The Dagger of Kamui and the history of the Ainu

Another of the animated features I watched this past year – and one of the several inspirations for my starting this blog in the first place, alongside Serbian tributes to classic cyberpunk like Едит и Ја and the critiques of biopolitical tyranny in works like Dominion and Gunnm – was the Madhouse production The Dagger of Kamui, directed by Rintarô (the guy behind Meikyû Monogatari and Metropolis). It’s not an exaggeration to say that this work of Rintarô’s helped me to rediscover my inner weeb. The Dagger of Kamui is a graphic, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, epic, fascinating and multilayered work of historical fiction. It touches on themes of loyalty and betrayal, of deceit and violence, of the complicated meaning of family, of nature versus civilisation and – yes – of colonialism and exploitation. Intriguingly, the main character Jirô is deliberately something of a Billy Jack. He is half-Japanese and half-Ainu – the heavily-persecuted and long-suffering indigenous people who inhabit Hokkaidô, Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, the eastern coast of Khabarovsk and the southern part of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

When Jirô’s mother and sister are murdered, the shinobi who killed them leaves behind a mysterious dagger. Jirô is accused of being a kinslayer and has to flee the wrath of his village, with nothing but the dagger for a clue. Jirô encounters a Buddhist monk named Tenkai who works for the government, who manipulates him into seeking revenge against his family’s murderer. Tenkai then burns that man’s village, leaving no witnesses, and trains Jirô to become a ninja. After Jirô leaves to discover the secret of his family, Tenkai has him trailed by his followers – and as he journeys on, Jirô learns that Tenkai himself was not only responsible for killing his foster-mother and sister, but he had manipulated him into killing his own father Tarôza. Now seeking revenge against Tenkai as well, Jirô finds himself in a race to find the treasure of Captain Kidd on an island off of southern California. Along his quest for revenge he meets his birth mother, his own half-sister, the elderly scholar Andô Shôzan, a young Frenchwoman named Chico, the Apache chieftain Geronimo, the author Mark Twain and the famous rogue samurai Saigô Takamori.

The Dagger of Kamui is indeed a sprawling epic. Much of the tension, particularly in the early part of the drama, derives from Jirô’s parentage and origins in Ezo, which have been deliberately obscured from him by political forces beyond his control. The film seems to both endorse and criticise the relational ethics derived from the Classics, which were the fundamental basis of Japanese feudal relations and martial arts disciplines. Jirô’s doomed loves for his father (whom he doesn’t recognise and whom he is tricked into killing), for his mother (whom he recognises but is unable to save) or for his sister (whom he doesn’t recognise and to whom he is incestuously attracted) are explored from different angles.

Familial love is presented as fleeting, vulnerable, manipulable, subject to political whims… and yet there’s really no other substitute for it in a world blown about by the winds of intrigue and war. Jirô would have been killed if not for his mother Oyaruru or for his sister Oyuki. Tarôza managed to save Jirô at his birth, and indeed Jirô is only able to take revenge on Tenkai and forge a new life for himself by relying on his father’s good name among the anti-government ninja clans.

At the same time, apart from Oyuki (whose blood relation to him was unknown until the end), the most meaningful human bonds that Jirô forms are outside his family: namely, those with the black freedman Sam, and the foundling Chico who was adopted by the Apache. The three of them are bound together by a shared experience of being thought of as ‘less than human’ in their respective societies.

Rintarô takes a very dim view of nineteenth-century American society. It seems as though Jirô’s interlude in the American West is designed as a perspective counterpoint to his portrayal of the oppression of the Ainu in Japan. Although Drasnic, Sam’s former owner, is a somewhat sympathetic character, Jirô clearly detests slavery and sees fit to free Sam when the opportunity arises. Also, we first see white American cowboys in their attempt to rape Chico while she is bathing (sadly, historically and still currently accurate) – they are stopped by Jirô. When Jirô is searching for Captain Kidd’s treasure he encounters anti-Asian racism in the saloon. Mark Twain, who helps Jirô locate Captain Kidd’s hideout, appears to be the one American character apart from Sam who is free of prejudice, and who sees in Jirô an authentic spirit which the West had lost. This is rather ironic in context when one considers Twain’s actual opinions about American Indians.

But Rintarô’s aim in highlighting America’s sins does not seem to be to exculpate Japan in any way. The film ultimately valorises the traditional family structure and the personal loyalties it implies, even as it turns it inside out and upside down with Tarôza, Oyaruru and Oyuki. However, it finds very little use for political loyalty and absolutely none for nationalism. The most significant political voice in the film is that of the elderly ‘eccentric’ scholar Andô Shôzan, who is almost classically Cynical in his outlook. He believes that the most important thing to remember about people is that they are born naked, die naked, and that in the meantime they all have to ‘work, eat, shit and sleep’, regardless of whether they’re Japanese or Ainu or foreigners. He refers to the Japanese Shôgunate government as ‘a bunch of fools’, ‘greedy bastards’ and ‘thieving lowlifes’, and Japan as a country which ‘looks like a piece of snot’ on the globe. Jirô embraces this political Cynicism. Although Jirô does return to Japan and participates in the collapse of the Shôgunate and the Battle of Hakodate in order to seek his revenge on Tenkai, he refuses to join the forces of Satsuma or Meiji. At the end of the film, when he meets the victorious Saigô Takamori, Jirô sees another brutal, scheming Tenkai in him, and he departs brusquely without a word. Rintarô hints at the end, when referring to the name change of Ezo to Hokkaidô, that the Ainu will suffer even more under the new Meiji government than they had under the Shôgunate.

