From its very beginning, the story of the renegade ninja Kamui has been political. Created in 1967 by leftest-artist Sanpei Shirato, Kamui was a symbol of Japan’s rigid social classes and rules, and the woes that befall those who try to rage against the machine. Sanpei used Kamui to tell tales of discrimination, oppression and the exploitation of workers. Since the characters first appearance in Garo magazine, Kamui has been adapted into anime and continuing manga series, but this 2009 movie is I believe the first Kamui live-action film.
Directed by Yoichi Sai (Quill, Blood And Bones), Kamui Gaiden (translating as something along the lines of A Supplemental Biography of Kamui, to distinguish it from Sanpei’s original Kamui Den), this version of the Kamui story retains the political nature of the character while thrusting him into an action-packed ninja spectacular. In this film, Kamui is not only an outcast ninja but a member of the hinin-caste. Hinin, which translates as non-human, were the Japanese equivalent of the Indian Untouchables, a caste so low that they had no legal rights or dignity. Discrimination against the hinin caste continues even today, known by the term burakumin.
From birth, Kamui (Matsuyama Kenichi, Death Note) faces horrendous abuse and discrimination, like all of his caste, and his experiences causes him to harden and dedicate himself to becoming strong. He is adopted into the Iga ninja clan, where as a young boy he takes part in the assassination of Sugaru (Koyuki, The Last Samurai), a woman seeking to escape the clan.
It is one of their rules; no one leaves the shinobi. Years later, now a ninja of some strength himself, Kamui finds the hunter/prey role reversed as it is Kamui who flees the shinobi and is pursued. He fights and fights, and eventually finds some sort of shelter with a fishing village on an island far from the known cities. There he meets a man, Hanbei (Kobayashi Kaoru, Princess Mononoke), who offers him a life of peace and the hand of his daughter in marriage However for a man like Kamui there can be no peace, as Hanbei’s wife is none other than Sugaru, still alive, and both Sugaru and Kamui find that there is nowhere they can run from their troubles.
As befits the character, Kamui Gaiden is a pretty dense story. Those looking for some light ninja action might find themselves with a little more plot than they bargained for. You can enjoy the film without the political background of the hinin and Japan’s Edo period caste-system, but some of the finer points might be lost, as well as some of the motivations of the characters. Especially at the beginning, when a young Kamui rages against the children who pelt him with rocks asking “What is so different about me?” and in classic Shakespeare style shouts “Prick me, will I not bleed?”
But the film does a good job of lightening its heavy moments with some over-the-top ninja wire-fighting. Sadly, this is something Japan has just never done as well as China, and the fight-scenes are never really more than decent. This is the first CGI-heavy film that Yoichi has done, and that is his weakness. In his films like Quill and Blood and Bones, he has shown he can do intense human drama, but he is not really an action director. There is a particular rubbery shark in one scene that ruined my suspension of disbelief.
Funimation's release of Kamui Gaiden is superb, with other 45 minutes worth of extra features including a “Making of” and “Behind the scenes.”
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.