A tight schedule meant missing out on this at TIFFCOM last year, but I suppose the strength of popular Japanese actor Ken'ichi Matsuyama's name alone meant that it had a good chance of making it back to Singapore, and the full house this afternoon is just testament of that. Being the chameleon, Matsuyama makes quite an impression as the titular Fugitive Ninja who yearns for the freedom of his dream, but gets continuous hunted down by enemies who want a piece of him. So goes the martial arts world, where the only rule is to kill or be killed.
I haven't read the manga by Sampei Shirato on which Kamui is based on, but that shouldn't deter anyone game for a ninja flick. However, this is not like any conventional ninja film that I've grown accustomed to, and one of the prime reasons is that the exponents skilled in the art of ninjitsu don't wear black (just like how cliche it is when gangsters have to be decked out in black tie), but are decked in a variety of fancy garb that is functional to hide a multitude of weapons. For the uninitiated like me, you'll get the lowdown on our hero's origins through a series of battles which also serve to showcase his signature skills like Mist Kill, so that will bring you up to speed on things, and whet your appetite for more conflicts to come so that Kamui gets a reason to unsheathe his sword.
The story however turns out to be quite episodic in nature, since Kamui has the legs for an extended franchise of films, and this one being but a snapshot of his life on the run. It's extremely miserable because there is nobody Kamui can trust, and whenever he gets comfortable with someone, they fall to their demise, like a curse that he and his loved one cannot escape from. Such is the nature of this story, making him quite the cynic with a profound taste of mistrust toward anyone, being on the run in both literal and figurative terms. But an encounter with a fisherman Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi) who had just chopped off the leg of a horse belonging to a nobleman (see if you can spot Anna Tsuchiya from Sakuran in a role without dialogue!) brings Kamui to Henta's fishermen village, and here he meets an enemy from the past (played by Koyuki of The Last Samurai fame, and last seen in Blood the Last Vampire) and a potential to change his life for the better through a loved one in Sayaka (Suzuka Ohgo), Henta's daughter.
With a runtime of two hours, the story admittedly does get a little bloated as we explore the themes of family and that sense of belonging, before it picks up through the introduction of a group of pirates led by Fudo (Hideaki Ito). For some reason there's this very violent attitude and nature toward animals in the film, and although everything is vividly CG-ed with incredible detail, shark lovers may be up in arms over how they get violently depicted (think Jaws with more murderous intent), and then callously dispatched through dismemberment and bludgeoning to the skull. That aside, humans too get killed in quite graphic methods since everyone kills without remorse as a means to survive.
Thankfully the fight action choreography is top notch. For those tired of quick cuts and edits, or angles that get just too close for comfort and clarity, the techniques here, although spruced up with some wirework and CG, satisfies in abundance. Sensible angles and camerawork allow you to witness battles as if you get ring side seats, and the action gets progressively better, culminating in the final showdown between Kamui and his chief enemy here (no, I won't reveal who), which is a delight to watch, and frankly, I'd watch this show again just to partake in another round of the beautifully designed final fight.
Ekin Cheng has a bit role here, although I'm not quite sure what value he adds to the story since he didn't actually get to see much action, other than to assure audiences that he'll probably get more screen time should a follow up film be made. A passable story that I think its manga followers will get a kick out of, with outstanding CG work to bring to life a period world with fantastic pugilists.