The stylish and horrifically violent story of two star crossed samurai vying for the same prizes.
What They Say
Two damaged warriors wear the scars of a twisted and violent past. Bitter rivals for the secrets of their master's sword and the right to his daughter, these samurai inflict wounds on each other that would destroy lesser men. The final chapter of their saga unfolds within a brutal samurai tournament, a gruesome contest arranged to satisfy the bloodlust of a cruel tyrant overlord.
For this viewing, I primarily listened to the English dub, which is available in both 5.1 and 2.0. The original Japanese 2.0 track is also available. The audio on this is fantastic. The 5.1 mix uses the available technology well, with no dropout across any of the channels or tracks. The soundtrack is a beautifully haunting score of traditional Japanese music—with particular emphasis on biwa and drums. Mostly, things are quiet, but all that is done to highlight what noise there is. There is never a wasted sound. Very well done all around.
This is also a visually stunning title. It is very stylish, with a color palette that switches from black and white to color. And when there are colors, they tend to be washed out so that they are almost grey themselves. This is done because the only object that is consistently bright is blood, of which there is plenty. Character models tend towards the realistic, and they fit the overall design of the series well. There is also a neat effect they use where they will blank out a character model to show various organs or muscles if they are either being targeted by an opponent or are under particular stress. Just very well designed.
The only complaint I have is that it seems the frame-rate is inconsistent: sometimes—particularly with dialogue—it almost looks like they are getting away with just two or three frames of animations, whereas others—particularly during fight sequences—the animation is as fluid as can be. It is not a big deal, and it might not be noticeable if you are not looking for it.
The other thing to mention is that the subtitles in this are white with a black outline. While the black outline helps, the subtitles can get lost in the almost grayscale color scheme. It would have been nice if they had gone with yellow. That would have stood out well, though it then might have taken away from artistic style.
The packaging is well designed. The two discs are housed in two thinpaks that have a textured box they fit in. The box has images of Fujiki and Irako, with splatters of blood all over, set against brownscale sketches of the human body. The back has a series summary with some screen shots and technical details. I particularly like that the images on this reflect the coloring style of the entire show—including the background sketches of skeletal and muscular systems. The thinpaks have reversible covers. The “a” side has more brownscale sketches with episode and extra listings on the back, while the “b” sides have images of Fujiki (disc 1) and Irako (disc 2) on the front and a tiger holding a sword in its mouth (disc 1) and twin dragons (disc 2) on the back. Very well done, though with only two discs, I do wonder why they did not put something together so that both discs went into one case. Minor complaint, though.
The prize of the package, though, has to be that the box also has enough space to house a 24 page booklet. The booklet contains a plethora of information on the philosophy of a samurai, swordsmanship, and the history of the Tokugawa Era which Shigurui is based on. There are also some weapon sketches and a bunch of interviews with a number of the series creators. Just bring a magnifying glass—the font is tiny so that they can pack in as much information on the 24 pages as they can. It is a great little book.
The menus for this release are pretty basic, but are well designed. The two discs have the same design with different background images. The first disc has the image of the tiger holding the sword from the interior cover of the first thinpak, while the second disc uses the twin dragon motif from the interior of the second thinpak. Both are static images with the series logo overlaid in the center, and the selections places along the bottom. The selections are given in white, which stands out because they are set against a long smear of blood. The highlight is yellow, making navigating the menu easy to follow.
There are a decent amount of extras in this set, not including the booklet mentioned above. There are commentaries for two episodes, character and setting sketches, and textless songs. It should be noted that the commentaries are not found in the extras section, but are actually selectable from the episodes menu. Finally, this set also has a neat little mode called “Marathon Play,” which if selected, only plays the opening credits prior to the first episode and the end credits after the last episode. This means that if you are watching it as a marathon—as I did here—you do not need to be skipping past credits every 22 minutes. A minor detail, to be sure, but a neat idea nonetheless.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Shigurui is the horrific, provocative, and haunting look at the last days of a samurai dojo during the Tokugawa Era. It is bloody, violent, sexual, and violently sexual—it is also incredible. It is most certainly not a title that anybody can pick up and watch, but those that are not squeamish and do not mind meandering expositions will find a gem with this one.
This story opens up in the courtyard of one of the Shogun’s lesser family members—a thoroughly spoiled and disreputable man who finds pleasure in pain. He has arranged a test of sword skill between two men, and has determined the fight should be to the death. One is a grizzled veteran who is missing an arm; the other is blind and has trouble walking. However, these two have a history together, and Shigurui is the tale of how these two got to the point they are at now.
Gennosuke Fujiki is the number one student of Kogan Dojo, the most prestigious samurai dojo in Japan. He is all but certain to be given the hand of Kogan Iwamoto’s daughter, Mie, and become the inheritor of the secrets of the Kogan sword style. Kogan himself is mostly insane, as he seems to have become a victim of his sexual vices. However, he is able to return to coherence at times, and always seems to when it is most important.
