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Sunday, December 19, 2010

KAMUI GAIDEN -- DVD review by porfle

Based on the popular manga, KAMUI GAIDEN (2009) combines intimate drama and grand adventure with a hefty dose of furious fighting action, in an ultimately tragic tale of feudal Japan in the 17th century. 

Kaimu (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) starts out as a poor farmboy whose people are on the bottom rung of rural society.  Vowing to fight back against oppression, he joins a ninja clan known as the Shinobi but later renounces their violent ways and becomes a fugitive.  When the inhabitants of a humble fishing village offer him refuge, he believes his days of running may be over--until he discovers that the ruthless and tenacious Shinobi always get their man.

With a look as lush and colorful as a basket of ripe fruit, KAMUI GAIDEN is like a glossy graphic novel come to life.  After a brief prologue consisting of panels from the black-and-white manga, summarizing Kamui's miserable early life and induction into the Shinobi, we're thrust into the middle of his ongoing flight from hordes of deadly assassins who will stop at nothing to kill him.  This opening sequence is designed to satisfy our sweet tooth for over-the-top martial arts action for awhile so that the more leisurely-paced main story can commence.

A dense forest is the setting for a string of encounters which utilize painstaking fight choreography combined with fairytale-level wirework--ninjas leap and soar from branch to branch like flying squirrels--and several shots are such an obvious hybrid of live action and CGI that they require a strong suspension of disbelief.  This isn't a problem, though, if one simply goes along with the storybook atmosphere and almost supernatural aura that the sequence conveys.

As if the Shinobi weren't enough for Kamui to worry about, he ends up helping a crazy man named Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi) who has just chopped off the leg of a horse belonging to the cruel clan lord Gumbei (Kôichi Satô) and absconded with it.  Hanbei actually has a valid reason for doing so, but this doesn't prevent Gumbei from ordering the deaths of both him and Kamui, which will prove a major inconvenience for them later on.

Much drama occurs back in Hanbei's fishing village as Kamui discovers that the man's wife is Sugaru (Koyuki), a Shinobi warrior woman who escaped from the ninja clan fourteen years earlier after battling with a young Kamui.  Despite Sugaru's lingering mistrust, her daughter Sayaka (Suzuka Ohgo) falls in love with Kamui and Hanbei begs him to stay on and become a fisherman.  This segment of the film glows with scenes of idyllic beauty and romance until circumstances force the family to flee to another island.

Over-the-top CGI makes a grand reappearance when their new island home turns out to be plagued by gigantic leaping sharks that like to eat fishermen.  This leads to one of the film's most outlandish sequences as a shipload of swashbuckling shark hunters known as the Watarishu show up and start lustily hacking and harpooning their way through the toothy critters in exchange for food and supplies from the villagers.  It looks like Kamui has at last found a place in the world where he can cast off his constant mistrust of others and settle down, but alas, things aren't as they seem.

As the film reaches its climax, KAMUI GAIDEN once again becomes a series of life-and-death clashes of fist and sword.  This time, there's a grittier edge that eschews showy fight choreography for a more hard-edged, down-and-dirty approach that reflects Kamui's emotional turmoil and lust for revenge. 

Director Yoichi Sai's staging of the final showdown has the flavor of a Sergio Leone gunfight with the opponents facing off from either side of the screen before going at each other.  Strangely enough, there's even a weird echo of the fight between King Arthur and the Black Knight from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

The 2-disc DVD from Funimation is in 1.78.1 widescreen with Japanese and English soundtracks and English subtitles. Extras include a half-hour "making of" documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at Ken'ichi Matsuyama's extensive training for the action scenes, and several trailers. 

After a darkly comic dash of bitter irony, the ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, which suits me.  Overflowing with incredible action, beautiful camerawork, and extremely stylish direction, KAMUI GAIDEN is a stirring and visually splendid adventure that engages the viewer on every level.  

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