Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shigurui (full series)

The first thing that struck me about Shigurui was the incredible lighting and sound design. The show is incredibly stark both visually and aurally with blinding washes of white over a landscape of stillness and silence punctuated by brief and incredibly brutal bursts of shocking violence. Muscles tense. Warriors size each other up. A foot shifts here. A hand clenches there. Someone's head goes flying and everything is drenched in blood.

In many ways very appropriate for a samurai story; it certainly hearkens back to the great scenes in older samurai movies where more time is spent on the stare-down than the swinging. Since this is from from the director of Texhnolyze, this should come as no surprise and tell you all you need to know about the show's "deliberate" pacing.

Ostensibly, Shigurui starts out as a standard samurai anime, albeit much more realistic than most. There are no ninja powers or fireballs here, it's all about the tiny details in the fighter's stance or their grip on their sword. With it's indulgence of combat minutiae and relative lack of actual action-packed sword-slinging, it seemed to be just a samurai anime for samurai otaku with far more style that it deserved.

We even have all the stereotypical pieces: a prestigious dojo, a chivalrous top student in line to inherit it and marry the master's gentle daughter, and a conniving rival who not only fights dirty but has the fall to try to run away and hide when the tide turns against him. Everything begins to take a much darker, more sinister bent as the truth is slowly spooled out. The master is a raving madman with only brief moments of lucidity, during which he's a heartless, evil bastard. The chivalrous student is doggedly obedient, following his master's every command, no matter how inhuman. The manipulative rat seems to be the only one with any human dignity - or is it all an act?

Combined with the non-linear and obtuse storytelling that isn't afraid of leaving loose ends and unanswered questions, Shigurui quickly becomes a baroque tragedy of warped, in-bred privilege and how the fires of revenge, greed and ambition will burn everything around them to ash. It's a clear condemnation not only of the samurai (and their fetishization) but the paths of vengeance and power-and-any-cost in general.

There are no heroes in the show, only monsters and shattered victims (sometimes one and the same).

Sadly, that's not to say it's for everyone. Even beyond the bursts of starting gore and nudity, the glacial pacing will make it nearly impossible for some viewers to really get into it. Shigurui does manage to reach (and maintain) an almost palpable boiling tension, but it takes some time to get there. The "ending" is also profoundly unsatisfying. Having taken a leisurely pace through the first 10 episodes, the last two are surprisingly rushed and somewhat hard to follow. They contain some of the most gruesome and moving scenes of the entire run but leave huge gaps, most significantly how the Gennosuke Fujiki (the chivalrous student) loses his arm. When the anime opened, he faces off against Seigen Irako (now a blind cripple) for a final showdown - but it closes without showing how he lost his arm.

Definitely recommended for those who want something a bit more cerebral and can endure the pacing and don't mind having only hints to go on to get to it.

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