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"Basilisk Volume 1 Scrolls of Blood": If You Want Blood, You Got it

The samurai genre is so robust in anime that one wonders why there isn’t a similar demand for animated westerns in the U.S. Perhaps it is just one more indicator of the close bond Japan maintains with history and tradition in the face of rapid technological development. After all cell phones and kimonos is a far more common combo than iPods and ten-gallon hats. Or maybe American writers haven’t quite yet developed the knack for blending gunslinging with grotesque creatures, a wide variety of which populate the supernatural ninja series Basilisk.

The bride and groom to be... or not to be?It certainly comes as a jolt when watching what seems like a painstakingly accurate period drama to be suddenly confronted with a shape-shifting monster. Personally I’d rather just have the historical swordplay, but I guess the Japanese have a strong affinity for the creepy.

Which is not to suggest Basilisk is particularly scary, but it certainly has its share of icky images. More importantly for the fainthearted it is extremely violent, featuring the grisliest anime killings I’ve seen in a good many years. It’s definitely not one to show to Junior, unless he needs to be reminded what happens to little boys who talk during the fourth quarter.

In fact the ol’ ultraviolence is one of several aspects that give the 2005 show an 80s vibe. The vaguely Go Nagai inspired character design is decidedly retro and the catchy theme song is pure pop metal bliss. The only thing missing is gratuitous sexuality, but perhaps that will come later.

All in all volume 1 Scrolls of Blood is a modestly entertaining package. The premise could scarcely be simpler, and smacks disturbingly of Dragon Ball Z style tournament shows. The characters aren’t exactly the most magnetic bunch, but the intrigue between them, the dazzling artwork and the period details are enough to keep one watching.

I guess I DID leave the gas onOur story is set in early 17th century feudal Japan, peacefully unified under the Tokugawa shogun’s rule, but fiercely divided over the choice of his successor. In order to avoid a full-scale civil war the shogun’s father Ieyasu annuls the government-imposed truce between the longtime rival ninja clans of Kouga and Iga. He orders them to choose ten man teams and fight to the death, the victor to determine the new shogun and secure long-term prosperity for his/her clan. Unknowingly caught in the middle of this are Kouga’s Gennosuke and Iga’s Oboro, who have been carrying on a dangerous romance which they hope will ultimately unite their clans.

This collection of oddball characters has as much in common with the X-Men as any kind of real ninjas, their outrageous powers easily overshadowing their one-note personalities. The young lovers are the most human of the bunch, but also the dullest. To the Japanese mind they are a model couple: Gennosuke protective and understanding, and Oboro humble and eager to please. Both of them have a piercing gaze that strikes fear in the heart of even the most hardened killers.

Much more interesting is Gennosuke’s rotund and randy comrade Udono, who slips in just a tad of much needed comic relief. Like Batman‘s Clayface he can mold his body as circumstances demand. The others are a stern, bloodthirsty lot: the quadriplegic Juubei launches knives with his frog-like tongue, the despicable spider-like Shougen spits highly adhesive mucus, the sultry Akeginu dulls her opponent’s senses with a shower of blood, and the old man Jingorou transforms into a slug. They can’t all be winners.

Where there's a whip (THWACK), there's a way...If the large cast seems daunting, you can take comfort in the fact that you needn’t remember most of their names for long. Soon enough one is shot through the head, another stabbed in the heart, another chopped in half, another suffocated, etc. One of the most graphic murders comes when a wounded and helpless combatant refuses to answer his lovely interrogator’s questions, and flying into a rage she stabs him again and again as blood sprays everywhere.

Here and there there’s a neat action sequence before someone snuffs it. Among the best is the wild fight between Udono and the Mr. Fantastic-like stretchable Rousai in which they bend and twist after each other though the woods, river, and sky.

Gonzo’s solid animation is typically smooth, if not above the occasional shortcut, but the real appeal of Basilisk is the gorgeous art design. In addition to the careful attention to period detail and visually arresting characters, the backgrounds are simply outstanding. A few shots almost convinced me I was looking at a real forest.

The bigger the cushion...The best of the middling extras is a concise text history of ninjas in feudal Japan, which suggests that their real exploits weren’t quite as cinematic as we like to imagine. Otherwise there is a lengthy audio presentation of the English cast auditions, and an episode commentary from ADR director Tyler Walker and voice actor Mark Stoddard. Although Basilisk‘s English cast is fairly good, these extras could not be more boring. Even the casual anime fan will have heard this sort of bland discussion of voice acting many times before, and it does nothing to sate my interest in the origin and production of the show itself.

Fans of samurai, high body counts, and things that go bump in the night will get a kick out of Basilisk, though it’s nothing particularly memorable. I can even see it appealing to the InuYasha crowd, provided they can stomach the bloodshed and general lack of cuteness. Although it’s got nothing for the high school uniform demographic.

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