Shigurui – intense slowness

Alternative title Shigurui: Death Frenzy
Studio Madhouse
Genres Action, Drama, Historical
Source Manga (itself based on a novel)
Episodes 12
Season Summer 2007
Director Hiroshi Hamasaki
Music Kiyoshi Yoshida

 

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     It was near the end of September but the sun still climbed high and showered everything with its inescapable piercing rays. Cicadas were mostly hidden in a few trees but their chirping almost drowned slow and sparse beats of drums. Everyone was silent. The daimyo sat under the shadow but the cruel light encompassed everything. He didn’t care. Wide opened unblinking eyes were fixated on the beaten field, his thin lips slightly curled into a cruel smile, ripe with anticipation and excitement. The announcer had just spoken his words. Only the silent crunch of the pebbles was heard as a samurai entered the field. On the other side even more silently appeared his opponent, led by a woman. It seemed like the bleaching light was so thick and all-embracing that it was hard to move through the wall of it. The rivals slowly got into their positions, as if judging one another and trying to pick up the slightest hints about their moves. The public began to stir, seeing that one of the samurai was one-handed and the other was both blind and crippled. How could that be? Isn’t it a disgrace to the Lord? The lord was silent. Two swords were drawn. Not the usual wooden ones, but real. Metal shined as if burning white. The murmuring stopped. The cicadas also seemed to had gone silent. Everything became still as if before the storm. The world was only the white field. Each of the opponents was determined to end everything here. The past didn’t matter anymore. Their women, slightly trembling, both looked stone-faced. They also didn’t matter now. The sun beat down even harder. The match was about to begin.

     I hope you can feel the suspense. Shigurui is nothing if not suspenseful (and  pretty disturbing by the way), but first things first. If you can’t stomach flying guts and some nudity, you can stop right there. Shigurui is precisely the polar opposite of CGDCT – it’s scary men (mostly) doing hacking and slashing (I guess I can name it SMDHaS then), so be warned. Be very warned. Remember these gritty and messed up 80s and 90s OVAs by, for example, Yoshiaki Kawajiri? Yeah. We clear? Good.

     The scene that I described earlier actually isn’t that relevant because the main events of the story happen several years earlier (by the way, flashbacks and time jumps do happen quite a bit and might be disorienting at times, but to me that wasn’t a big problem). At that time the protagonist Fujiki was an apprentice in a dojo under a master whose old age forced him to continuously snap in and out of a demented state. It was quite troublesome but by the sheer force of will and devotion of the apprentices the dojo was still able to survive. One day a new swordsmen named Irako arrived with a wish to become a pupil and learn the secret technique that the master was famous for. Everything didn’t go so smoothly and eventually Fujiki and Irako became fierce rivals. Add some women to the mix, the mad master and his craved technique, and you have a great stage for a play about human interaction in a particular setting.

      And in that respect Shigurui definitely delivers. In contrast to the manga that tends to provide some information about what the characters are thinking, the anime leaves the judgment entirely to the viewers. The visuals do provide some cues about what’s happening in the heads of the characters but ultimately we see only the actions, and the  drawing of the conclusions is up to the viewer. It’s great then that the story is very slow paced – there’s lots of still and pans, – but I don’t think I was ever bored by it. The music and staging provided enough information to keep the mind occupied while also leaving space to analyze and think about the proceeding events. I don’t think the show can boast of that memorable characters except maybe the old master (who looks rather like a demon). But that’s not a problem because at least to me every single more prominent character seemed to be equally important – each of them a person with goals and wishes, a person whose destiny is intertwined with others, for better or worse.

Excerpt from the OST: Akune by Kiyoshi Yoshida

     I mentioned flying guts and stuff earlier but you’d be very mistaken thinking that that’s all there is to Shigurui. Sure, the gritty elements and quite a bit of nudity (though none of it is outright fanservice) is certainly there, and many might be (and probably should be) turned off by it. I’d agree that some of it might be excessive but ultimately I think it’s needed to make the show what it is. I choose to view Shigurui as a historical piece and a portrayal of the values that were relevant at the time. I don’t think it’s possible to enjoy the show otherwise – the actions of the characters sometimes seem very alien and even inhuman. You have to brace yourself in the face of instances of women being practically sold out just to ensure the offspring, people eating eyes of their opponents (…yeah…) and other pretty disgusting stuff. I have no idea about the historical accuracy of all this but as a study of how humans might be molded to fit a hard society, Shigurui is an interesting piece. The show questions the concept of loyalty – how devoted should you be if your orders clearly go against your ideals? You can also find examples of what a human is capable of if he sets his will to something he desires. Shigurui in its essence is a very sad tale about people pushed (and themselves pushing others) to the extremes, all for honor, loyalty, and survival.

