Movie: Japanese anime is a growing niche market in the USA. Most of us are familiar with Saturday morning cartoons such as Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, or other "kiddy shows", but few people are really knowledgeable about the vast amount of animation made in Japan, called anime. While a lot of it is made for the younger crowd, the Japanese embrace the idea that it's also a good style to present more adult themes. This may range from movies like Akira, Princess Mononoke, or Ghost In The Shell, to light-hearted shows like Tenchi or Urusei Yatsura, to graphic Hentai with strong sexual themes. The Japanese culture also seems to understand that anime violence doesn't cause people to go crazy and start acting out what they see (a lesson our censors, both governmental and corporate should consider) so their shows reflect that sensibility. Often enough, a show will present a real, or even exaggerated, display of violence to make a point or move a story forward. People get hurt, die or otherwise feel the repercussions of their actions rather than the sanitized material we here in the USA get to see. This brings us to a little show called Kai Doh Maru.
The show takes a look at a feudal Japanese kingdom in 889 A.D. where a bloody coup is taking place. Apparently, lines of succession in royal families are taken very seriously and one man wants his older brother's kingdom for his family. Rather than working something out, he goes with the tried and true method of genocide. One small kid survives, Kaidohmaru, and is taken in by a powerful warlord. The child is raised to become a powerful Samurai who becomes one of four protectors of the city-each with specialties of their own-who deal with supernatural or other major threats to the peace of their community. With epidemics raging throughout the countryside, bandits raiding all over the place and other problems, they keep their hands full but it's when her female cousin, along with some magically enhanced followers, becomes a threat to the kingdom that the action really heated up.
The movie opened up a few issues relating to gender biases (the lead character was a woman portraying a man) which were interesting. In another day and time, would Kaidohmaru (aka: Kintoki) have to do this? Another point I was interested in was how lines of succession made the whole story line possible. This is something that has developed in most cultures over the years, even isolated cultures so there much be some inherent basis for it. If the most capable person was chosen as leader, not just the one who had the "right" blood by virtue of parental lineage, wouldn't that make more sense? Yet over and over again, be it through formal structure (in a royalty setting) or due to informal power structure (corporate nepotism), it seems as though leaders are picked for less than logical reasons.
As far as the actual designs go, I really found them to be a breath of fresh air. I'm used to the bright colors and frantic actions of characters in anime but the style here was much more deliberate and controlled. I still like the other way better but this style grows on me with each viewing-not an easy accomplishment for a movie lover like myself. The Japanese voice actors did a fine job where even if I had been blind, I'd have been able to enjoy the lyrical flow of their speech along with the music. My biggest problem with the show as a whole was that it seemed unfinished or like it was a slice of a bigger picture. Most successful stories have a definite beginning, middle, and end and this seemed to be a rough draft, albeit a great rough draft, of a larger saga that will likely be left uncompleted. Had it not been for the character biographies, I'd have been left in the dark as to who most of them were. It would've been far more interesting to see them develop over the course of a longer, feature length anime movie or, perhaps wishfully on my part, a series. I'd guess that this was made as a proposal for such a series given it's relative strengths and, if so, I wish the crew would get enough funding to make it complete.
Picture: The picture was presented in a crystal clear 1.85:1 ratio widescreen. The only problem I saw with it was a matter of style in that the colors were deliberately muted and the anime of a minimalist nature. The saying "elegance through simplicity" comes to mind in that the backgrounds, full of complexity and detail (as well as generated with CGI), had much more detail than the faces or bodies of the characters. This looked to be intentional and the show did look very distinctive because of it although I wonder if the roundtable discussion was right on when it was discussed this (time issues). In a sense, it looked to be a tribute to Japanese Manga comics (slightly) come to life.
Sound: The sound gave you several choices. You could pick from 2.0 Stereo in Japanese or English or 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround for each language. The English subtitles were removable and quite clear if you choose them. The music score was very appropriate with the right touch and the Japanese 5.1 track also top notch. The English language dub was not as compelling though and much of that was due to the performances of the cast. I recognized a couple names on it as being solid in previous performances elsewhere but overall, too many were not right for the parts and/or sounded like they were unrehearsed.
Extras: The extras included a really interesting round table discussion with the Director, the animation director, and the character designer who described not only how the show came about but problems they faced and other background information. It was quite telling that the comments made by them which indicated the show could've used more time to be finished/polished up were left in (in other words, it wasn't sanitized to be a cheerleader piece). There was also a character design board which showed a number of sketches of the cast. Another good extra was a section of character biographies that not only gave background data on who they were but included clips from the show and a full color model the crew of animators worked with to draw them. The last unique extra was the CGI model page where you could look at the backgrounds used and see them in 3-D animation. Of course the dvd also included a catalog of trailers and such as Manga always does to top it off with.
Final Thoughts: This is a tough one for me to call. I liked the positive aspects enough that I'd be remiss if I didn't rate it as at least a Highly Recommended for anime fans but recognize the limitations of the story and character development as rating somewhat less worthy. The picture and sound were very solidly done with some good extras but at times the limited anime style seemed more fitting for hanging on my wall as artwork (many of the scenes would make great stills to frame for your walls) than for watching on my television set.