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After her uncle causes the death of her parents, Kintoki is raised as a boy, fighting off the advances of her brother's disturbed ex-girlfriend and struggling with her own feelings for Raiko, the handsome knight who is her guardian. Old enmities come back to life in the middle of a smallpox epidemic, as Raiko's group, the Four Knights, hunts down its enemies in an evocative and original anime from Production I.G., seemingly conceived as a means of testing new toon shading and oversaturation technologies.
Kai Doh Maru's greatest achievement is the washed-out watercolor style that makes the whole thing seem like gazing at a fragile ancient painting. Color designer Nagisa Abe gets top billing alongside the distinctive character designs of Otogi Zoshi's Sho-u Tajima, and he deserves it. Make no mistake, someone spent a lot of money integrating the traditional and CG artwork in this, and some scenes, like the prolonged tracking shot across Heian palaces, are plain and simple showing off.
The pallid color scheme is not merely a deliberate contrast to the same team's earlier Blood: The Last Vampire, but also a bold subversion of much of what anime stands for, sacrificing the kid-friendly strengths of primary colors for a watercolor look reminiscent of Studio Ghibli's Meet the Yamadas. But part of the glamor of the Heian era is precisely that we tend to view it through a historic haze. While violent moments may recall the samurai savagery of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll, Kai Doh Maru recreates a fantasy ideal of the Japanese past and does it so well that it belongs on the shelf with the classical anime The Sensualist and The Tale of Genji.
Its story is less coherent-a rushed jumble of fights and shots, great on a showreel but almost incomprehensible as a movie. Our lead is a girl who takes on a man's mission, like the cross-dressing heroines of Yotoden and Dororo. Our creepy bad guy behind the scenes is a girl called Shutendoji. The bad guys want to bring back the same Masakado demigod who haunts Doomed Megalopolis. A "healer character" with a couple of cameos is addressed as "Mr. Seimei"-in yet another sly reference to the manga and movie phenomenon Onmyoji (seeDE, as The Yin-Yang Master). But Kai Doh Maru is more than the sum of its parts, a careful recreation of the famously languid pace of Japan's medieval capital, put into production at the turn of the 21st century, when Japanese popular culture developed a minor fetish for the turn of the 11th.
The Japanese titles clearly state that the year is a.d. 995, although some characters and events seem to originate from a century earlier (i.e., 889), causing some confusion for the translators. Then again, Seimei died ten years after the events shown here-Kai Doh Maru might imply a sense of historical accuracy, but it's still prepared to play fast and loose with the actual facts. That, however, is part of director Wakabayashi's plan. It should not be lost on the viewer, for example, that the magical, fantastical Kyoto depicted here experiences 4 complete seasons in just 35 minutes. NB: the box blurb in some territories disingenuously counts the DVD extras as part of the main feature, in an attempt to claim a running time of "80 mins. approx." In fact, the main feature only lasts for 46 minutes, and 7 of those comprise the plodding ending credits. V