     All is good and well but here comes the biggest problem of Shigurui. Sadly, the anime doesn’t end. Well, it sort of does, right after a significant event, but that’s it. The story screamed to be adapted further but sadly the anime covered only about the half of the manga. Naturally, the story doesn’t come full circle and this first scene of Fujiki and Irako preparing to fight doesn’t lead anywhere, or rather it has very little connection with the rest of the show. The viewers have absolutely no idea how did Fujiki lose his arm or how did Irako became crippled. In the end, such an opening in the context of the whole anime feels like a bad case of teasing. I think it would’ve been better to start from the beginning chronologically, even if that would’ve come to the need of having one episode less.

The beauty of the character designs

      The visuals deserve lots of praise. You should remember Hiroshi Hamasaki, as he’s the one who directed the original Steins;Gate, Texhnolyze and Orange, also getting involved with original  Macross, Metropolis, Redline, Space Dandy and others. Man, being involved with the old Madhouse – Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Rintaro, Katsuhiro Otomo, Satoshi Kon, Chiaki Konaka and Yoshitoshi ABe among others sounds incredible. And Hamasaki is worthy of such a company. Weird and unsettling angles and shot compositions, the maximum that can be extracted from the usage of stills and pans – it’s quite weird to have a show that’s both very intense and slow at the same time. During later episodes I might have become a bit accustomed to the tone and style of it, but yes, there wasn’t a second that I was bored. Another huge positive is the character designs. They strongly reminded me of the first story in Aoi Bungaku (great one by the way) and what can I say? It turns out that it’s also Masanori Shino’s work. Apart from these two shows he designed characters for Black Lagoon, you may know him from there. And yeah, the designs are nothing but gorgeous. Might be a bit too similar, but still gorgeous. Very realistic, something that might be compared to Satoshi Kon’s films, but sometimes fiercely deformed, just what you’d expect from an anime released in English as Shigurui: Death Frenzy.

      But let’s address the elephant in the room, and that’s the overall aesthetic. If you watched Steins;Gate, you should remember that sense of white light, encompassing everything, that colorless, even sterile atmosphere, giving a feeling of stagnation and unsettlement. Well, in Shigurui it’s taken to the extreme. You’ll rarely encounter other colors than black, white and, obviously, red. Some may say that such a bleached color scheme is very dull and boring but I may remind them then that Shigurui isn’t a show about eating strawberries. It’s a show where people are hard-boiled, where emotions must be locked deep down and all you can do is your duties no matter what you think of them. A colorless world for muted people. The fight scenes usually show only the fighters in a white background with a grain filter added. I’d say it’s a great representation of people fixated only on the fight, as if transferred to another world (but it’s not an isekai harem story by all means) where the only thing that matters is the opponent and his sword. Sadly there’re some less fortunate instances, and they mainly come from the use of CG. CG guts and CG cicadas do bring the feeling of something not quite right. Some softer hand drawn treatment of these objects probably would’ve been a better choice.

Excerpt from the OST: Kiba by Kiyoshi Yoshida

    At this point I won’t elaborate that much about the soundtrack. Kiyoshi Yoshida used mainly traditional Japanese percussion and muted melodies – that proved to be an inseparable addition setting the atmosphere. You can use the visuals for such a story any way you like but without a suspenseful soundtrack it would mean nothing. Even the OP and ED are not usual anime songs but pieces of instrumental music, so that’s another layer of preparing the viewer for the story and enhancing the immersion.

High intensity moments sometimes show flashes of
bones and muscles superimposed on characters. Interesting.

      Life can be weird. I started watching Yuru Camp but somehow after 3 episodes that transformed into me watching Shigurui. Yeah, a very likely scenario. Nonetheless, I was more than absorbed into the story, and that doesn’t happen too often for my own liking. When the seasonal anime starts getting more and more plainly average (or I don’t know how to choose the right stuff), something like Shigurui really shakes up numbing senses and reminds how diverse anime can be. You don’t find that often a dead serious show examining the cage that a cultural circumstances might put a person in. Of course I’m very disappointed about the lack of the ending but the journey was memorable enough to compensate for that. And yeah, there’re yet about 40 chapters of manga left that I should be reading right now.

    I believe, this anime is

 3
Good

      I’d wholeheartedly recommend the show, only beware of the nudity and the gore. It isn’t an easy watch to say the least. You won’t find there any joy or warmth. But if you can keep up with the cruel sun and the rivers of blood, I think the experience will be rewarding enough.

     Have you seen Shigurui? Do you enjoy historical anime in general? Where do you think is the line that separates what’s appropriate to show and what isn’t?

Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. I think I like the concept of historical anime but I haven’t seen too many.

    I have no idea what’s appropriate to show in a series. As long as it’s not just being thrown in for shock value and actually makes sense, I guess it gets a pass…for Shigurui, I think the gore and murder and all of that jazz is very necessary! At least according to what you’ve said here.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Well, the historical part usually provides only a setting so the content can be extremely varied – from Shigurui to Rakugo to Oda Nobunaga being a cute girl.
      Yeah, that seems fair. If a justifiable context is provided, a story can get away with almost anything.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
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