Reviewby Jon Hayward, Aug 12th 2010
Shigurui: Death Frenzy Collection
Based on a manga that is itself based on a classical novel, Shiguri is a dark and bloody tale from what was a dark and bloody time for those who's lives followed the way of the sword.
Two promising and bitter young warriors compete for the right to be the successor to the famed Kogan school of swordplay in a world where acts of cruelty and scrutinized betrayal are par for course. Humility befalls some and tragedy takes others in this unflinchingly bleak story set towards the end of the once-glorious era of the Japanese sword. Just be warned: perhaps more strongly than anything else reviewed on this site, Shiguri isn't recommended to the squeamish.
Violent, dangerous and potentially fruitful, the very sight of Shiguri's visual ambition is comparable to the husk of a dying man. The colour that once gave body to the cheeks and character to the face has noticeably drained out; sadness lingers with the few remaining splotches of colour that appear no stronger than watered-down ink spilled over too much rice paper, and the sight of rubbery skin stretched taut across bone insists that attention be given to the ugly and the grotesque, no longer tucked away behind the plump padding of a healthy complexion. It is a sight at once offensive but, by the same instinct, cautiously compelling. The question for each individual person is that, should they be able to withstand the sight and smell, does this deformed body offer anything else: something – anything – that may somehow be both engaging and rewarding?
There is little point in splitting hairs over the matter of violence. The simple fact is that the only thing more difficult to fathom than how a series could possibly be any more gruesome is the curious issue of such a confronting work slipping past the classification board without having its box crucified with an R18 certificate. That the acts of violence here are portrayed with such remarkable, precise skill are destined to result in debates of merit and justification that will never turn to cinder so long as people remain aware of Shiguri's mere existence.
From the very opening moment – a considerable flash-forward towards which the rest of the series will strive to contextualise – Shiguri gives off an aura that one would expect to find from a deep-seated cultural work. The croaky rattle and chant that serves as both audio cue and ambiance throughout the entirety of the twelve-episode stretch is as close to J-Pop as the Earth is to Neptune. Likewise, the sense of photography is rigid and highly traditional: the scenery often provides the kind of perfect, square framing that academic texts on classical Japanese film so frequently insist represent the repression and restraints that were present in the eras depicted. Such metaphor may always be questioned, but the scenery – often bleached to such a white that little more than the lines required to frame the characters remain clearly discernible – can certainly feel palpably cold enough as to warrant the checking for fog on one's breath.
By comparison, the intentional film grain is almost obnoxious in its obviousness, although it too serves the aesthetic that has been built. It's an aesthetic that tempts thoughts of romantic period representation, and teases the possibility that this may well be a more cultured highbrow work than is typically expected from most animation, or televised drama in general. The depictions of world-weary samurai speaking of various styles and techniques with vocal tones carved from awe and fear invokes the sensation of standing atop a mountain and peering down at the mass of robot and ragamuffin-ninja animé that gaze upwards towards this culture, screaming the names of special, hyper-powered attacks until their voices are dry and raspy and, trapped in the world of Shiguri, they are coughing up a mixture of blood, bile and teeth.
That the violence initially comes as a shock is quite a shocking concept in itself. The niche culture being remembered here is one of remarkable blood-lust, and the first few moments of queasiness in Shiguri serve to bring into question just how naively and – in the case of many animé fans, at least – how often we think about this era in a romanticised light. The printed document that comes packaged with this 2-DVD set isn't a perk – it's a sincere, recommended reading, as a well as a reminder of how little about his culture we actually understand.
The story, such as it is, settles its gaze on a troubled but greatly feared school of swordplay. Known as the Kogan style, it is practiced in a dojo overseen by a man at once portrayed to be both retarded and skillful, as well as frighteningly cold in his narrow vision of how life should be spent. It is more than enough in itself to set the stage for twelve episodes of rivalry, terror and betrayal. Existing as a cloudy mixture – shaken, not stirred – of lust and jealousy, blended with occasional contempt not only for women, but also for those who should dare show them genuine affection, the narrative relentlessly deals with the darker aspects of Japan's considerable history.
It's an inescapable reality that the values that our modern society promotes and deems to be good and decent cannot be forced upon this world. This is a place that is cruel, backhanded, and horrifyingly misogynistic, and Shiguri hesitates to cast an eye of either endorsement of condemnation over this behaviour. Rather, it merely observes as each bloody event unfolds.
Both confusing and for those who can stick with it, compelling, the events in Shiguri are given greater weight by a staggering sense of production value. Seldom is a television animation this engaging, this fluid, and full of drawings as precise as those that Shiguri presents to its audience. The character designs are more realistic than those in most animé – or, at least they allow for more lines to be drawn across the face and body – but they nonetheless remain stylised. They're removed from reality enough allow for exaggeration, but they're real enough for that exaggeration to become gut-wrenching convincing. Shiguri for better or for worse, has achieved a sublime balance between the real and the representative.
Abstraction has frequently been both the greatest strength and most crippling shortcoming of the animation medium. It's rare for drawings or CG images to bypass that barrier of imagination and become mistakable for life, and it is often this precise ability that sets great animators apart – Miyazaki, and his ability to make his cast move in ways that match their personalities, being the first and most prominent name that comes to mind.
Shiguri's skill is more trivial than that on show in Miyazaki's films, but it is nonetheless an achievement that merits praise. The art direction is careful to ensure that the backgrounds only serve to provide a space that can reflect the feelings of the protagonists, and the semi-realistic designs of these protagonists, coupled with the exaggeration so easily made believable in animation, allow for faces and bodies to show exquisite degrees of pain. Muscles stretch and contract, injuries fester, and blood spills free as a thick, goopy substance that has been pressing against the skin, waiting years for its escape, only to be followed by a slither of CG organs that benefit almost too well by the shiny surfaces offered by such rendering methods.
If the question you hoped to have answered by reading this review was 'is Shiguri any good?' then the answer is, at least on the level of the artistry in its creation, that it is almost unbelievably so. Few television shows are as skillfully written, directed and animated as Shiguri, and even less are able to use each and every frame for a precise purpose with such painstaking relish. Whether it's any good or not, however, may be of little consequence to many. Shiguri achieves its ends almost too well and people will certainly be repulsed by it; some may even be ashamed to be known to have watched it. The confusing nature of the narrative will likely only compound this, as will the booklet being the only extra of substantial note in the set (although it is an invaluable one). This, to say nothing of what is almost an obligation to view the series in Japanese, will likely cause Shiguri to be accused of pretentiousness and superficiality.
And this is understandable. A lot is left unclear after the initial viewing, and while the confidence of the show's production suggests that the cure may be as simple as a repeat viewing, the fact remains that I'm presently too exhausted to go there again just yet. But that's fine. On a raw mechanical level, Shiguri may well be the finest animé series that I've come across in years, and there's little question that I will still be revisiting it in just as many years from now.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
+ Sublime production values, strong presentation and very capable direction
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