Based on a popular Japanese folk tale and set in the Heian era of feudal history, the film tells the story of Kintoki, a girl who survives the murder of her parents by her scheming uncle as he moves to gain power over their family. Fleeing to safety, Kintoki eventually settles in a village in a nearby mountainous region, where she is raised as a boy and renamed Kai Doh Maru. The story picks up as Kintoki, now seventeen, has become a member of the village’s local defence group, under the stewardship of a man named Raiko, for whom Kintoki is starting to develop youthful feelings of affection and longing. Unfortunately for all concerned, a rogue element from Kintoki’s past is about to surface in the shape of the deranged Ohni-hime, bringing chaos and bloodshed with her.
As a short feature film, Kai Doh Maru is in a particularly uncomfortable position. Hailing as it does from the legendary stables of Production IG and IG Plus, and following in the wake of ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’, it would be only natural to expect great things of it. Certainly, on the film’s initial Western release, much was made of the show’s aesthetic qualities in the promotional blurb.
Visually, the approach is certainly interesting, using a colour palette that alters subtly as the story progresses. Apparently this is to signify the change of seasons and onset of time in the narrative, and also to suggest the feel of traditional artwork from that era of Japan’s history. It’s a clever conceit, but it does little to divert attention from the fact that, unfortunately, this is far from the studio’s best work. Some impressive – and infrequent – action scenes aside, Kai Doh Maru is actually a rather bland visual experience.
In fact, at times it looks downright shoddy. There are some woefully inconsistent CG elements, including a couple of shots so atrociously jarring that they’re likely to wrench you right out of the story. If there was a ‘most fake looking panning shot’ award for anime, this feature would be a serious contender.
The soundtrack fares a little better, being a very atmospheric and sombre affair, and mostly orchestral. It works well with the animation to create an unsettling atmosphere, but does tend to push the mood in an oppressive, dour direction. The English dub is fairly average quality stuff for the most part, let down by a few moments of wooden delivery.
Aesthetic shortcomings could be forgiven if the story made up for them. But, sadly, Kai Doh Maru is a case of a film where the content is just too ambitious for its slender running time. It’s a bit like watching somebody trying to squeeze into a top that’s two sizes too small for them. There are too many story threads, and barely a single one of them gets a chance to develop in any meaningful way, such is the suffocating effect of the short running time and leaden storytelling. Plot points like the betrayal of Kintoki’s family at the hands of her uncle feel mismanaged somehow, as they get enough set-up and screen-time for the audience to expect more from them. Yet they really have no major impact on the story’s outcome, with no direct follow-up or payoff attached. Even details like Ohni-hime’s deranged obsession with Kintoki and Kintoki’s own yearnings for Raiko are only just about enough established for the audience to detect that they’re present as plot elements, without ever having any great feeling of weight or consequence behind them. Characterisation is of the very broadest kind, with none of the cast getting enough time to shine or develop sufficiently for you to warm to them, and most tellingly, once the end credits roll, it’s likely that you’ll be left as I was, with an overpowering sense of ‘Huh? So what?’ I frankly couldn’t have cared less for any of the protagonists once the story had concluded, including Kintoki herself. Possibly, if you’re familiar with the folk tale this is based on, these won’t be such great obstacles for you to overcome. But without that knowledge, I suspect many would be lost. I certainly was.
Massively disappointing, Kai Doh Maru is probably best left to aficionados of Japanese culture or – at a push – samurai anime. If that’s you, feel free to add a point to the final score. But why anyone would bother with such a bland, unengaging, messily-told affair when there are much better efforts out there is beyond me.