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Dagger of Kamui Anime DVD Review

7 min read
A globe-spanning ninja tale.

A globe-spanning ninja tale.

What They Say:
On the eve of the Meiji restoration, as a slumbering Japan awakens and turns its eyes westward, an innkeeper finds a baby named Jiro in a drifting boat; his only companion a glittering blade, the Dagger of Kamui. When Jiro is thirteen, his adoptive family is murdered and Jiro is blamed, only to be rescued by Tenkai, a priest, who trains him in the mysterious arts of the Ninja. Seeking revenge for the loss of his adoptive family, Jiro kills the mysterious one-armed Ninja who reportedly slew them.

Now the chase begins, as Jiro, with only the Dagger of Kamui to help him, searches for the great treasure, a search that will take him all the way to the American Old West, with Tenkai’s minions always close behind. If Jiro can find the treasure and return to Japan, then, perhaps, Jiro can exact his revenge, and thrust the Dagger of Kamui into Tenkai’s black heart!

The Review:
The audio presentation for this film brings us the original Japanese language track only in stereo and encoded at 224kbps. While the film doesn’t have the depth and directionality of many of today’s films, it does fill the overall environment nicely. Combined with a great soundtrack and excellent sound effects, we were quite pleased with how this sounded overall as it moves through what it engages in. The sound effects in particular are quite striking as you can imagine them going for a lot of authenticity where they could to really drive it home. It’s a clean and clear presentation that delivers exactly what’s needed even if it lacks the frills of modern soundtracks.

Originally released in 1985, the transfer here is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. The film is certainly showing its age in materials as well as likely not being the best set of materials for a DVD release. A lot of the issues with this release are reminiscent of problems with old laserdisc transfers that went to DVD in the early years. Lots of cross coloration, chroma noise and dot crawl throughout the program. You do enter areas where it’s barely noticeable, but then it becomes jarring again when you get back to it. With a lot of this film using mid-range character shots that are now not as sharp as they should be, they look soft and at times jittery when combined with the cross coloration. This film definitely deserves to look better, though whether materials exist for it to is another question entirely.

The cover uses what I believe is the same artwork as the last VHS release which has the nice painted artwork of Jiro’s face coming out of the darkness while below that is his blade and various icons from the film’s journey. While not terribly eye-catching, it’s a great piece that really looks good for this show. The back cover provides a meager two shots from the film and a very good summary of the plot. The discs features and technical specs are all nicely laid out in the usual AnimEigo style as well. In place of an insert we have two “recipe” cards going over some of the films historical nods and song translations.

The menu utilizes two pieces of animation form the show and mixes them together nicely with some of the music from the action sequences to showcase Jiro posing with the menu selections ringed around him. Access times are nice and fast and the layout is very easy to use.

Some extras were managed to be scrounged up for this decidedly older show. Two of them are nice original pieces, one of them a video gallery of character biographies and the other a map selection piece where you can follow where Jiro went during the movie. Also included is an original Japanese trailer for the film.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Originally released in theaters back in 1985, Dagger of Kamui is one of those defining films of an anime generation with its powerful visuals and excellent score that was backed by Haruki Kadokawa. I remember being exposed to many pieces that bore that logo back in the early days and enjoying just about every piece of it. Seeing the logo again only brings back some of that feeling, which is one reason I enjoy pulling older projects and getting that little thrill and nostalgia again.

The story of Kamui is a solid one, though the film definitely lacks some of the punch it once had as the world of anime has definitely come a long way in terms of graphic violence. Many of the scenes that were once chilling are now quite tame. But the overall push is still there, and with just over two hours for a running time, it moves along perfectly and doesn’t slow down long enough that you’d start checking a clock.

The core of the story is a treasure hunt, but it’s framed with the life of one boy that grows into a man. The film starts off quickly with a shinobi who enters a small village inn and quickly kills a woman and her daughter. We see later a young boy entering the inn and coming across his dead mother and sister. Foolishly, though emotional, he pulls out the blade that’s in her chest. This is timed with one of the old ladies of the village to amble in and see, and she begins ranting about a parent-killer, one of the worst things that anyone can be. It’s not long before young Jiro is being chased out of the village and deep into the mountains.

His timing works out well, as he comes across a powerfully built monk named Tenkai who informs him that the man who killed his family has been trapped not far from there. We see several shinobi attacking a one-armed man and placing him within control of their chains when Tenkai and Jiro arrive. Tenkai raises the blood of young Jiro, telling him of the evils that this man has committed upon his family. It’s little surprise that Jiro takes his blade and squarely does in the man after the shinobi slice him up a bit first.

Jiro is then taken in by the monk to become a shinobi himself, as it’s revealed that Jiro is really a foundling and not blood-related to the family that died. Tenkai promises to look into Jiro’s past while he trains. And it’s some years later, after we go through a lush training period, that Tenkai returns with information for Jiro that his father had been on the search for a huge treasure somewhere and had abandoned his shinobi family for it. He provides some meager information and sends him on his way.

Jiro’s journey brings him into contact with his birth mother and a number of other colorful characters, such as historical figures like Andou and Mark Twain. His journey takes him to the land of the Ainu and then all the way to America, dealing with both the old west’s cowboys and Indians. His journey is filled with violence though, as along the way he revokes his status with Tenkai after learning some very nasty truths. Tenkai and his master forces continue to hunt Jiro and for the treasure that Jiro now seeks.

There is a lot of backstory to this film that becomes crucial almost from the start that would give away far too much. Dagger of Kamui is a beautiful epic film that takes a young boy and places him on a violent path, but one that leads to enlightenment for him and discovery of his true roots. His journey over the world brings a lot of elements into play, from pirates to Indians, lost treasure and lost families. It’s all beautifully pulled together by Rintaro and continues to be in my mind one of his more cohesive films.

In Summary:
It’s unfortunate that the source materials here really aren’t fully suited for DVD as this film really deserves better. When that 80’s Japanese music starts getting forceful and is combined with the chants, there’s just something almost primal to it. When you have the shinobi running fast and hard across the screen, the visuals are so strong as to almost overwhelm at times. I found myself far too distracted at times with the visual problems though to truly become immersed in it though. I still heartily recommend this film though, as it’s one of those pieces that I think should be seen as it’s definitely a major milestone in the anime film library. While lacking some of the punch of more recent films in terms of bloodiness, it has a charm all of its own that still stands nearly twenty years later.

Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Biographies, Map, Trailer

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: C-
Packaging Grade: B-
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: C

Released By: AnimEigo
Release Date: September 9th, 2003
MSRP: $24.95
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33’1

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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