Anime based on Japan’s historical periods tend to vary wildly, not only in terms of the actual time periods and events they cover, but also in their means of execution. Some series, such as House of Five Leaves are rather reserved and realistic, while others, like Sengoku Basara, prefer a flamboyant, exaggerated style in regards to recalling historical events. Today’s feature, The Dagger of Kamui, leans towards the former group, with its own twists.
The Dagger of Kamui was originally released in Japan in 1985, as an adaptation of Tetsu Yano’s five-volume novel series of the same name. The film was directed by Rintaro, best known for directing Galaxy Express 999 and Metropolis, among other films. Character designs were done by the late Moribi Murano, who worked on the 1980’s Astro Boy series, and both Unico movies.
The Dagger of Kamui takes place in the 1860’s, during the tail end of Japan’s Bakumatsu period, and follows the life of a young man named Jiro. As a child, Jiro’s adoptive mother and sister were murdered by a unnamed ninja who left behind a dagger. The incident was blamed on Jiro, who escaped from his village and was taken under the wing of the monk Tenkai. After being trained in the art of ninjutsu by Tenkai’s subordinates, Jiro set out to uncover the truth about his birth parents and the mysterious dagger.
During his travels, Jiro manages to reach a village where his dagger is identified–as the titular Dagger of Kamui that belonged to his father. Furthermore, he is able to reunite with his birth mother, Oyaruru, who reveals the details of Tenkai’s true plans to Jiro. Jiro’s birth father was a subordinate of Tenkai, but betrayed him when he fell in love Oyaruru, and Tenkai subsequently separated the two and sent the infant Jiro elsewhere. Tenkai then tricked a young Jiro into murdering his birth father, but raised the boy in hopes that he would follow his father’s path, and lead him to Captain Kidd’s treasure which was hidden near America. With this knowledge in mind, Jiro embarks on a trans-continental journey to intercept Tenkai’s goal, while dealing with Tenkai’s subordinates along the way.
Studio Madhouse’s animation absolutely shines in The Dagger of Kamui. Movements are crisp and fluid, which is emphasized in many of the film’s action sequences. Characters leap through the air and brandish their weapons, with the paths of their blades highlighted in neon-colored streaks. Yet much of the fighting has an air of elegance rather than outright brutality, such as the scene in which Jiro focuses himself to land a killing blow on an opponent. Even bloodshed is depicted in a reserved manner, rather than having dying characters spray blood in every which way. Details have even been paid to the colorful backdrops and pan-overs of scenery, from the lush Japanese forests to the snowy mountain range. Overall, The Dagger of Kamui is a lovely piece of visual work with a surprising amount of eye for plasticity in its animation.
The Dagger of Kamui blends a sense of adventure and expedition with revenge and loss, without leaning too far in either direction. That is, the plot does not try to be a gritty tale of vengeance and death, nor does it aim to be an overly-idealistic story wherein the main character accomplishes his goals with the power of determination. The result is a film permeated with a strong sense of bittersweetness, yet still manages to be a satisfying, entertaining tale. Some parts of The Dagger of Kamui feel rather dragged out though, particularly during Jiro’s travels in America, and there are some odd logic-bending linguistic issues (how is Jiro able to conveniently communicate with an Indian tribe in Nevada?) but they don’t detract from the movie’s overall good quality.
Pros: Entertaining and all-around satisfying film. Story manages to avoid being too dark and revenge-focused but not too childishly idealistic. Animation is beautifully fluid and backdrops for the film are well-detailed.
Cons: Pacing hiccups drag the story out at times. Weird linguistic issues present in the second half, mainly how Jiro can communicate with various characters while he travels overseas. Some plot revelations in the later parts of the movie feel rather cheesy and unnecessary.
The Dagger of Kamui is licensed in the U.S. by AnimEigo. The Dagger of Kamui is a hidden gem of surprising entertainment, combining a bittersweet period drama with fast-paced action and trans-continental travel. If any of the aforementioned traits are up your alley, sit back, and give The Dagger of Kamui a shot.