Kai Doh Maru: Kathleen McInerney, Bruce Winant, Flavio Romeo - PopMatters Film Review )

Chris Elliot

Wakabayashi's Kai Doh Maru is defined more by what it could have been than what it is, a potentiality.

Kai Doh Maru

Director: Kanji Wakabayashi
Cast: voices of): Kathleen McInerney, Bruce Winant, Flavio Romeo, Dan Publisi, Jay Snyder
MPAA rating: Not rated (suggested 17+)
Studio: Manga Entertainment
US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-24

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.