"Kamui Gaiden" based on the manga "The Legend of Kamui" is a shining example of the dangers of abandoning an un-engaging movie early on into a viewing. The two-hour film is at it's highest points an average pseudo-epic embarrassingly directed by Yoichi Sai, the man behind the darkly engaging Takeshi Kitano vehicle, "Blood and Bones." A directionless film for the first 30-minutes, "Kamui Gaiden" would have easily found it's way back into the Blu-Ray case if it wasn't for my obligation to review it. Fortunately, a story, incredibly thin, but a narrative nevertheless emerges, and the end result is an almost admirable effort at a mini-epic, if it weren't for a few glaring problems.
The plot, which agonizingly unravels over the first half of the film follows the rogue ninja Kamui as he flees from members of his clan bound to hunt him down for leaving the order. Sai attempts to hold viewers interests with a number of well-intentioned but terribly executed action sequences far too reliant on CGI that is poor by decade old standards. Eventually through a series of loosely threaded vignettes, Kamui makes his way to a quiet fishing village and encounters a figure from his past that stirs his already conflicted emotions. Unfortunately the actor playing Kamui, Ken'ichi Matsuyama plays the lead part with tired indifference, likely confusing his emotions with the stoic resolve of legendary shadow warriors.
On the flipside, the actors playing the villagers that take the wounded Kamui in bring far more life and vibrancy into their roles than the thin writing offers them, unlike the villains of the film who are at best overwrought caricatures. If it weren't for the film's liberal violence and dull pacing, I'd be inclined to say "Kamui Gaiden" was written and produced for children as there is little of real substance, leaving the over-the-top action sequences to substitute for breaks in the doldrums. Fans of the Ninja Gaiden games will recognize signature moves brought to life, but less realistically than the years old animations of the source material, as "Kamui Gaiden" is plagued by terrible CGI that is so prevalent and distracting it drops the entire film down a notch in my book.
Sai makes no attempt to find practical methods for simple looking stunts, instead having simple actions as jumping from a 7 foot tree branch left to the work of third-rate computer animators. CGI stunt doubles stiffly move about the screen breaking any tension of flow in action, and when the actors are actually engaged in physical action, weapons are often substituted in the computer. As a result, some of the attractive cinematography of the movie comes into question as the HD presentation betrays sloppy transitions from live action to green screened backed plates. The film's sequences on the ocean are the most notorious with every element save for the actors and boat prop halfheartedly rendered, the pinnacle being a comically bad shark attack that should be scary but instead makes one pine for the terrors of "Deep Blue Sea."
Ultimately, "Kamui Gaiden" is guilty of doing a mediocre job of too many things instead of doing a good to great job of just a few things. I appreciated the slower pace the film takes towards the middle act, but the characters are underwritten so much that I can safely say I never made a single emotional connection to any one of them. Yoichi Sai should be more than a little embarrassed at his final offering, far below the man's talents, bestowing upon a viewers the laziest mini-epic garnished with criminally bad CGI and unleashing a cheap emotional ploy as a last ditch effort to get viewers involved in the film for the finale. In short, it's a completely disposable cinematic endeavor.
The 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec transfer is a mixed bag. Its strongest qualities are it's strong contrast and color, where shadows can move in and out of one another with proper definition between objects always being apparent. Colors are rich with a darker than expected hue, but never waver and lend a stylized look to the film. Detail levels are generally quite strong, but there are a few sequences where things are a hair above high quality upconverted standard definition. Finally, digital noise levels fluctuate from moderately noticeable to nearly absent, with darker sequences falling in the former.
The Dolby TrueHD Japanese 6.1 audio track is expertly balanced with dialogue fluctuations (whispers to yells) perfectly handled and never overpowered by score or effects. The surrounds are used mildly for effect, mostly in fight sequences, while the low end is merely adequate. It's worth noting a few voices have a mildly artificial resonant quality, but I fully believe this to be an artistic choice and not an audio defect. A Dolby TrueHD English dub is also included as are English subtitles.
Presented in standard definition, the two extras consist of a nearly 13-minute behind-the-scenes look at the main character and actor, and a 33-minute making of featurette that does a quick run through production.
While sporting an above average HD presentation, "Kamui Gaiden" has little new to offer viewers. If it weren't for the stomach turning CGI that plagues the film from start to finish, it would be a nice diversion for the ninja fan, but ultimately it's a just plain boring film that's too lazy to take any risks. Skip It.