Before there was Otogi-zoshi, there was Kaidohmaru, a 50-minute feature that is to the longer series what Kurosawa’s Kagemusha was to his later Ran: a “dress rehearsal” of sorts. Both Otogi-zoshi and Kaidohmaru hail from the same animation house (the immensely accomplished Production I.G) and both sport the same gorgeous period-fantasy look, an admixture of CGI and hand-drawn animation that complement each other wonderfully. In fact, it’s essentially a prelude to the longer show, with details about how many of the characters ended up where they were at the beginning. If you like the shorter feature, seek out the longer one by all means.
Kaidohmaru (怪童丸, or strong youth) opens in the late 900s in the old capital of Kyoto, where pestilence and unrest have become unmanageable. The decadent lords who are little more than masters of ceremony are growing nervous, and armed gangs are roving the countryside. Among the nobles is little Kintoki, whom the others call “Kaidohmaru” — a girl raised as a boy with all of the training of a warrior to go with such a lifestyle. S/he doesn’t seem to miss being a woman — “Writing letters all day long doesn’t sound like my kind of life!” — and is simply happy to be near her lord and master, Minamoto Raiko, while protecting the capitol against incursions.
The princess Kintoki, or "Kaidohmaru", was raised as a boy, and now fights alongside "his"
comrades in the capital of Kyoto, fending off disturbances common to the late Heian years.
The grim surface has even grimmer goings-on under it. Black magicians within the court have rounded up human sacrifices to stave off the encroaching evil, and they worry that Raiko and his devotees stand in the way. One night while on patrol Kintoki and his friends clash with Ibaragi, the diminutive master of the sacrifice caravans, and incur the wrath of the mysterious Lady Shuten-doji, the alleged leader of one of the criminal gangs. From then on the there’s one violent clash after another that peels back the layers of years of ugly secrets. The plot’s rather modest in its scope — this is, after all, only a fifty-minute short, and it ends with dismaying suddenness — but the visuals are so creative and well-expressed that the story is almost unimportant.
The show’s look clearly influenced its successor. Otogi-zoshi used a slightly pastel color scheme and muted linework for its period segments; Kaidohmaru is even more dreamy and fantastic (in the sense of being a thing of fantasy). If anything, it reminded of the design work done for the video game Okami, which also tapped into Japanese history and myth to create something genuinely new and exciting. Actually, at first the muted colors made everything into a bit of a hard-to-watch haze (you need a good TV for this disc), but when the blood flew and painted the screen with a violent iridescence, I understood better why they did it: it’s for contrast. It’s doubly effective in the latter half of the show, when Kyoto is put to the torch and the whole screen is steeped in many shades of red.
Production I.G’s mainstay is combining hand-drawn animation and 3D CGI work in a complementary way — the two never distract from each other, and here the show’s uniform color scheme makes them blend together all the better. Many of the same tricks that were on display in Blood: the Last Vampire and later works like the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series are all at play here. One of the biggest is giving the camera the freedom to rove around instead of remaining hammered down for the duration of the shot — in short, to make it work like a real camera, with motion blur and shake and objects having variable depth of focus. They’re also used judiciously, so they become part of the visuals and not a distraction from them. It’s all an object lesson in how to do this sort of thing right.cd.