Gather 'round kiddies, it's time to hear about the best show of 2007 you probably never heard of.
SHIGURUI, initially a 1999-current seinen manga series penned by none other than YAMAGUCHI Takayuki, the twisted gurolicious freak responsible for none other than one of my all time favorite titles, KAKUGO NO SUSUME/APOCALYPSE ZERO. Anyone familiar with this - particularly the manga, but the anime to a large degree - knows that it's a no-holds barred perverted and brutal satire of "manly" titles like Fist of the North Star, Violence Jack, and Bio Boosted Armor Guyver. Yamaguchi's art started extremely rough, his work literally looking like something that would appear in Mad Magazine, but over time he developed his bug-eyed monsters and dripping slimy fluids into a warped and pleasing combination that's half way between the works of Toriyama Akira and Hino Hideshi. Yes, bug eyed gurolicious Dragonball is about as best I can explain Kakugo no Susume, and if you haven't seen the anime or read the manga... well, do the former at least. 4 out of 12 of the manga tankou volumes were released by Media Blasters' manga line before they dropped the title due to low sales. A damned shame, I say.
Based loosely on the samurai drama novel Suruga-jou Gozen Jiai written by NANJO Norio, Shigurui is a combination of several distinctly Japanese institutions, in particular the chanbara - that is slowly paced dramatic swordplay action films, like Yojimbo or the Lone Wolf and Cub series - as well as guro, or the form of literally turning the utterly grotesque into something fascinating and entertaining through the power of presenting it without flinching. One can argue that "guro" as we know it today is something of a modern tradition, but the Japanese film industry has been making incredibly artistic and disgusting films since at least Jigoku circa 1960, and bloody ukiyo-e paintings detailing the heroic slaughter of monsterous demons with little else to speak of date back to the early 19th century, at the latest. These two very polar opposite concepts, one a refined sense of aestheticism and the other an immature sensationalism, were combined in Yamaguchi's pages. Madhouse took notice, and with HAMAZAKI Hirotsugu (TeXhnolyze) as director, the 9 or so volumes that were finished at the time were adapted into a 12 episode TV series.
1629. Daimyo of Japan, TOKUGAWA Tadanaga, has slowly earned a reputation as a brutal psychopath. In due time his madness would lead to his own unofficial execution, but it was here that his sadism truly shocked the courts for the first time. Two swordsmen, the one-armed FUJIKI Gennosuke and the blind and lame IRAKO Seigen. If a swordfight between a pair of cripples wasn't in bad taste to begin with, Tokugawa takes it to the limit and orders that the match be fought not for exhibition with bokken (wooden swords), but real blades. Gennosuke is accompanied by a young woman named Mie, and Irako by an older nadesico by the name Iku. To the shock and horror of the crowd these two men, their bodies wretched and their wills determined, prepare for the match that will end one of their lives.
Seven years before the match destined to claim one of their lives we're re-introduced to Fujiki and Irako, and how they came to know one another for the first time. Fujiki is a respected student of IWAMOTO Kogan's own brand of beat down, Kogan-Ryuu, a martial art that uses both blades and bare hands to cripple and humiliate the opponent, but not kill them - well, most of the time not. Irako, the pretty-boy ladies man and sword swinger of mysterious origins, challenges the school's lead instructor to prove that the legendary Kogan-Ryuu is nothing but an overrated back-woods bag of tricks. When he's taught a lesson in humility, he changes his tune and begs to be taken in by the school so that he might become a better fighter, and in time represent the Kogan-Ryuu school himself.
The master of the school, IWAMOTO Kogan himself, is a senile old man who's mind slips in and out of being a shrieking lunatic and a cold, calculating bastard. Regardless, Fujiki does everything as ordered, loyal to the last. Having decided that his daughter Mie is at last is ripe to bear the Kogan-Ryuu heir. Deciding that either Fujiki or Irako will do the honor of raping his daughter before him, he's left with a tough choice... does he side with Fujiki, his ever loyal and noble student, or does he choose Irako, the womanizing wanderer who's aim is clearly to marry into the Kogan school and rise in power? In the end, he decides that Irako's clearly potent seed is the superior choice. Always the clever negotiator, Irako refuses to touch the lovely Mie until the two of them are wed, and with that even she has fallen in love with the dashing young rogue. All would have been well for Irako and Mie... if only he hadn't already romanced Mie's stepmother, Iku. Kogan is not a man to give up what's his, and he is most certainly not a man one should cross. The discovery of this affair sends the entire Kogan school into chaos, and in time, the master's madness and violence will spread to each and every member of the clan, and all who oppose it.
Shigurui has the unique uphill battle of appealing to non-chambara fans by taking its' sweet time. The very first episode has only brief moments of explicit violence. As the show continues, the entire mood changes, with violence, fierce swordplay, and even surrealism becoming more and more prevalent as madness and dissent spreads through the Kogan-Ryuu school. While early episodes are comparable enough to the restrained, subtle works of such directors as KUROSAWA Akira and "Beat" KITANO Takeshi, the later episodes are balls-to-the-wall crazy, recalling the over the top Pinky Violence works of ISHII Teruo and the out of control sadism one would expect from the most horrific MIIKE Takashi films. Classifying the title is almost impossible, but it is rather easy to draw parables between one other excellent, mature anime series of the last decade.
