Some of the most graphic and violent scenes you'll see in anime in a long time provide the backdrop for one of the more intriguing series to hit the UK in a while.
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. The disfigured legends of the blade must summon the strength for one last battle - a final lesson in the artistry of violence where nothing is more beautiful than the kill.
The English track on this release is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, with the dialogue and music both being extremely clear. There's not a great deal of directionality to it, with the exception of some of the music and occasional incidental dialogue, as most of the action takes place through the centre channels. Nonetheless, this is an above average mix for a TV series that definitely packs a bit of a punch at times. The Japanese 2.0 stereo track is a bit quieter, but does recapture the originial recording well.
It's also worth mentioning that the English dub for the show is very good, following the Japanese script very accurately for the msot part while maintaining many of the subtleties in the characters speech patterns and general manneurisms.
The high-definition Blu-ray release of Shigurui looks excellent for the most part. it's a huge step up from its DVD counterpart, which suffers from some of the usual encoding artefacts, being far more clear and detailed. The colours are drab and often almost monotone, but the clarity in the picture is superb in most of the scenes and when the colour comes, particularly the red of blood, it really comes to life and stands out on the screen. With this being a late-night TV series, the animation isn't the most detailed and it's even more obvious on Blu-ray, but in terms of the presenattion compared to source material, the release is hard to fault. The only downside is during some of the flashback scenes, when a heavy amount of grain is used. It's definitely a deliberate choice, but it can be a bit jarring when you go from such clarity to so much grain.
Subtitles are in a clear white font, and I noticed no spelling or grammatical errors.
No packaging was included as this was a check disc.
The main menu plays to some of the background music, and has the show's logo centrally with a few clips rotating in the background. Sub-menus are all clear from their selections and pop up over the main video piece. In-show, the pop up menus are quick and easy to access.
The main extras are the two commentary tracks - one on episode 4 and another on episode 10. Both tracks are interesting to listen to, straying from the usual "dub commentaries" by offering some insight into the background of the show and the time, as well as the recording of the English track and the difficulties that presented. We also get a decent production art gallery and the usual textless opening and ending in high definition.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Watching Shigurui for the first time was like travelling back in a time machine to the mid-90s and the days when everything released by Manga in the UK was filled with blood, violence and gore. Shigurui is almost Ninja Scroll-esque in style, which isn't entirely surprising considering the 12 episode series was produced by Madhouse as well, but it definitely brought memories of my beginnings in anime flooding back.
Getting past those initial memories though, it would be easy to be put off by Shigurui at the outset. The first scene has a man shoving his hands into a stomach wound and pulling out his intestines to prove a point to his masters, all of which is graphically depicted from the blood flow down to the internal organs. If you can stomach that kind of graphic brutality though, what you will find in Shigurui might surprise you. Because when you peel back the layers of shock value, underneath is a deliberately paced, slow-moving story that is extremely well-crafted.
Shigurui depicts the relationship between two young samurai; Gennosuke Fujiki is the next in line to succeed the master of the Kogan style of swordsmanship and is strong and focussed, while Seigen Irako comes from a lowly background and works his way into the Kogan school with one goal - to become the new successor and he will use lies and deception wherever he needs to in order to reach his goal.
The series begins at the end of their relationship. Irako is blind and scarred, while Fujiki has lost an arm and strengthened the rest of his body to compensate. Both are changed men, scarred and jaded by their violent pasts and there is an immense amount of animosity between the two. Starting at the end, we already know that Fujiki ends up with Mie and Irako ends up as the castaway of the Kogan style, accompanied by Iku (who was the Kogan master’s mistress). But where the series excels is showing us what exactly went on between the pair of them and those around him, and how they reached this point in their lives.
When we first see the two men in flashbacks, Fujiki is a driven and confident man who doesn’t doubt his abilities, whereas Irako is a cocky youngster who breaks into the Kogan School and turns everyone’s pre-conceptions on their head. Suddenly Fujiki is not the clear-cut choice as successor, as Irako is in many ways more technically gifted. After several successful missions, Irako almost has the world at his feet. All he wants is to gain the recognition by becoming the new Kogan master, and he even has the current master, Iwamoto, on his side. But knowing that Iwamoto suffers from severe dementia, he thinks he can do what he wants without being caught, having both Iwamoto’s mistress and his daughter, Mie as well.
The rise of Irako is depicted at a slow and deliberate pace, but it shows the changes in both he and Fujiki really well. We see how Fujiki takes being sidelined, and how drunk on success Irako becomes. That means that when the mid-point hits, and Irako’s deceit is uncovered, it packs a heavy emotional punch as we see what has become of both men. Fujiki is now relentless in his fight against Irako, while the latter almost ends up dead. The second half of the series could almost be titled “The Revenge of Seigen Irako”, as he begins to plot against all his opposition in the Kogan School, exacting his own form of revenge on all of them, ending up at Fujiki and Iwamoto himself.
Throughout the series, the violence and brutality of the time is clear to see. From graphic depictions of sword violence, to the attempted rape of his own daughter by Iwamoto, to the chopping off of one of Iku’s breasts, the series does not hold back in any way from showing us how the world was back then. It can be hard to stomach at times, but it’s well worth it because the character development and story are extremely worthwhile. By the end of the series much violence has been seen, but the characters have changed so much that they are almost unrecognisable from how they started out. Even the supporting characters like Mie and Iku are so heavily affected by events around them that they noticeably change, and that a character like Iwamoto can invoke so much fear just by his presence even in his demented state says a lot about the quality of the writing on the show.
Perhaps the only complaint with the story could be with its ending. It’s not entirely clear of the outcome, and it seems to just stop when you might be left wanting a bit more closure. But the journey is so well told that it’d be hard to hold too much against it. The animation style, along with the colours and setting of the series really help the show as well. It has an almost dull tone to much of it, often told in dark and washed out colours so that it almost looks monotone. Then some scenes are brought to life in more colour, particularly with the red of blood, that the stark contrast in tones really stands out. The animation quality itself isn’t always amazing – it’s clear that Shigurui didn’t have the biggest budget – but they definitely saved some of the money for the fight scenes as for the most part they are excellent.
Shigurui won’t be a series for everyone, mostly because the graphic nature of the violence will put some people off, but if you can stomach that then I’d really recommend trying the show out, because you will find a very well told story with deep characterisation that is so often lacking in modern anime. The style and tone of the animation lends itself to the series perfectly, so much so that you often feel as if you’re there with the people on screen. This is the kind of series that, given a chance, could even appeal to people outside of anime who are fans of samurai stories and the like. It’s a shame that it will probably never become a break-out hit, because there are few series out there like Shigurui today, and it’s a real breath of fresh air compared to much of the anime that is coming out these days. As long as you can take the violence, then Shigurui gets a very high recommendation from me, even more so in its Blu-ray release which really shows the series off how it was meant to be seen.
Japanese Language (2.0), English Language (5.1), English Subtitles, Commentary on Episodes 4 and 10, Production Art Gallery, Textless Opening and Ending
Samsung LE40M86 1080p HDTV, Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray player (upscaling DVDs to 1080p via HDMI), Pioneer HTP-GS1 5.1 Surround Sound System.