Production I.G. and IG Plus came out of nowhere with a startling debut called Ghost in the Shell. They followed up with the hotly debated Blood: The Last Vampire. Fans of the film praised its realistic 3D animation, gripping characters, brooding ambience, and thrilling (if violent) action sequences. Saya, the protagonist of Blood: The Last Vampire, was an immediate sensation: a chilling, beautiful, skilled enigma. Blood: The Last Vampire introduced a complex world and a rich premise that promised exciting stories to come. But even the most fervent appreciators of Blood: The Last Vampire had to concede its shortcomings. Detractors were outraged at the film's brief runtime. They pointed at Blood's maddening and unnecessary dearth of detail, needlessly obfuscated plot, and disregard for tenets of storytelling that would engage the viewer. Practically everyone expected that Blood: The Last Vampire was a calling card, an introduction to a concept that would be fully realized in subsequent offerings. Willing to overlook the problems, fans held their breath in anticipation.
Production I.G. and IG Plus have followed Blood: The Last Vampire with Kai Doh Maru. Like Jin Roh: Wolf Brigade, Kai Doh Maru has nothing to do with Blood: The Last Vampire. Yet similarities in theme, genre and protagonist lead fans to associate Kai Doh Maru with Blood. Kai Doh Maru manages to compound all of the flaws of Blood and minimize the positive aspects at the same time. If you found Blood sketchy, Kai Doh Maru is a blank page. Blood was short; Kai Doh Maru is shorter. Where Blood obfuscated the plot, Kai Doh Maru annihilates it. If you'd told me that Kai Doh Maru was an early proof-of-concept for the style and mystique of Blood: The Last Vampire, I could buy it. For this to be the follow up to such a tantalizing foundation is outrageous.
Admittedly, Kai Doh Maru is never directly linked to Blood: The Last Vampire. Furthermore, is in an OVA (Original Video Animation), which means it was released direct to the Japanese video market. It is unfair to expect the level of polish granted their theatrical releases. Perhaps the reaction I have towards Kai Doh Maru is leftover hostility towards the incomplete Blood: The Last Vampire. No matter what light you cast it in, Kai Doh Maru is an unfulfilling effort.
Facts of the Case
Sakata-no-Kintoki, also known as Kaidohmaru (but called neither), is either a prince or a princess (she is referred to as both). I think she is a princess who was raised as a boy. After her uncle tries to kill her, she flees to Kyo and grows up a soldier. Now she defends the city as one of four knights. Her mentor and love interest is, if I'm not mistaken, Minamoto-no-Raikoh.
It's hard to tell, since there are only four basic character styles in this story. One style is "tall woman with long face and long black hair." There was either one woman who fit that description and was all over the place, or up to three women who looked like that and were sometimes in the same place. One of the three women is kind and protective, one is catatonic, and one is stark raving mad. One of them is killed protecting the prince/princess, one of them swears eternal love to the prince/princess, and one of them burns the city that the prince/princess is protecting. But they might all be the same woman, even though one of them is dead. The second style is "tall man with long face and long black hair." I'm confident that there were at least three of them in the story, because one has an eye patch and two of them fight each other at the end. That was confusing because I thought the rivals were the same person. The third style is gray and short-haired men, which were slightly easier to tell apart. Finally, there are black-haired children, of which there were from three to seven. Four of these children may actually have been just two, and they were either brother and sister, two sisters, or two unrelated children. These children were either innocent or evil, and were either pawns or masterminds of an either carefully constructed plan to overthrow Kyo or a last-minute surge of insanity.
I almost forgot to mention the long white-haired person who is extremely skilled with a sword and almost certainly evil. Anyway. These characters all stand near each other, talk a little bit, and periodically try to kill each other.
Kai Doh Maru opens with a bang. A little boy and his governess are fleeing through underbrush, hunted by a gang of men in masks. The animation is in black and white, suggesting that we are witnessing the past. They are trapped, but the little boy shows remarkable mettle and skill with a blade. This kinetic opening sequence is artistically rendered and had me on the edge of my seat. The opening leads into dramatic credits showing historic Japanese artworks set to a pulsing, tense score in glorious 5.1. I had no idea where this was going, but I liked it.
Sadly, Kai Doh Maru degenerates as the movie progresses. The deterioration is gradual at first, but rapidly accelerates as the ending approaches. The closing credits left me clutching at fragile straws of excitement I'd had firmly in hand at the outset.
