The hardest part of adapting anime or manga to a live-action medium is not determining what to leave out but what to tone down. The live-action Rurouni Kenshin understood how the camera magnifies everything in front if it, and how the wild excesses that work on paper can be reigned in greatly and still work as live action. Kamui Gaiden, the live-action adaptation of Sanpei Shirato's manga (released in English as Legend of Kamui), doesn't seem to understand this. It assumes that because other martial-arts stories, especially ninja-action ones, worked as wire-fu extravaganzas gassed up with CGI, so will this. Bad assumption, even if the parts of Shirato's story that don't need to be glitzed up still come through very nicely.
A bad look for a good story
The general storyline for Kamui Gaiden tracks closely enough to the Legend Of Kamui manga that I won't run back through it in detail. Ninja Kamui (Kenichi Matsuyama, the live-action L) leaves behind the clan that educated him into killing as a way of life; finds solace in an island village of fishermen where Sugaru, another apostate ninja, hides; the two overcome their tensions with each other to try and stop a far greater menace to all of them.
What I want to talk about is how the movie goes about bringing all this to the screen. Not because anyone who goes into the movie cold is going to be confused, but because the first fifteen minutes or so are a prime example of how to be foolishly literal with source material. They're an assemblage of action scenes showcasing various ninja techniques, but the way they're rendered is so graceless, so obviously done by wires and greenscreen and jarring uses of CGI, they take all the fun out of it. I don't have a problem with a movie that looks deliberately tacky, or a movie that's making the best of a small budget by way of being resourceful and ingenious. (Case in point: Tetsuo: The Iron Man.) But there was a fair amount of money thrown at this thing, and for it to look as crummy as it does in this stretch is lamentable.
Once this section of the movie is over, though, it finds its footing in the parts of the story that do not rely on martial-arts sequences to be interesting. Legend Of Kamui revolved most directly around the tension between Kamui, Sugaru, and Sugaru's daughter Sayaka, and the key dynamics of that drama are all put on screen and rendered with good dramatic strength. Originally I felt that laying this dramatic foundation meant that when the movie indulged in its wire-fu action later on, it wouldn't seem as ludicrous, but on rewatching I think it's more just because the stuff in the latter half of the film isn't as overindulged, period. Or when it is, it is in a way that's not as damaging — e.g., when Kamui goes shark-hunting, and the movie gives us CGI sharks that leap out of the water and plunge straight back into the Uncanny Valley.
By the end of the movie, though, my needle had swung back into plus territory. I appreciated how the climactic scenes, which have real tragic heft, are accomplished mostly by way of practical effects — especially Kamui's last stand, done mostly in the style of a welcome throwback to the oldest of old-school samurai brawls. And the ending comes with a gloriously grim dose of irony.
Older school production values
Watching Kamui Gaiden made me mull over how a project like this would have been pulled off in previous years. These days, computer-generated and -aided effects are how many things are accomplished with smallest effort for the biggest payoff. They are not by themselves the enemy; they're simply tools, and they thrive or die depending on who applies them and to what end. But we've built up a sort of unconscious cultural vocabulary of where effects work and why.
In an SF setting, CGI tends to complement the look and flavor of the goings-on. Horror, fantasy, or historical settings, where things are more intrinsically analog, don't work as well. When the effects fail the milieu, the result isn't just jarring, but outright laughable, and the spell of the story breaks. Seeing Kamui and the other ninja leap like zero-gee frogs between tree limbs is in theory what we ought to see, but to actually see it like that, to witness them moving like toys whipping around at the ends of strings, blows the gaff. I wasn't bothered as much by this sort of thing in Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (the live-action adaptation of Basilisk), if only because that whole project had explicitly superreal and supernatural elements, and also because any problems in using such things were the least of that movie's worries.
Once upon a time, when wire-fu was the way to go, those kind of practical effects got a big assist from the oldest film special effect of all: editing. Cross-cutting, and editing generally, works subliminally. It forces our imaginations to fill in the splices, to meet the movie half-way, something I feel animation also does in its own way. The samurai and ninja pictures of previous generations used clever editing and stuntwork because that was all they had, but that produced a certain flavor of action tied to the approach. Modern moviemaking techniques are more forensic, showing you exactly what the director envisions. Sometimes you want that, because sometimes the old way of doing things was hopelessly cheesy. But some things are best left half to the imagination, like a ninja leaping up a sheer cliff face like a mountain goat. Such things become more real to us on the inside when our imaginations help create them instead of just passively receiving them as-is — yes, even in a movie. Maybe especially in a movie.
I know some of this is a matter of taste. Some people will appreciate the stuntwork no matter what form it comes in; some will see past the cheesiness of the effects, or insist that's part of the point. Me, I saw a fundamental conflict: a movie that worked far better once shorn of the ingredients used to justified it to most people in the first place.