Ninja Kamui Review: John Wick Meets Slice of Life Anime
Ninja Kamui’s first two episodes, more than anything else, feel reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence or even some John Wick prequel story (with shades of Kill Bill thrown in for good measure). There’s a powerful individual who’s tried to leave his old, violent life behind and start over with a mundane existence of normalcy. There’s palpable dread as soon as these lovable characters are met and the audience can’t help but worry that they’ll be the next ones on the Reaper’s chopping block. It’s a really strong way to start this 12-episode series and introduce audience’s to this world and its main character’s motivations.
One of the most beautiful sequences from the first two episodes is when this family earnestly celebrates an ordinary birthday, grills some steaks, and plays the guitar. It’s remarkable in its ability to be unremarkable, yet reminds the audience that these are real people and not hardened tropes like the heroes and villains who are so often seen in action series, anime or otherwise. Alternatively, there’s another moment in the series premiere that’s absolutely gutting – both figuratively and literally – that’s an early sign of Ninja Kamui’s excellence and the masterpiece that it’s likely to become. It’s a series that’s full of genre tropes, but determined to play by its own rules and uniquely execute them.
“Don’t worry. Just stay put,” is an innocent aside that Joe Higan tells his wife, but it’s advice that’s applicable to the entire series as the boat gets progressively rocked and it becomes increasingly clear that any potential paradise is short-lived; a daydream from the screaming, bloody nightmare that is the reality of a ninja. Ninja Kamui tells an incredibly cathartic revenge story, but it also engages in deeper queries over why we go on living and if breaking points are a sign of weakness or what defines us as humans. Sometimes life is a greater tragedy than death. There’s a heavy philosophical backbone to this bloodbath.
Ninja Kamui does sell its characters and makes sure that they feel real rather than just embody empty action tropes. That being said, the selling point here is still the meticulously choreographed, over-the-top action sequences where martial arts experts take on extreme robots and heightened killing machines. Ancillary characters – not even the strongest of the strong – catch projectile needles in their teeth, only to spit them back out and eviscerate others. It’s hard to believe that Ninja Kamui isn’t the sword-swinging action anime that was directed by Takashi Miike this year, since it lives and breathes in his hyperbolized wheelhouse.
Curiously, the series’ expert ninja assassins practically look robotic and fully void of humanity in a style that’s reminiscent of children’s series that find ways to get away with copious violence because they’re machines, not humans. Only, in Ninja Kamui, excessive blood spurts out as it laughs in this sanitized stereotype’s face and proves that this is not the case here. Ninja Kamui is a different breed of chaos. There’s so much excess brutality on display that blood splatters stain the screen.
The right visuals and aesthetics are fundamental in an anime like Ninja Kamui. E&H Production and Sola Entertainment, under the direction of Sunghoo Park, absolutely rise to the occasion. Park, formerly of MAPPA, has a revered resume that includes Jujutsu Kaisen (plus its prequel film, Jujutsu Kaisen 0), The God of High School, and Garo: Vanishing Line, all of which specialize in martial arts and complex combat. Park contextualizes his entire career and channels it into this bombastic explosion of blood, guts, and genre action.