When an event as prestigious as the London Film Festival describes a film as ‘probably the best ninja movie ever made’, as film critic and author Tony Rayns did in their 2009 programme, then you have to sit up and take note. The film in question is Kamui - The Lone Ninja, which has been loosely adapted from the classic Japanese comic book written by Sanpei Shirato in the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s - one of the first manga titles to become popular overseas when it was published in the US in the 1980s.
Yet while Kamui, the comic book, is widely commended, not least for its accurate portrayal of feudal Japan and its mix of exciting action with political and social commentary, Kamui, the movie, is unlikely to reach such high regard or indeed meet the LFF’s lofty tag. It’s clear that by choosing Sanpei Shirato’s ninja stories, director Yoichi Sai had pretensions of doing for ninjas what Akira Kurosawa did for the samurai, but Kamui never quite manages to fulfil its potential. The film’s biggest flaw is its overly slick, CGI-packed, blockbuster-friendly polish; although it delivers plenty of thrills during some well-choreographed fight sequences, the story lacks the kind of emotional depth to truly engage the viewer on any level beyond that of a teenage boy’s cry of ‘Awesome - cool fight!’
The overall result is a movie that promises much but delivers only in fits and spurts - like a rollercoaster ride where your anticipation builds as you trundle up that first incline, all tense with excitement as the carriage crests the initial peak in the track, only to discover there’s a slight downward slope on the other side with a few neat turns to follow before the cart disappointingly comes to rest at the exit point.
And those turns seem a long time in coming. Although the running time is a fairly standard two hours, the paucity of action, as good as it is when it does come, and a preponderance for over-exposition of story and characters make the film feel a lot longer.
This film starts well enough, as Kamui flees the ninja tribe that trained him from a young age, with the intention of retiring from the assassination business, but as he soon discovers, it’s not so easy to leave a life of killing behind. After rescuing an opportunistic thief from certain death at the hands of a local lord, he winds up hiding out on an island, joining up with pirates - with a penchant for fishing for great white sharks with big swords - and then fighting not only the lord’s armies but also his old clan who have been commissioned to chop him up into so much sushi.
Sparks of inspiration glitter throughout and the action sequences are exciting without being particularly ground-breaking, but the film’s lack of pace, muddled story (perhaps the result of trying to pack too much in from the comic book) and lacklustre performances hamstring the film almost as soon as Kamui makes his initial break for freedom. By the time you cross the first-hour mark, you’ll be looking at your watch and counting down the minutes to the inevitable final ninja-pirate army showdown.
So, is Kamui ‘the best ninja movie ever made’? Probably not. Stick to pizza-eating turtles…