Shigurui: Death Frenzy
Two students of the Kogan school of swordmanship are locked in a competition to be the school's successor. Through deceit and betrayal, the two are bound to face each other in a duel, spearheaded by Lord Tokugawa Tadanaga, who himself has earned ill repute from forcing the dueling samurais to use real swords instead of wooden training swords.
Shigurui and its manga counterpart are also both based on an expression from Hagakure, the book of the Samurai, as helpfully explained by the accompanying box set booklet. The anime is more about this than anything else; it's a recollection of lessons, thoughts and ideas, the overarcing story taking second place to a timeline that's all over the place. If you're planning on enjoying Shigurui: Death Frenzy, you're going to have to deal with this, because beneath its brutal surface, this series is an art series, and then some. And THEN some.
Being no strangers to gritty and/or controversial shows, Madhouse helms Shigurui's visuals and animation, and passes with flying colors (if you'll excuse the irony.) It looks very much like a period piece, character greatly detailed -- and you'll find out just how much during the many scenes of violence within -- and animated. The atmosphere is all the more enriched with scores of traditional-sounding music and sound effects, not only the sickening sounds of blades meeting flesh, but also the deafening screech of cicadas. Whatever this show is lacking, atmosphere it is not. Between the occasional splashes of color, Shigurui seems to revel in its grey-speckled world.
Shades of grey is also a good metaphor for the characters in the show, none of which are poorly written or realized. Despite this, I am hard pressed to remember a show where I've felt any more detached to the cast. Most of the lines of dialogue certainly elicit emotional response, but none of the characters neither deserve nor desire sympathy at any point during the show. (Save perhaps the women, who are more often than not played out as victims in a system far too political for its own good.) It doesn't necessarily stray to the point of nihilism, but it's certainly looking towards that particular ideal with a longing gaze. That's the kind of show Shigurui is.
In the middle of all this are the two characters of Fujiki Gennosuke and Irako Seigen. Gennosuke is introduced at the beginning as an one-armed samurai in Shigurui's flash forward introduction. For the rest of the show, he does have both arms and is a member of the Kogan school of swordsmanship, even being favored as the next master of the school, which includes the hand of the daughter of master Iwamoto in marriage. At first glance, you'd think well about his sense of loyality and his work ethic; Gennosuke's success is the result of very hard training.
Then along comes Irako Seigen, challenging the dojo master with a sneer of contempt on his lips. While his talents are undeniable, he is eventually humbled by the best warriors in the school. On Seigen's request, he is eventually taken in and receive training, which only fuels his ambitions even further. He is not interested in the school itself as much as what he can learn there. And the greatest irony is that for a while, Gennosuke and Seigen actually became good friends, though the first couple of minutes of this show makes it quite clear that the friendship isn't going to last.
And then, there's master Iwamoto. He spends most of the series in a state of dementia, but despite him wandering around the dojo in a demented daze, sexually assaulting his own daughter in the middle of the night and regularly urinating himself, he earns a lot of respect from his students and fellow samurai. Most of the horrors in Shigurui can be found in how far people are willing to go for the school. Don't expect much in the way of that ol' Samurai code of honor, because the Kogan school is more occupied with keeping their image and notoriety intact, regardless of what they have to do to keep it that way.
Shigurui is also obsessed with scars and wounds, most of the cast carrying their own share, or obtaining them in the duration of this show. It's at this point you almost have to admire Madhouse's artistry as you gaze upon people with missing or mutilated limbs or jaws, or when you're served with a helping of the internal works of participants clashing in battle. A lot of the battles are played out in still motion -- fitting for Samurai drama, where a lot of battles are fought in the mind alone -- but those that are in motion are a spectacle to behold.
And that's why Shigurui is so unpleasant to watch. It is here to tell you its story, ideas and all, and will gleefully condemn or doom its cast to get those points across, my detachment to said cast being what made it bearable. Up to this point, semi-manga Usagi Yojimbo has been my only somewhat realistic link to anything related to Samurai and the Samurai lifestyle, if also somewhat romanticised. (But only somewhat.) Shigurui is a little too dependant on the darker parts of their ideology. To be completely honest, I don't regret watching this, but now that I have, I never ever want to watch it again.
A hard medicine to swallow, but its effect is undeniable, and not necessarily all bad. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: Hoo boy, where do I even start?
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, bilingual
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Shigurui: Death Frenzy © 2007 Madhouse Studios
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