Mike wonders aloud which anime would be a good fit for the prestigious Criterion Collection.
Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 31st 2006
For hundreds of years the Kouga and Iga ninja clans have been bitter rivals, but outright warfare between them has been forbidden. Even the secret relationship of current leaders Kouga-no-Danjou and Iga-no-Oden in 1581 ultimately failed to improve things. In 1614 a new generation of future clan leaders, Gennosuke of the Kouga and Oboro of the Iga, have fallen in love and are to be married, a union both fervently hope ends the centuries of conflict and bloodshed even though many of their kinsmen aren't happy about it. Leaders in the capital have other ideas, however, for the former Shogun has decided that the two clans of super-ninja are to serve as proxies for the conflict between the two Tokugawa heirs over who will ascend to the throne. Their non-aggression pact annulled, the ten elite of each clan are to engage in a battle to the death to decide the issue. It is a prospective battle that some relish so much that they seek to keep the young lovers unaware, and thus unable to stop the conflict before it becomes too late.
A basilisk is a mythical lizard-like creature whose gaze can turn people to stone, so presumably the title is at least partly a reference to the otherwise-docile Oboro's unique ability: her gaze can put an end to any special ninja technique. While not the flashiest of abilities, it's certainly a potent one for the future leader of a clan of ninja freaks who doesn't fight herself.
And that's really what Basilisk is at heart: an excuse for a series of graphic battles between ninjas at least as freaky as the most bizarre individuals who can be seen on Naruto. Sure, it can be looked at as a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Ninja Scroll, and such a description isn't entirely inaccurate, although this time the central romance is up front rather than in secret. As hard as the romance between Gennosuke and Oboro is pushed, though, it inevitably takes a back seat to the flashy and inventive ninja battles, ones complete with extensive carnage and bloodletting. We're not talking Elfen Lied or Gantz-level graphic content here, but this one isn't for the kiddies, either.
Some of the super-powered ninja are classic standards for ninja or demons: the fat ninja who can turn himself into a ball, the one who manipulates lethal strings of hair, a spider-like one, ones that conceal weapons in their mouths, one that can stretch his limbs, and so forth. Gonzo does deserve credit for being at least a bit creative with others and for the pacing and staging of its battles, though, and they have also produced a much more convincingly “mature audiences” title here than they did with Speed Grapher. The gimmick of one side racing to prevent the other from even knowing that they are now in a battle to the death is an interesting twist, which opens up the potential for all sorts of underhanded behavior. As long as the writing doesn't completely become overwhelmed by the battle scenes, there is story potential here.
Basilisk is also far superior to Speed Grapher in production quality, and shows what Gonzo can really do with straight non-CG animation. Backgrounds are good and the animation provides smooth-looking and dynamic fights that aren't heavy on shortcuts, but the real highlight is the character designs. Not being confined to human appearances allows for many interesting options, but even better are the designs for the purely human-looking characters, especially the women. Their designs are more convincingly Japanese looks than the norm for anime, with a seeming emphasis on well-defined lips that tends to make all the younger female characters look like they're wearing lipstick. Notably, the only character with even mildly oversized eyes is Oboro, whose large eyes with their well-defined eyelashes (is she wearing mascara, or what?) are doubtless intended both as a statement of her youth and cuteness and as a suggestion of her ability. A rich palette of colors is used without being bright or garish, making this an impressive-looking series overall.
A competent musical score backs and supports the on-screen action but doesn't distinguish itself. Much more praiseworthy is the synthesized rock-themed closer “Wild Eyes” by seiyuu Nana Mizuki, who also provides the Japanese voice for Oboro. The harder-rocking opener is also a respectable number, though not as good as the closer, and is weighted down by a minute-long intro attached to it.
The English dub is likely to be an issue for those of a more purist bent, as the English script sometimes strays considerably in its content, enough so to alter the tone and meaning of some scenes. It flows well enough, and fits the scene content and lip flaps well enough, that it shouldn't be an issue for dub fans, and a viewer is unlikely to notice any discrepancies unless the series is viewed both ways or in English with the subtitles on. Unlike Negima, though, this one doesn't have comedic content as an excuse. On the plus side, the English script does retain a lot of the honorifics, especially the rampant use of “-dono,” although in some places this feels unnatural enough in English speech to be a slight detriment. The dub performances themselves offer no problems, as most roles are very well-cast and at least reasonably well-performed, especially Jonosuke. And yes, that's Laura “Can You Tell It's Me” Bailey in another one of her nearly-unrecognizable performances as the soft-spoken Oboro. (Is there any other current English VA with better vocal flexibility?)
A small but good variety of Extras is provided on the first DVD, including clean opener and closer, a lame English commentary for episode 3, and a collection of cast auditions for the English dub. The most valuable Extra is the all-text History of the Ninja, which describes what historical ninja really were and how their image has been romanticized over time. Even those well-versed in Japanese lore may learn something from it. Unfortunately FUNimation also continues their recent practice of front-loading an unskippable promo, so a viewer is obligated to wait through a couple of minutes of it every time they pop in the DVD. Although it may be a respectable advertising scheme, it's also quite annoying after the first time. Balancing this is the inclusion of both 2.0 and 5.1 English stereo soundtracks.
If one goes into Basilisk expecting a more mature-oriented take on super-powered ninja action then it is unlikely to disappoint. It's hardly the best period story out there, but what it does, it does pretty well and looks good in the process.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Looks great, lots of good battle scenes.
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