Reviewby Theron Martin,
While Akigenu stays with Oboro in an inn, Tenzen and Koshiro go out Kouga-hunting, hoping to catch Gennosuke while he is blinded and thus seemingly vulnerable. As Tenzen soon discovers, though, blind Hyoma is not so helpless as he may have appeared. Tenzen ultimately proves extremely difficult to keep down, but Saemon has his opportunity to do some damage. While out looking for their wayward kinsmen, Oboro and Akigenu encounter Lady Okufu, nurse to one of the shogun's potential heirs, who gives both Koga and Iga their first definitive answer about why the non-hostility pact was nullified and what is really at stake. As the number of remaining Koga and Iga dwindle ever further, what effect might the interference of Lady Okufu have on the inter-clan battle, and how might the truth shape the opinions and motivations of those that remain?
And then there were five.
Of the eight remaining ninja who began this volume, three more have bitten the dust by the end of episode 20 and a fourth looks to be in serious peril. As expected, Oboro and Gennosuke are among the finalists, and who all else is alive at the end of the volume shouldn't be terribly hard to predict. As the series has played out, the rule for length of survival seems to be pretty clear: unlike with Naruto, in these kind of ninja battles survival depends more on how sneaky you are, and how close you are to the head of each clan, than how strong you are.
The ninja battles side of things is pretty much more of the same: cool use of varied abilities, tense confrontations, and flashbacks to characters' pasts in the midst of said confrontations as a means of character development. Nearly one entire episode is, in fact, exactly the latter, which gives the feel of padding being added to fill the series out to 24 episodes. Although Tenzen's finally-revealed gimmick presents an odd take on a traditional ability, the most spectacular (and graphic) ability is still unquestionably Hyoma's duplication of Gennosuke's Suicide Gaze. Beyond these, though, the action components to the fight scenes are much tamer, with an emphasis more on victory through subterfuge than overpowering might.
The key plot development in this volume falls instead to Lady Okufu, who has appeared briefly in previous volumes but never in a prominent manner. Her revelations to the Iga team sided with the heir-candidate she nurses (and the eavesdropping Kouga team) do not tell anything that the viewer does not already know, but those revelations are sure to impact attitude for the remaining five in the final volume. Her intent to become directly involved in the inter-clan struggle has a significant impact on the way things play out here, and as the ending of episode 20 suggests, the consequences of her involvement may not be done yet. Less interesting – and convincing – are Gennosuke's continued assurances that he is willing to kill Oboro as part of this struggle. Though he does seem more committed to the struggle than Oboro, it is just hard to buy that he could actually go through with it when the time comes. But that is an issue which must wait for volume six.
The writing does have its moments, but is not at its strongest here. The visuals still are, however. Gonzo's lush and almost decadent artistic detail, complete with its lovely character designs, fine period costuming, and sharp color contrasts, continues to please and impress, and the way the series is structured makes it clear that the creators knew from the start that this was at least as much a visual as dramatic tale. This volume also features the series' first true nudity, something which has been suggested but ultimate carefully avoided before. The animation looks slightly awkward in a couple of places but is also generally good.
The music, which mostly recycles previously-used themes, remains solid but unremarkable, and neither the opener nor closer have changed. English dub work, which was a little shaky at first, has now settled in to the more smoothly-flowing, competently-acted deliveries one has come to expect from FUNimation. Substantial rewording typical of FUNi efforts also continues, with the dialogue sometimes being entirely different. Little or no essential meaning is lost or altered in the process, but between that and the dub quality this is a block of episodes likely to fall entirely along normal sub/dub preferences for most viewers.
The primary Extras are installments 9 and 10 of the roughly half-hour First Press Extras included on the original Japanese DVD releases, which this time feature the seiyuu for Gennosuke, Kagero, Akigenu, and Hyoma. Beyond that only textless songs are present.
Ultimately The Shades of Night serves the same purpose as the previous four volumes: winnow the supporting characters down in dramatic ninja confrontations as its sets up the final drama between the two lovers torn apart by this conflict. At this it does a good enough job to keep fans of the series entertained while still being a pleasure to look at. As with previous volumes, though, a lack of sufficiently tight storytelling prevents it from being the top-tier impact title it could be.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Great visuals.
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