The one gripe I have with this film is a common gripe I have with portrayals of Indigenous peoples in cinema generally – including Billy Jack. Along with the unfortunate ‘noble savage’ stereotype, there is also an implicit assumption that the Ainu are gone – that like Jirô at the end of the film, they are wandering off into the wilderness never to return. The Ainu exist in the Japanese imaginary but do not register as a real community. I have yet to see some of the other films, OVAs, TV series or comics which feature Ainu characters, like Shaman King or Tezuka Osamu’s Brave Dan. I have seen Samurai Champloo, however, which does touch on similar themes – and to their credit, the way they deliberately toy with anachronism actually helps portray the Ainu as current and modern! One of my former co-workers Richard recommended that I watch Golden Kamuy, which is also a period piece which takes place in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War.

However, just as the American Indians are not gone, neither are the Ainu, nor are their genetic kissing-cousins on the other side of the Japanese archipelago, the indigenous Okinawans. The Ainu, as mentioned above, live all along the northern stretch of the Archipelago. Because of their contact with the Cossacks during Petrine Russia’s eastward expansion, those of them who do not practise shamanism are instead Russian Orthodox. Some Ainu refugees from Meiji Japanese state violence migrated to the Russian mainland under the Tsarist government and settled in places like Petropavlovsk.

However, the Ainu faced assimilation policies and official repression both from the Soviets and from the Japanese government – each of which suspected the Ainu of working for the other. Under Stalin, you could get ‘disappeared’ even for mentioning the Ainu. In the present day, Russia has only belatedly gotten closer to recognising the Ainu. Officially, the Ainu are registered either as Kamchadals, which is an umbrella term in Russian ethnic policies to refer to the mostly-Russified indigenous people of Kamchatka and which does not convey any sort of cultural protections or rights, or else as ethnic Japanese. Because of the œconomic benefits that come with visa-free travel to and from Japan (which are not granted to Ainu but which are granted to ethnic Japanese), many Ainu in Russia simply call themselves ‘Japanese’. The Ainu have a hostile relationship with the far-right nationalist party in Russia, which like the Japanese far-right calls itself the ‘Liberal Democratic Party’, and which controls the provincial government in Khabarovsk and has infringed the real property rights, and denied fishing and hunting rights to the indigenous people who live there. On the plus side, however, there are plans in the works for an Ainu village in Petropavlovsk, as well as an Ainu lexicon project, headed by Russian Ainu community leader and activist Aleksei Nakamura.

The Ainu living in Japanese-claimed territory are faring a bit better than in Russia, but that’s not saying much at all. The Japanese government recognised the Ainu in law for the first time only last year, but even this bill was controversial among the Ainu themselves, many of whom see it as a kind of empty lip service from a neoliberal government which has no intention of bettering the Ainu’s economic conditions, or recognising their fishing or land rights.

In both cases, the recognition of the Ainu is a politically-contentious issue, because of the contested territorial claims over the Kuril Islands. Both Russian and Japanese authorities view the indigenous Ainu as a cat’s-paw of the other in this territorial dispute, which is deeply unfortunate. The Ainu people on either side of the border generally support the status quo in the Kurils with the Russians retaining state sovereignty, but they criticise both the Russian and the Japanese governments for having disrespected and oppressed the indigenous peoples of the Kurils. Similarly to Andô Shôzan in Dagger, the concern of the modern Ainu is not with the political machinations of governments and which flag is planted where; their concern is with the holistic, material and spiritual welfare of their communities.

At any rate, that’s way further in-depth into the politics of Hokkaidô and the Kurils and the struggles for indigenous people’s rights than I thought I would go with this blog post. From a purely artistic perspective, The Dagger of Kamui is well worth seeing at least once. The animation is certainly dated, but the quality is remarkably high; the clean ink lines and heavily stylised movement place it firmly in late 80s Madhouse territory. Although nowhere close to as graphically violent or horror-themed as Wicked City or Midnight Eye Gokû, The Dagger of Kamui retains a similar texture, pacing and fluidity – and has a few instances of (again, mostly stylised) impalement and body dismemberment. As I mentioned above, there is a definite psychedelic tone, both to the palette and to the art direction. The landscapes and set pieces of Hokkaidô, of Siberia and of the American West are atmospheric, lovingly painted and drop-dead gorgeous. The character designs are also instantly recognisable and relatable: Jirô’s thick, heavy Ainu brows and toned skin provide his amber eyes with a deep soul; whereas Oyuki’s slender, narrow, angular features suggest both her deadly ninja training and a vulnerable, tender young-womanhood.

I am unsure how or even whether Rintarô’s film was influenced by Shirato Sanpei’s earlier, implicitly-Marxist manga The Legend of Kamui. Although Dagger is occasionally referenced as an adaptation of Shirato Sanpei’s Legend, the two works do not appear to have any explicit links otherwise. However: the number of circumstantial and coincidental parallels between the two is uncanny. Shirato’s work also takes place in Hokkaidô during the Tokugawa Shôgunate period. It also features a rogue ninja with obscure family ties, forming bonds which are constantly threatened by exploitation, oppression and political intrigue, many of which end in tragœdy. Kamui and Jirô even look fairly similar, and wield similar weapons! The two works also both take a fairly dim view of Japanese politics and completely reject nationalism. Shirato Sanpei’s manga are also well worth reading, but be forewarned, they’re a bit of a tearjerker.


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