Toonami’s latest original co-production is bowing February 10 at midnight and Adult Swim was kind enough to grant us the screeners for the first two episodes. These are my initial impressions of Sunghoo Park’s NInja Kamui, an explosive ninja revenge story for the 2020s.
The introductory episode sets the stage by showing Joe Higan (alias Joe Logan) and his family living peacefully on a farm while occasionally interjecting news reports of mysterious murders. This story starts with tragedy and the audience knows it is coming, so the pacing does not belabor the point. It is difficult to create an emotional attachment to characters in less than ten minutes but the pacing and direction does an okay job there. My initial impression was that the melodramatic montages were more corny than heart-breaking but upon rewatch they were resonating with me better.
Thankfully the anticipated violence against Joe’s wife Mari and son Ren isn’t a gratuitous display, though they do reshow Mari’s death a few times which is gratuitous in its own way. The reuse of an insert song in that moment didn’t jell with me personally and it stands out as a peculiar choice compared to implementation of music in other scenes. Overall the soundtrack by R.O.N. (Dorohedoro) and the use of insert songs meshes well with what is happening on screen and I appreciate the variation in genres. Ninja Kamui follows the tradition of Toonami co-productions with excellent soundtracks. I particularly like the opening song “Vengeance” performed by Coldrain (Fire Force).
With animation direction from Sunghoo Park (Jujutsu Kaisen, God of High School), you know the fight choreography is on point. There is creative use of a variety of ninja techniques and I anticipate those flourishes will only reach new heights as the season continues. Outside of the action sequences the animation is maybe best described as serviceable and occasionally stiff. There are some gorgeous backgrounds in the second episode and I hope to see more of them. Character design is reminiscent of a mid-2000s seinen anime and go figure they’re from Takashi Okazaki of Afro Samurai fame. The design and coloring of the characters unfortunately can create some dissonance with the backgrounds where things don’t look quite right. In summary, the visuals are a mixed bag. Park and many of the staff have chops, so hopefully by the end of this season, E&H Production will have a solid first series under their belt.
Revenge stories are en-vogue to the point of becoming cliché and Toonami itself has co-produced two prior series dealing with vengeful protagonists in 2021’s Blade Runner: Black Lotus and 2022’s Shenmue: The Animation. It remains to be seen if Ninja Kamui can find some meat on that bone. Will it retread the same worn commentaries on vengeance, will it have something new to say or simply revel in the catharsis of payback? Currently it is leaning towards the catharsis but there’s plenty of time to develop Joe’s inner turmoil.
Immediately after Joe awakes in a hospital bed, we are introduced to FBI special agent Mike Morris and his rookie partner Emma. They are investigating the recent string of murders and hope Joe can point them in the right direction. My expectation is that they will have a pensive relationship with Joe and attempt to arrest him on multiple occasions but never succeed in doing so. That would lead Ninja Kamui to another commonality with Black Lotus where a few good cops stand against a system corrupted from the top and while remaining a foil to the protagonist. Which mainly makes the cops come off ineffectual at best and negligent at worst.
The corruption of law enforcement is already apparent in the second episode between the obvious cover-up and some genuswine pigs that cause trouble at a bar where Joe is getting a drink. That’s likely not the only social commentary Ninja Kamui will employ. There is a corporation known as AUZA that is using technological advancements to support people in all aspects of their lives including take-out deliveries. Again I ask if this will have something new to say or if NInja Kamui will follow the clichés to the letter and AUZA is in cahoots with Joe’s prior ninja clan.
I do find the nearby future setting refreshing though. Everything from the locations to the clothing to the technology feels like it’s current or just around the corner from our reality, besides the cybernetic ninja tech of course. Even the one-off characters help with the immersion. Some guy vibing on the subway, the bar keep who looks like he was a biker and the cranky restaurant owner stuck in his old ways. They all make the world feel real and lived in. Ninja Kamui is not lacking in atmosphere.
Character wise there isn’t much to grasp onto yet. Joe is a man of few words that tends to let his actions speak for him but he can be chatty with allies. The FBI duo have a good rapport and manage to balance the mood with a bit of levity as well. There’s some cats and an old doctor that I hope isn’t a one-off because he might be the best character so far. We barely got a moment with Joe’s wife and son but I did like them and hope to see more of them in flashbacks. Just please do not resurrect them as enemies, that’s another tired trope I don’t want to see Ninja Kamui pull. I hope I didn’t just meme that into existence.
As far as an introduction goes, I think the first two episodes are off to a good start. The fights are thrilling, varied and satisfying. The music is great for the most part and while the visuals outside the battles are a mixed bag they’re certainly not bad. The violence is implemented at the appropriate times so while it can be graphic it doesn’t feel excessive. And despite my misgivings and speculations regarding the story, it is compelling enough to see what happens next. I’m still willing to believe it can subvert my expectations.
For the first time ever, Toonami will broadcast both an English and Japanese version on the same night so if the dub from Sentai Studios isn’t to your liking then you can check out the Japanese version later that night or the next day on Max. Toonami hasn’t had a great track record with original anime and I hope to see Ninja Kamui prove the exception. If you enjoy revenge thrillers with slick action in a modern setting then you’re in for a good time.
- Fight choreography is excellent
- Modern settings with plenty of atmosphere and detailed backgrounds
- Great soundtrack
- Revenge stories are overdone and so far this offers little that feels original
- Social commentary also falling into familiar tropes
- Visuals are only serviceable outside of fight sequences
Andrew “Sketch” Hingson is the C.O.O. at Toonamifaithful.com. Feel free to follow Sketch on all things Toonami, Adult Swim, and show predictions on Twitter @Sketch1984
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