Kai Doh Maru is anime, so let's begin with the animation. I mentioned that the beginning was in black and white; it was, sort of. The feature is predominantly rendered in high or medium key. Key is a design term that indicates a constrained range of values. High key means that light is white, dark is a medium grayish tint, and everything else falls between. Medium key means that lights are lightish gray and darks are darkish gray, with no true black or white. The bulk of Kai Doh Maru was in medium key, with desaturated colors and an overall gray cast. Think of it as a long, animated watermark. When the approach works, it gives Kai Doh Maru an atmospheric misè en scene that suits the mystical Heian-era depicted. Most of the time, the medium-key and high-key approach result in amateurish flatness that drains the vitality out of the artwork. The lines are all of uniform thickness, lacking interest or variation. There are many superfluous marks that are attempts to "rough up" the image a little bit.
Kai Doh Maru, like many Production I.G efforts, employs both two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation. In Blood, the two styles were seamlessly integrated, but here they seem disjointed. There were moments where the 3D animation lent realistic tension and a sense of movement. Unfortunately, most of the three-dimensional work looked like discarded levels from Doom. Horrendous twitter and jaggies mar the three dimensional pans, which mask the disturbingly uniform trees and empty dirt. I've built more convincing 3D environments myself with the Unreal Tournament level builder. Again, the ubiquitous high key bathes the models in the harsh light of artificiality.
Furthermore, the three-dimensional pans are of two predominant "varieties": low-angle shots of overhead branches, or languid left-to-right sweeps over plain buildings. The models are detailed, but uninteresting lines, flat colors, and predictable pans render them pointless.
The people seem more wooden than the trees. It is very hard to discern motivation or emotion when characters stand perfectly still. Entire conversations occur with the participants staring stonily at one another. Do these passive faces belie desperation, joviality, or a low animation budget? At least in Speed Racer, the image refreshed periodically to indicate laughter, sorrow, or concentration.
You might think I was joking about the insufficient animation budget, but I wasn't. The quality takes a sharp nosedive after the opening few scenes. The occasional sequence, such as the burning village, returns to a decent standard of animation. I suspect those scenes were rendered early in the schedule. It is clear that the vision for the film trickled off, leaving placeholder drawings to give us the gist.
Kai Doh Maru has problems beyond the poor animation. There is a dizzying array of indistinguishable characters. Finding a balance between insulting exposition and intriguing reserve is tricky, and Production I.G chooses to err on the side of mystery. Ordinarily this approach is understandable, if somewhat hard to follow. In this case, the dearth of cues is too hard to overcome. We neither know what is happening nor know enough about the characters to care. Questions proliferate as the story moves forward: Why was the princess boy being hunted? Who is the skilled but unstable blonde personage? If the woman at the beginning and end were the same, how did she survive? Did the animators realize the story was incomprehensible?
The plot has problems with focus. Long stretches of time are devoted to the Knights standing around talking to each other. We might be forgiven for believing the relationship between the Knights is meaningful in some way, or will be important later. Nope. What should be the last hour of the film is crammed into 15 minutes. We have a whirlwind of revelations, an epic battle that comes out of literally nowhere, a ludicrously left-field motivation, and a tacked on romance angle.
There are enjoyable aspects to this anime, but it places overwhelming roadblocks in the road to enjoyment. If it had been twice as long with double the frame rate, we might have had something.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The enjoyable aspects basically amount to the battles. There is a healthy amount of adrenaline-packed gore and deadly combat. Horses are dismembered, arrows slice through necks, and swift blades render unexpected carnage. These interludes of intensity punctuate the otherwise dull landscape of Kai Doh Maru. The animators know this: in the included round table discussion, they ask viewers to focus on the action sequences.
The extras package is thorough. There is a sorely needed series of character biographies that sort of explains who they are and what is happening. The best scenes for each character are included along with character sketches. Without that extra, I would have been unable to glean even the sparse understanding I have of the tale. The biographies hint at grand plans that simply did not materialize in the film.
Walkthroughs of the 3D models give you a more leisurely look, but are as dull as the actual movie made them seem. The most interesting aspect to this extra is blurbs by the modelers explaining their inspiration. The modelers also provide inside hints, such as womanly accoutrements lying around Prince(ss) Kaidomaru's house.
The most telling extra is the roundtable discussion with the creators of Kai Doh Maru. With heads hung low, they discuss the effort with all the enthusiasm of a legal briefing. The animators seem almost apologetic, asking us to "focus on the scenes of movement." One of the artists even admits that they needed more time, and promises that future efforts will be stronger.
Kai Doh Maru undoubtedly contains reams of hidden meaning, visual tricks, and obscure back stories. The creators forgot we can't psychically peek into their brains and absorb understanding of the story. Without more help, Kai Doh Maru is unfathomable. The action scenes are exciting, there is no doubt. It is up to you whether you want to pay twenty bucks for ten minutes of nifty action and a half hour of whitewashed filler.
Given previous high quality efforts from Production I.G., the court sees fit to let them off with a warning: give us more explanation in all of your future efforts. Your reticence is ticking everyone off, the honorable Judge Rob in particular. You have the action thing down cold; maybe you should outsource the story to CLAMP?
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