In Japanese dialogue with Chinese & English subtitles
Director: Yoichi Sai
Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Koyuki, Hideaki Ito, Kaoru Kobayashi, Koichi Sato, Ekin Cheng, Anna Tsuchiya, Suzuka Ohgo
RunTime: 2 hrs
Released By: InnoForm Media & Cathay-Keris
Rating: NC-16 (Some Violence)
Day: 14 October 2010
From a best-seller Japanese comic book ‘Kamui Gaiden’, The Last Ninja focuses on the story of a ‘KAMUI’, a Ninja on the run from the world of Ninja in search for true freedom. However, he is burdened with the fate, where it is not allowed to take the secret outside of the tribe -- if you are born as Ninja, you must die as Ninja. This brings him to constantly fight for his life against other Ninjas who tries to kill him and hide the secrets within. He does not trust, and he does not love. Showing weakness leads to immediate death. An incident brings him to an old fisherman's village, where he finally starts to open up to other people. However, his pursuers were just minutes away from setting up a huge trap on Kamui...
At first glance, Yoichi Sai’s adaptation of the celebrated 1964 Japanese manga “Kamui Gaiden” by Sanpei Shirato has all the elements of a ninja film- graceful swordfighting, stylised bloodletting and a period epic story built around the themes of loyalty and honour. Despite that, “Kamui” never quite comes together whether as an action film, a drama or a mixture of both, leaving its audience hollow and wanting more.
The first sign of its awkwardness comes immediately after a brief prologue told manga-style where a young Kamui battles a breakaway ninja Sugura (Koyuki) as instructed by his master (a one-eyed blind Ekin Cheng with his lines clearly dubbed). Sugura falls into the sea and is presumed dead, while our hero himself grows into a weary assassin himself, prompting his fellow clan members to pursue him through a dense forest.
These two early sequences will probably best be remembered for its cheap use of CGI and bad wirework, especially so when characters fly almost effortlessly through the air and land on tree branches. Gravity-defying though these ninja moves are supposed to be, Sai forgets that there needs to be an air of believability in them after all. He fares better when it comes to the ninja-a-ninja (think mano-a-mano but ninja-style) showdown, with Kamui impressing suitably by his swift and lethal swordplay.
Still, one should savour what you get because the next hour is surprisingly sparse with any action. After unwittingly getting mixed up with a fisherman (actor Kobayashi Kaoru) who kills the prized horse of a local evil lord, Kamui ends up on a remote island fishing village with said fisherman Hanbei. It is there he encounters Sugura and begins to find some measure of peace in the idyll of island life- fishing amidst crystal clear blue waters, simple dinners amidst family and an unexpected romance with Hanbei and Sugura’s eldest daughter Sayaka (Ohgo Suzuka).
For pretty much an hour therefore, Sai turns his attention to Kamui’s transformation from a cold unfeeling killing machine to something more human-like. Had Sai dwelt more on Kamui’s past and what gave him a change of heart in the first place to give up his life as a ninja, this subsequent transformation would probably be more poignant. Unfortunately, there is very little of that- other than his origins as an orphan outcast- and his redemption lacks any emotional depth.
Sai also veers dangerously close to camp in the last third of the film, with the late introduction of a subplot involving a gang of shark-killing pirates. Depicted as boorish folk with a good heart, there is little to the additional characters beyond archetypes and the bloody shark-slaying scenes are oddly out of place in a movie that celebrates an embrace of harmony and nature to finding inner peace.
As the exciting finale rolls around, one is reminded of what the movie should have been, instead of what it isn’t. Keeping the action firmly on the ground avoids the appalling wirework and CGI that marred the enjoyment of the earlier action scenes and harks back to the kind of ninja film that audiences would have been looking for. And oh third-billing Ekin Cheng makes another appearance here just before the movie ends, just in case you’re wondering where he disappeared to after the first few scenes.
A classic case of ‘too little, too late’, “Kamui” is a missed opportunity at delivering an exciting manga-inspired ninja film packed with all the elements of a classic. Those looking for action will find that it comes up short; those looking for drama will find it dissatisfying; and those who think it’s a mix of both will find neither of the parts rewarding.
(Whether in terms of action or drama, Yoichi Sai’s ninja film comes up short and doesn’t quite live up to the epic it promises to be)
Review by Gabriel Chong