Kamui: The Lone Ninja Review
Yoichi Sai becomes the latest festival-friendly director to jump on the action-jidageki bandwagon by teaming up with popular screenwriter Kankurô Kudô to adapt Sanpei Shirato's classic 1960's manga serial: Kamui Gaiden, which as the effective manga-style opening informs is about a highly skilled nukenin (missing-ninja) who after abandoning his clan has become a victim of the code of shinobi, which demands that he be hunted down by his clan until his last breath is drawn. After the latest near-fatal reunion with his former colleagues, Kamui escapes into the eye of a vicious sea storm and washes up half-drowned on the shore of a modest fishing village, where he is taken in by the charismatic Hanbei. Coincidentally (isn't it always the case?) Hanbei's wife Sugaru happens to be a disguised nukenin herself, one who was nearly captured by Kamui and his master 14yrs ago. Despite being the target of Sugaru's suspicions, Kamui starts to form a close bond with Hanbei and his family and for the first time dreams of a life within a community, but it's not long before his former clan starts to make its move...
Yoichi Sai and Kankurô Kudô have a proven track record with character driven films, they have a strong source in Sanpei's manga, and have put together an impressive cast of actors - so why is the finished film so damned pedestrian? The problem isn't with the opening or closing acts, which are generally stylishly shot and feature some suitably violent shinobi combat, but with the 90minute beating heart of the film when Kamui is assimilated into Hanbei's family. Hanbei himself is a charismatic presence played by the always dependable Kaoru Kobayashi, but the rest of the cast struggle to rise above Sai & Kudô's uninspired, derivative script which only really comes to life thanks to a fatalistic introspective turn at the end. Koichi Sato manages to impress as a deranged Daimyo in the opening stages of the film, but like Hanbei in the closing stages is completely sidelined the rest of the time to focus on blander characters and all-too familiar "fugitive in a new town" dramatics. Some of the worst visual effects work you'll see outside of The Asylum productions also threatens to alienate the viewer, but somehow Kamui: The Lone Ninja just about manages to hold attention to the end. It's just that it could have, should have been so much more than merely "watchable"!
The Disc: Kamui: The Lone Ninja comes to Region-B Blu-ray in its original 1.85:1 ratio at 1080p with a pleasing transfer that suffers from some shocking digital noise in one or two places - for instance the banding is so bad when Kamui falls into the ocean 22 minutes in that it looks like he's drowning in soup - which thankfully are few and far between. The transfer isn't pin sharp and isn't helped by some out-focus shots, but there's a satisfying level of detail in the image nevertheless and no obvious Edge Enhancements. It's hard to ascertain if any noise reduction is in play but there's a moderate layer of reasonably sharp grain throughout that becomes understandably thicker during night shots. Contrast and brightness level look naturalistic even if black levels may dip slightly in some shots and colours are very nicely saturated, looking suitably bold throughout from the lush greens of the opening forest chase to the deep blues of the Okinawa coast.
The Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 track isn't particularly aggressive but it does have a rather effective sound field which places you right in the thick of the action. Bass can sound a little hollow at times but dynamics are strong and dialogue is warm, clean and audible throughout. Unfortunately the LPCM 2.0 Stereo track isn't nearly as solid, sounding hollow and harsh throughout, with the front and rear stereo channels poorly mixed and dialogue that sounds like the characters are talking into a plastic cup.
If there's one impression you get from the slew of Cast & Crew Press and Premiere conferences present in the Extra Features, it's that Yoichi Sai and Kenichi Matsuyama put in an exhausting amount of publicity for the film, personally attending 27 screenings across the whole country. There are featurettes featuring conference footage from a number of those screenings on this disc, most of which typically feature too many cast members in too little time to contribute anything substantial, but the first two featurettes (Press Conference of Upcoming Film "Kamui" and Premiere Screening) are much more focussed and informative on the film's production.