Shigurui: Death Frenzy

Title: Shigurui: Death Frenzy
Rating: 4/5
Genre: Animation, Historical Drama
Director: Hiroshi Hamazaki
Language: Japanese (English dubs)
Duration: 25mins (12 episodes)

I must confess that of all my interests in Japan and it's culture, I always felt I was neglecting their history, but it never seemed like a widely discussed topic and with the wealth of information available it always seemed like something of an insurmountable task, deciding upon where to begin. Upon hearing about this adaptation of the manga of the same name – in turn based upon the novel Suruga-jō Gozen Jiai penned by Norio Nanjo in the 50's – my interest in a series that takes serious consideration for the intricacies of the Edo period (late 17th to mid 19th Century) had been peaked. There is no attempt to take the subject matter lightly either; Japan may have been in a state of peace but the path of the samurai were none the less bloody for it, the problems with their strict code of conduct made more than apparent within this tale of intertwined fates.

Known and revered throughout the land, Kogan Iwamato is the deranged master of the Kogan style of Bushido (sword fighting), but his time is coming to an end and his feared style and legacy must soon be passed on to another worthy of its secrets. Diligent in his mastering of the Kogan style, his cold devotion to the art and intense training regime quickly sees Gennosuke Fujiki rising through the ranks, believed by many to be the next master up until the day the ronin Seigen Irako enters the dojo demanding an audience. Proving his natural abilities and determination by defeating Fujiko, even though he falls to Ushimata (Fujiki's tutor) he is accepted into the clan, but he is never loyal to it, using it only as a means to improve upon his own skills. Usurping Fujiki's place as next in line, he stirs up a grudge between the two bitter rivals, but when Irako's desires lead him to betray his master he is punished with his sight and banished from the clan, but even the loss of his sight cannot curb Irako's ambition for power.

It never feels as though it is gratuitous in its adult content for the sake of it (though I should point out that the 18 rating is well earned), only turning on the CGI bloodworks or displaying nudity where required to further emphasise the point being made, and this animation team (Madhouse; the same animators responsible for Black Lagoon, Ninja Scroll and Highschool of the Dead) aren't exactly known for shying away from a bit of bloodshed. However, the slow build-up gives it meaning with wide spread ramifications; bones will be broken, teeth shattered, organs diced, heads sliced into pieces and bodies dismembered beyond recognition. What initially feels like a snails pace doesn't ever pick up, but as you become more involved with the piece and understand the gravity of it all more, each tiny insignificant action or sentence is given all the more weight; concealing the most insignificant deformation or simply not listening carefully enough may be all that's required to bring about abrupt and bloody punishment, if not immediately then in the future, which can only leave you with questions of how more serious allegations are handled.

There is more here than simple effects and swordplay though (in fact the actual combat is often over within the blink of an eye, a single swing of the blade often being all that's needed), so much emphasis is placed upon the mentality and technique of combat; the importance of not underestimating the opponent and remaining calm when under pressure or when on the receiving end of a non-fatal blow. The Gokan style which is seen most commonly employed takes on its own distinct characteristics with both strengths and weaknesses on display, and even those that employ it utilise it in slightly different ways; from the cold precision of Gennosuke to the more agile and up close and personal approach of his rival Seigan; their tutor's more defensive performances, more dependant on raw strength and their master making use of fear and counter-strikes to make his presence known. And yet when shown side by side by those proficient at other styles, the differences make themselves all the more abundantly clear.

The depth of detail in the animation is immense and superb at displaying everything that needs to be shown; from the scars and disfigurements from the perils of combat and the distinct appearance of even the most minor of characters right down to the many backdrops, it all succeeds in setting the scene for what's to come. This profound atmosphere is also lent a hand by the simplistic but nonetheless effective musical score, making use of traditional instruments from the period to further immerse you in the story. The two lead characters which the story centres upon rapidly develop their own personality and neither finish where they began, the events shown shaping their personality and development as the tale continues. Emotions brought about by the devotion to their deranged master and his desires for the betterment of the clan; his 'confusion' between his wife and daughter, both of which are made to sleep with him but neither doing so through more reason that simple circumstance, and his wife's subsequent secretive adultery provoking severe consequences for those involved.

But for all it's fascinating insights it doesn't come without it's flaws. It's slow initial pace makes the first handful of episodes a slog, and the non-linear manner it initially unfolds does little to help matters, forcing you to struggle to come to grips with all the nuances of the characters introduced from the very beginning as well as coming to terms with the dark tone of the piece, needing to time to subtly weave its magic. Other issues never truly become resolved; the problem with the names which sadly as a result of my inability to speak Japanese often end up sounding similar and inevitably foreign, and with the narration often simply mentioning names or years to make leaps in the story I often found myself initially confusing many of the minor characters for another (or indeed, simply not having a clue who was being referred to). The ending, too, feels abrupt and as though missing a final chapter – or indeed several – and yet, despite these issues I can't think of anything else I've seen that comes close to offering such an insight into this dark period in Japan's history. Kill Bill this ain't.


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