One day, an egotistical ronin named Seigan Irako enters the Kogan dojo demanding that he be allowed to challenge the sensei. Irako easily defeats the challenge of Fujiki, but then falls almost as quickly to the assistant master, Gonzaemon Ushimata. Ushimata punishes Irako for his insolence, but ultimately allows him to meet Kogan, who then decides that Irako can become his student. Once in the dojo, Irako is a fast learner, and he soon becomes Fujiki’s rival for heir. Kogan favors Irako, though the rest prefer Fujiki, as they are not fully sure of Irako’s motives. Their rivalry and Irako’s desires ultimately threaten the very existence of both the dojo and the sword style.
Shigurui is an excellent anime. There is no two ways about it. The story, the music, the animation: all are done perfectly to build the specific effect the creators were going for. They wanted to look at a specific cross-section of Tokugawa Japanese society—in this case the samurai class—and they wanted to do it as realistically as possible. There are no “Amakakeru Ryo No Hiramekis” here. All of the abilities and sword styles are as natural as they can be.
The strongest point, I think, would have to be the characters. Each character has a specific role to play here, and they do it perfectly. Each character also has a tragic flaw that while nothing major by itself, adds up to equal disaster when thrown with everybody else’s. Fujiki is the consummate student—he works hard, he looks after the master’s daughter, and respects his superiors. However, he also blindly follows orders without considering if they are right or not. Irako also studies hard, and works his skills with the blade, but he is too ambitious for his own good.
The most interesting character for me would have to be Mie. As the daughter of Kogan, she is part of the prize of being named Kogan’s heir. But for Fujiki and Irako, she seems to be more of an afterthought, as they both seem more interested in the secrets of the Kogan sword style than they are of Kogan’s beautiful daughter. Considering that Kogan also spends most of his time making Hamlet look sane, she is continually thrust into situations that she is ill equipped to handle. She begins by caring for Fujiki, but being nervous about his blind loyalty to her father. Then she falls for Irako when he refuses—at her father’s order—to rape her in front of the entire dojo. Then she falls apart when Irako is expelled from the dojo, becoming fairly mad herself. Her journey from a depressing life, to the depths of humanity, and back along the path of redemption is very well done.
But no matter how good Shigurui is, there are a few things that cannot be ignored. First, Shigurui is incredibly violent. Because of the dull tones, the blood shows up very well, and barely five minutes goes by at any time without somebody getting cut up. The show is not even three minutes old when we see our first person lay out his guts to the Tokugawa Prince. I am not particularly squeamish, but there were even a few times that I had to turn my head. I will not quickly forget the image of Kurouemon eating the eyeball of somebody he had just killed. Kogan cutting the nipple off Lady Iku was none too pleasant either, though it does lead to a design mistake—Kogan cuts off her right nipple, but later when she reveals her breasts, it is her left that is all disfigured.
This title is also very sexual, and not much of it in an erotic way. Much of the sex involved Kogan, usually the drooling insane one, and he can get none too gentle at times as well (see nipple comment above). Throw in the fact that he tries to have is own daughter raped, the Tokugawa prince strangling his own concubine for sexual thrills, and Kurouemon performing autofellatio while thinking of an underage boy, then there is no real beauty to the nudity. Just stark and horrifying as the rest of the show is, and yet, it is all the more provocative for it, if that makes any sense.
This all leads to the fact that there are really no redeeming characters in Shigurui. Every single person, including the “good guy” Fujiki, have fairly major character flaws which help lead to the ultimate tragedies that are to come. Mie is the only character who is not really a bad person, but the helplessness of her circumstances and her inability to deal with them make her more pathetic than likeable.
Now, none of this is to say that Shigurui is flawed. In fact, this all works very well towards the overall feel and effect the show has. The characters existed in a violent world filled with injustice where the few on top killed themselves with numerous vices, each crueler than the last. It was not a particularly pleasant time, especially for the samurai classes, as they often found themselves caught up in the intrigues of the aristocrats, and were quickly brought down with them too. Shigurui does a wonderful job catching this ideology and mindset. But it does it so well that I think there are plenty of people that would not enjoy it.
Interestingly, for all of the violence and deviance, Shigurui has a pace that can best be described as deliberate. The only things that happen quickly in this title are the sword fights, which are usually over in a move or two. Otherwise, it takes the slow build to everything. There is a lot of exposition as it follows each main character through to their conclusion. It is an interesting choice, but one that is done particularly well. Any faster, and the effect would have been ruined. Keeping the deliberate pace helps underscore the horrific nature of everything that happens.
Shigurui is a title that I want to recommend as hard as I can. The elements are all there—plot, character, and setting—and all work well together to build a truly fascinating look at the samurai class in Tokugawa Japan. And the animation and music combine to make it incredibly stylish. However, the horrific violence and indecent sex scenes are sure to turn plenty of people off. And the measured pace will probably knock out many of who are left. However, if none of this phases you, then I could not recommend it any higher.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Audio Commentaries, Production Artwork, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Marathon Play, 24 Page Guide Book
Magnavox 37MF337B 37” LCD HDTV, Memorex MVD2042 Progressive Scan w/ DD/DTS (Component Connection), Durabrand HT3916 5.1 Surround Sound System