Sometimes artistic experiments go bad. That doesn’t mean the efforts are fruitless or shouldn’t have been made, only hat the final product is probably not going to be a pleasant experience for everyone.
Kai Doh Maru is such an experiment. It went really really bad. Directed by Kenji Wakabayashi, this original animated video (or “OAV”), the latest effort of the usually interesting IG Plus and Production IG teams, shoots for radical visual splendor, to “push the boundaries of anime into a revolutionary new dimension,” as the press guide states. But it manages only to achieve drabness. Set in the time of Japan’s feudal Heian Era (roughly around the turn of the first millennium), Kai Doh Maru stumbles along in a haphazard fashion, laying out the story of its titular protagonist, Kai Doh Maru (Kathleen McInerney). When her family is murdered by her uncle, Kai Doh Maru manages to escape to a village where she’s found and raised by Raiko (Bruce Winant), the Captain of the Four Knights. Raised as a boy by the Knights, she excels in the various martial arts, becoming over the years a valued member of the knightly team.
This gets us to the starting point of the story that Wakabayashi seems to want to tell, something to do with the surprising return of a woman (with two very weird and mysterious little kids tagging along as henchmen) from Kai Doh Maru’s past, a sparking love interest between Kai Doh Maru and Raiko, all culminating in a rather telegraphed disastrous conclusion. I say, “seems to want to tell,” because Wakabayashi and his team of writers muster only limited narrative detail.
The movie leaves open numerous questions, like, who the heck are those two weird kids, anyway, and why are they with that lady and why are the three so intent on interposing themselves into Kai Doh Maru’s life? What is the underlying basis of the war raging in the background (it seems to have to do with a conflict surrounding a political transition, but what that transition means in terms of Japanese history is difficult to understand)? And why is Kai Doh Maru so contradictorily gendered in the film (raised as a boy when everyone (apparently) knows she is a girl; loved by a woman from her past; in love with a man from her present)?
In lieu of engaging more substantively with the questions it raises, the film offers a “minimalist poetic” approach (think of a filmic version of a tone poem). Such an approach could work, maybe even work beautifully well, if it balanced the desire for poetic economy with a necessary dash or two of exposition, not to mention some clear transitional sequences. It might also enhance a story about personal and public loss since the success of such an aesthetic approach hinges on in its ability to effectively produce and sustain an emotional response in the viewer. But you still need to be able to link the details of the story together in some coherent manner and this is what Kai Doh Maru, with its sketchy story, fails to accomplish.
The strategy for visually representing this story doesn’t help matters. As noted above, this DVD is being marketed as a visual “revolution” of sorts, an avant garde work that transcends the genre’s representational “norms.” The film doesn’t really pull this off, though, because it’s strategy turns out to be a one trick pony. The visual “revolution” comes down to this: the animation team use as their visual model the painting styles and palate of the period in which Kai Doh Maru is set (the Heian Era). This is all well and good at a conceptual level (Stanley Kubrick worked some real cinematic magic using a similar method in Barry Lyndon). But the range and quality of colors available during this period were only the most muted of pastels. Not to say the paintings of the Heian Era aren’t brilliant to behold, but the translation of their visual economy to anime film doesn’t achieve spectacular results.
Everything in Kai Doh Maru looks washed-out and faded—like there’s a veil between you and the screen. Watching it is like trying to follow an outdoor play during a heavy fog, at dusk, in the shadows, without your glasses. It’s easy to catch yourself straining your eyes in an effort to penetrate the obscurity of it all. Similarly, the muted hues result in a very flat visual field; this is the case even when the animation team employs computer-generated 3-D imagery. There’s simply not enough contradiction in color to create the illusion of depth.
Maybe if used occasionally, interspersed like set pieces within a more typical anime visuals, the experiment might have worked. As it stands, Kai Doh Maru is a poster child for mundane excess. The missteps in telling the story are only compounded by this representational heavy-handedness. Call it a failure of depth, on two levels, content and form. Like too many OAVs today, Wakabayashi’s Kai Doh Maru is defined more by what it could have been than what it is, a potentiality.