Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 21st 2009
Shigurui: Death Frenzy
DVD - Complete Collection
At Sunpu Castle during the Edo Era, two twisted master swordsmen face off. One is the blind Seigen Irako and the other the one-armed Gennosuke Fujiki. Once disciples of the same master, the two arrive at Sunpu after a long and bloody history of mutual antagonism. Both once rose to the position of prized pupil to the demented but divinely skilled swordsman Kogan Iwamoto, Fujiki through iron-minded devotion to training and innovation and Seigen through his god-given instincts for swordplay. Despite his most valiant efforts, Fujiki is slowly eclipsed by Seigen. Kogan ultimately names Seigen as his successor, granting him his daughter's hand in marriage. But when Seigen is caught dallying with Kogan's supple mistress, the tables turn, beginning a lifelong rivalry that will see them wading hip-deep through a sea of corpses.
Ah, feudal Japan: when men were men, violence was violent, and women were traded like sexual Pokémon cards.
This is violent, unapologetic sleaze, written by an expert sleaze-monger and animated with nauseating attention to every violent, sleazy detail. From the opening scene of a retainer pulling his own innards out, it's obvious where this series is going and what it is planning to do with its feudal setting. To Shigurui, feudal Japan isn't the admittedly merciless land of adventure portrayed in Akira Kurosawa samurai films. It's a moral wasteland populated by violent beasts whose one goal is to perfect the art of killing. And for viewers who like their entertainment gory, sadistic and full of gratuitous sex, it's heaven. A heaven of spilled guts, dismembered bodies and torrents of blood, all stemming from an unending series of escalating sword battles. Manga-ka Takayuki Yamaguchi, the brain (for lack of a better word) behind the universally reviled Apocalypse Zero, this time grounds his outrageous violence in a semblance of reality, while director Hiroshi Hamasaki channels every hideous, gut-crunching impulse that he has into action scenes that find a kind of grotesque beauty in the show's celebrations of martial-arts S&M. The washed-out minimalism of the series' visuals works well in these scenes, exploding with hair-trigger suddenness into complex movement and gouts of red, red blood.
If that were all there were to the series, then this would be a fine blood-and-guts-fest. But that isn't all. Shigurui doesn't just embrace the gut-splattering violence of medieval machismo, but also its knuckle-dragging treatment of everything from cripples to women to homosexuals. In Shigurui's world women are objects to be traded, the handicapped are smug, back-stabbing cowards, and homosexuals are self-fellating perverts who leave a trail of bloodied boys in their wake. There's un-PC fun, and then there's pure bad taste. This is the latter, and it isn't the kind of thing that can be excused in the name of realism. To be sure medieval Japan was not kind to women, but the frequency with which the series subjects its female cast to rape, sexual humiliation and nipple-ripping violence can't help but open it up to accusations of misogyny.
If the show had an ounce of humor in it—just enough to fool yourself into thinking that perhaps it's a parody of testosterone-addled entertainment—then it wouldn't quite so sick-making; but it doesn't. Not an ounce, not an atom. Hamasaki directs as if he were handling a work of great weight, smothering the series with symbolic shots of cicadas, oodles of nearly abstract imagery, and far too much oblique editing. It's an approach that has served him well in the past, but what worked for the sci-fi crypticism of Texhnolyze feels alien and pretentious when applied to a series that is basically Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman with extra brain spillage. Not to mention disorienting. And not in a larky funhouse kind of way—more in a vaguely ill, just-got-out-of-a-car-wreck kind of way.
As Christopher Bevins (the ADR director) mentions several times in the audio commentaries, dialogue is spare in Shigurui. The series relies heavily on its visuals, and in particular Kiyoshi Yoshida's minimalist period score, to communicate both meaning and mood. As such, even a poor dub would have little effect on the series overall. That is all the more true because the characters are so repulsive, both in their worm-lipped looks and in their warped personalities: nothing short of completely revamping of the dialogue could significantly change the unpleasant impressions they leave. Funimation doesn't revamp the dialogue (more's the pity; what I wouldn't give to see a Shin Chan rewrite of this). Indeed this is a singularly restrained adaptation on their part, with little in the way of unnecessary change and a careful retention of the original's period feel. The casting is uniformly accurate, and the actors do a fair job of differentiating their characters even when the look-alike designs don't.
Funimation returns to their periodic habit of squirreling their audio commentaries away in the “episodes” menu. Once located, they prove to be welcome, if less than entirely enthusiastic, additions to the set's anemic complement of extras. In them Chris Bevins makes several unfortunate comparisons to the works of Akira Kurosawa (by way of Takashi Miike), David Cronenberg and David Lynch—all of whom, the long-deceased Kurosawa included, can excrete more wit and intelligence after a breakfast of bad burritos than this series can muster throughout its entire length.
If, like Luke seeking refuge inside a tauntaun's abdominal cavity, you're looking for a gory, smelly haven from the cold wastes of namby-pamby peacenik action, then perhaps Shigurui is the title for you. Of course, you could always just watch Berserk again and skip all of the stylistic excess, humorless posturing and festering misogyny, and get likeable characters, a genuine plot and some real humanity in the bargain. Plus you won't taste raw tauntaun for weeks afterward. Though some folks like the taste of raw tauntaun. If that's you—dig in. Though even gorehounds may find the series' conclusion, which fails to resolve any of the major conflicts, singularly unsatisfying.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D
Animation : B+
Art : D-
Music : B+
+ Sadistic, gut-spilling violence for the mindless cretin in us all.
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