Without a doubt, the flashback structure, one-armed muscled hero, and gradual shift towards insanity that floors it all in the last act owes a lot to MIURA Kentaro's seminal BERSERK manga, which was also adapted into a TV series which tried to condence a lot of material in a comparatively small number of episodes, and - much like Berserk - this show's final episode is a hell of a spectacle, but it doesn't feel like the story has come to a logical or satisfying conclusion. Though I can't honestly say that's entirely true if we consider that, at face value, Berserk was the story of Guts and how Griffith, the man he admired and would march into Hell for, betrayed him and inadvertently turned him into the Black Swordsman we know in the first episode. While there's a lot in Berserk that isn't properly explored, the story between those two men is as complete as it needs to be. Shigurui's initial episode makes audiences expect that we're going to appreciate the rivalry between Fujiki and Irako, yet the TV series paints a literal conflict between a Dragon and Tiger - the very yin and yang of bushidou imagery - but these opponents are not Fujiki and Irako! In a sense it implies enough that we can draw our own conclusions as to what happened from there, and with the manga still ongoing it's entirely possible that we haven't seen the end of the animated franchise. It is frustrating, however, to think that with what both Fujiki and Irako have been through that we literally may never get to see these two titans cross non-wooden swords.
That said, there's a lot to love about the show, even if it isn't the ending. The characters are all reasonably believable and well enough defined that we grow to feel pity for them when the chips are down - even for Kogan, who even when he's not being a madman is such a reprehensible bastard that I was amazed to see even a single moment of joy from him. Perhaps even more impressive is the Kogan-Ryuu style itself, something that's literally a real-world version of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR's Hokuto Shinken. Unique sword grips to lengthen the reach of the wielder, hand to hand combat that permanently cripples the user in horribly disfiguring and permenantly damaging ways, sword blows specifically designed to cut only small parts - eyes, ears, even lips or a full lower jaw! - from the opponent to send the message to all onlookers what the true extend of the school's style is capable of.
I must point out that there appear to be two different versions of Shigurui kicking around, both a censored and an uncensored version of only the first episode. The likely reason is that there was a "preview" episode on 07/01, followed by the regular airing on 07/19. The title carries the "R-15" rating, which on Japanese satelite is quite literally the equivalent of an American NC-17 most of the time. I've included a comparison of the edited (b/w) footage overlaid on top of the uncensored version so that you can get an idea of what it was like. As the first episode is hardly a gore-fest (compared to later episodes at least!) the fogged intestines aren't the most damaging thing I could think of. I will say that I'm glad the title was uncensored during the regular broadcast though. Alongside GANTZ, I can't think of a title that would be worse off had the sex and violence been neutered to release a very mature and unique title to a younger, less discerning audience.
I haven't said a whole lot about the title, honestly. I haven't even begun to talk about the multitudes of disturbing sexual imagery, and the violence in the screencaps above are literally but a small taste of what to expect from the show proper. Of course, getting your hands on it is an adventure in and of itself. A-E/SAIZEN have done a fine job of translating the difficult period speech into English, though their fine work takes time, and so far only 10 of the 12 episodes have actually been fansubbed. The last 2 episodes may be available without a translation from l33t raws (I can't get the last sub-1% on episode 12 personally), or maybe you guys are better than I am at finding this stuff in Nico Nico Douga or Usenet or whatever it is you kids do to get your animuz on. Heck, it's probably up on YouTube and I just don't realize it. No matter, with any luck A-E/SAIZEN will get around to completing the last 2 episodes one of these days, and then we can sit on those fansubs until something better comes along. With the R1 industry in the painful looking slump that it's in* I don't expect to see what's effectively a title that would bore gorefiends and offend chanbara fans... Shigurui, while a spectacular show, is one that demands an attention span that lasts longer than one episode if you don't just happen to already dig the living crap out of sadistic Pinky Violence material to start with. And uh, with Panik House having specialized in Pinky Violence and then having folded in about a year... well, clearly you can see the market in the US for this kind of material just isn't quite "there".
Whatever the case, there's always R2 DVDs if you're crazy enough to go that route. 6 volumes, nearly $50 each, but you get PCM audio, unsurpassed insane high video bitrates, and some damn fine covers to boot. The show is actually still being released as of today, and fans can choose between buying the singles across 6 DVDs for $300, or buying the "Tiger" and "Dragon" limited edition box sets for... $300. Apart from the episodes being on fewer DVDs and the packages being different, I don't know if there's anything new to be had in the box sets. Considering I'm struggling to afford $20 DVDs I'm certainly in no danger of buying a pair of LE R2 sets with no subtitles, but hey, the more you know.
Simply because of the limited availability of the title it's not the easiest series to recommend, but anyone who genuinely has an appreciation for chambara/jidai geki, animation that's mature without being juvenile, or simply has a hard-on for unbiased extreme violence deserves to watch Shigurui from start to finish. It's a treat the likes of which we're only given once in a blue moon, and while explaining WHY the show is so damned good would only ruin the surprise for you guys, I can say that I think - weak ending aside - it's been the most shockingly satisfying TV series I've seen since at least Elfen Lied, if not something far older than that. Shiguri isn't a show for everyone, but for those with the patience (and stomach) to handle the polarizing first act, there's a wealth of savage beauty just waiting to creep out from under the soothing veneer of sunsets and chirping cicadas to cleave your face in twain and then leave it on a bridge fence post for all the world to gawk at.
*Expect a whole bunch of ADV layoffs in the near future, and we've already seen them drop ADVocates, NewType and The Anime Network within the last couple weeks. Keroro Gunsou might have been a very bad idea (nobody saw that coming from a mile away, right?), s'all I'm saying. And I always figured Bandai Entertainment would be the next of the "big" US studios to fall after Geneon collapsed like a black hole full of moe.