trouble, not least since Hanbei’s own wife is actually an outcast ninja, who fears that Kamui may have been sent to kill her. A band of shark hunting pirates arrive at the village, taking the young ninja under their wing, though with his pursuers rapidly closing in, he has to make a choice whether to flee or fight.
A suitably epic affair, “Kamui: the Lone Ninja” covers a lot of ground, and although obviously condensed from the mammoth manga, it never sacrifices the feel of the source material for the sake of a high concept popcorn plot, with plenty of pondering as Kamui steadfastly chases his goal of personal freedom while encountering thorny moral issues. The story is engaging, with lots of intrigue, betrayals and deceptions that keep things moving along, and it benefits from being surprisingly harsh in places, especially towards the end. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does have the feel of an origin film, introducing the protagonist and featuring an essentially open ended narrative, though it sets things up for any continuing sequels with a pleasingly economic lack of fuss. Though mainly defined by his desire for freedom, Kamui is an interesting figure, quite different to the average ninja hero, and this initial character journey does see somewhat of a transformation from boy to man. Matsuyama Kenichi is perfectly acceptable in the lead, glowering effectively throughout, though for the most part the character’s motivations and emotions are explained by narrator Yamazaki Tsutomu.
The film certainly delivers the goods for ninja fans, with plenty of action, intrigue, and secret skills and techniques with cool sounding names. For the most part, Sai keeps things restrained in terms of fight scenes, which tend to come in short, sharp bursts before the inevitable last act mass battle and showdown. This approach works well, and is in keeping with the ninja theme, adding a sense of danger and the unpredictable to its clashes. The choreography is generally of a good standard, if somewhat over stretched by slow motion at times, and the film benefits from a few flashes of blood and limb chopping along the way.
The film is also lifted by some top notch production values, which Sai makes the very most out of. The sunny coastal setting is picturesque, and the gorgeous aquamarine water and beachside villages give the film a different feel to other ninja outings, as does the shark slaying angle. Sai’s direction fits the material well, shifting from epic to intimate as required, and the film as a whole manages a good balance between thrills, story telling and character, giving it a more crafted feel than the average blockbuster. The special effects are generally good, and are used to enhance rather than dominate the film, though some of the CGI is a little obvious, especially during some odd and not entirely convincing scenes of jumping sharks.
This doesn’t get in the way of the fun too much, and “Kamui: the Lone Ninja” stands as one of the better examples of the ninja genre. Sai works hard to bring Sanpei Shirato’s vision to life without too much grand standing, and the film is all the more enjoyable for paying equal amounts of attention to character and excitement.
Yoichi Sai (director) / Sampei Shirato (comic), Kankurô Kudô, Yoichi Sai(screenplay)
CAST: Ken’ichi Matsuyama … Camui
Koyuki … Sugaru
Kaoru Kobayashi … Hanbei
Kôichi Satô … Gumbei
Hideaki Ito … Fudo
Sei Ashina … Mikumo
Ekin Cheng … Dumok
Yuta Kanai … Yoshito