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‘Kamui Gaiden ‘

Ninja epic not all about action

by Mark Schilling

Producers, both here and abroad, have been busy scouting film properties among the anime and manga of the 1960s and 1970s, from kiddie cartoon fluff such as “Yattaman” to the apocalyptic thriller “MW,” created by manga maestro Osamu Tezuka.

Given the growing popularity of the originals around the world, the target audience is often not only nostalgic Japanese graybeards, but also young foreign fans.

Yoichi Sai’s “Kamui Gaiden” would seem eminently exportable to these fans. Based on a classic manga by Sampei Shirato that ran in “Shukan Shonen Sunday” from 1965 to 1967 and then again in “Big Comic” from 1982 to 1987, “Kamui” has a hot-blooded ninja hero, played by the star du jour Kenichi Matsuyama, as well as action scenes galore, choreographed by Hong Kong-trained Kenji Tanigaki (see my June 12 profile at japantimes.co.jp).

Those expecting a fun two hours with campy chopsocky are in for a letdown, however. Shirato was a pioneering alternative-comics artist who injected “Kamui” with his own leftist politics, including a pointed critique of discrimination and inequality in Japanese society. Sai’s screen version, with a script by Kankuro Kudo, is more on the entertaining than politicizing side, but it preserves the core of Shirato’s dark, violent vision. In his Japan, outsiders are, not merely marginalized, but hunted and exterminated like vermin.

Sai is the right director for this story, if background and filmography are any criteria. A zainichi (ethnic) Korean, Sai has often examined the lives of minorities and social marginals in his films, from his 1993 comedy “Tsuki wa Dotchi Deteiru” (“All Under the Moon”), whose hero is a cynical zainichi cabby, to the prison comedy “Keimusho no Naka” (“Doing Time,” 2002) and the zainichi family drama “Chi to Hone” (“Blood and Bones,” 2004).

At the same time, Sai had not had much action experience prior to “Kamui” and the shoot, which began in April 2007 and wrapped in September 2008, was long and grueling. That effort is visible on the screen — and not always in a good way, with airborne battles that look a bit labored instead of lyrical, as though, after weeks of 20-hour days, everyone was running on fumes.

But energetic and inspired action moves are also on abundant display, many of which are supplied by Matsuyama as the inhumanly agile ninja hero. Also, compared with Kazuaki Kiriya’s “Goemon,” a recent period actioner with the weightless look and feel of a video game, “Kamui” packs far more of a visceral punch — the positive side of all that heavy breathing.

Kamui (Matsuyama) is raised by a ninja clan and becomes one of its strongest fighters, but feeling hemmed in by the clan’s rules and yearning for freedom, he decides to leave it. The story proper begins after he has taken this fateful step and is being relentlessly hunted by his former fellow ninja as a traitor and renegade. After eliminating his pursuers one by one, he meets and befriends Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi), a fisherman whose rank in the social pecking order is almost as low as his own.

Hanbei, however, ends up being chased himself by the minions of Gumbei (Koichi Sato), a local lord who is convinced that his favorite horse has been killed by Hanbei. Kamui helps him escape and, in return, Hanbei takes him to the remote island village he calls home. There Kamui finds Sugaru (Koyuki), Hanbei’s wife — and a runaway ninja like himself. Thinking Kamui has been sent to assassinate her, she tries to kill him and, even after he pleads his innocence of evil intentions, is slow to trust him. But Hanbei’s teenage daughter Sayaka (Suzuka Ohgo) takes an immediate liking to this dashing stranger.

Then the island receives a visitor — a ship on the hunt for the killer sharks that infest the surrounding waters. The captain, Fudo (Hideaki Ito), is playing a double game, however, and pulls Kamui into it. Soon our hero is faced with a choice that could cost him his life.

“Kamui” thoroughly demythologizes the ninja of fabled secrecy and cunning, showing them as a closed society of absolute conformity and amoral duplicity. Quitting a ninja clan is like quitting the old Sicilian Mafia — you leave as a corpse or not at all. Also, once you are a clan renegade, you can never rest easy, since friends and lovers can suddenly reveal themselves as deadly enemies. Whom can you trust? The short answer, Kamui finds, is “no one.”

This may sound grim, but Matsuyama, who made his breakthrough as the sweets-addicted detective L of the “Death Note” films, is an eye-riveting combination of feral grace and intensity as Kamui. Also, while flashing those wary-animal eyes, he gives the character a humanly likable and tongue-in-cheek comic side. Meanwhile, Hideaki Ito, so stiff as the pure-hearted skin-diver hero of the “Umizaru” films, delivers an exuberant stemwinder of a performance as Fudo, all toothy, menacing grins and hammy, vicious energy. One reference point is Gregory Peck as Ahab in “Moby Dick” (for the shared beards and borderline nutso affects). Another are the charmingly ruthless villains that were a specialty of postwar star Tetsuro Tanba.

A sequel is implied at the end, which is only right, since Shirato’s manga epic has hundreds more pages yet to film. But if Sai wants to take a break who could blame him? Fortunately for us, he got “Kamui” in the can before he and everyone around him collapsed of exhaustion.