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Good Dog(s): "The Hakkenden: Legend of the Dog Warriors" Delivers Grand Samurai Drama

by on January 23, 2008

The rashly made promise that must unexpectedly be kept is a staple of fairy tales in all cultures, and it’s just such a promise that drives The Hakkenden: Legend of the Dog Warriors. Based on Kyokutei Bakin’s epic 19th century samurai novel, this anime series originally aired on Japanese TV in two seasons between 1990 and 1995, compressing the novel’s 106 volumes into 13 half-hour episodes. The series was re-released by Geneon in the United States on three DVDs shortly before they ceased operations, and it is well worth seeking out before the DVDs disappear. While the animation may be maddeningly inconsistent, the series mixes samurai drama with a dash of the supernatural to spin an endlessly fascinating tale that ends too quickly.

Sit, Yatsufusa, sit. Good dog.
Luckily, my dog has never managed to learn anything more complex than “Roll Over.”

In late 15th century Japan, the Satomi clan is fighting a losing battle against the Anzai clan, whose victories have followed a bargain struck with demonic forces. In desperation, the clan head Satomi Yoshizane foolishly promises the hand of his daughter Fuse to the family dog Yatsufusa in return for the head of the enemy general Anzai Kagetsura. When Yatsufusa returns with Anzai’s head, Princess Fuse reluctantly honors her father’s promise and becomes the dog’s bride. When he returns from battle, Fuse’s fiancé, the warrior Daisuke, learns of her marriage and goes to kill the dog and free his betrothed. His shot hits both Fuse and Yatsufusa; right before she dies, Fuse tells Daisuke that the Satomi clan’s troubles are not over. The clan now lives under a terrible curse, which her eight unborn children are destined to lift.

The Hakkenden, from the opening credits
The Seven EIGHT Samurai Dog Warriors

Thus begins the tale of the eight dog warriors, born throughout Awa to different parents with no knowledge of their common heritage or destiny. Each of these samurai is identified by three different things: a birthmark in the shape of a peony, a name beginning with “Inu” (the Japanese word for “dog”), and a magical prayer bead inscribed with a Chinese character for one of the traditional Confucian virtues such as filial piety and compassion. Each of the eight brothers personifies the Confucian virtue inscribed on his specific prayer bead, but such virtuous embodiments do not stop the brothers from coming to blows or crossing swords with one another even after they have met. At every turn, the warriors must also grapple with the sinister and manipulative Lord Aboshi, a demonic figure who can exploit magic, guile, and brute force with equal effectiveness.

The charming Lord Aboshi enjoying a little laugh

One of the most striking things about the series is how slow-paced it is. The entire first episode is dedicated purely to the early setup of the story, and it takes nine more to bring all eight brothers together, leaving only three episodes to wrap things up. Epic storytelling of this scale and length refuses to rush into anything, but the pacing of the episodes never drags or stalls. Partly this is because it is very good (most notably in its first six episodes) at leaving out just enough information to keep you curious. Even so, The Hakkenden would have benefited from a few more episodes to fully work out its story, especially when it is revealed that the Satomi-Anzai feud stretches back for generations and even reaches beyond the grave. Furthermore, the eighth brother doesn’t even appear until episode eleven, forcing the entire show into a rushed wrap-up within two episodes.

It is also surprisingly effective at managing its large ensemble cast. Distinguishing eight different main characters, many of whom have similar names, is quite a challenge, but the show pulls it off through a combination of sharp animated acting and excellent character design. While the first two dog warriors, Inuzuka Shino and Inukawa Sosuke, may look very similar, the color and styles of their clothes and their vocal styles usually make them easily distinguishable. More radically, the wild hair, prominent birthmark, and endearingly psychotic behavior of Inukai Genpachi ensures that we will never mistake him for the gentle giant Inuta Kobungo or the flamboyantly dressed and unusually feminine Inuzaka Keno. The production crew on both seasons clearly sweated the details, and attentive viewers will be well rewarded for their efforts.

In addition to being a hideously ugly rotoscope, the fellow on the right is supposed to be the Dog Warrior in the lower-left corner two images back.

Unfortunately, the real weakness of The Hakkenden is the animation. Admittedly, it is of fairly high quality for the era, but either the original masters were not preserved well or they were not of very high quality to begin with. Even so, there are some episodes where the animation is appallingly flat, off-model, and comically exaggerated. This even happens within episodes on occasion, and there are times when characters are so distorted that you can’t recognize them until someone calls them by name. Chapter 10 (“Hamaji’s Resurrection”) compounds its bad animation by using some of the ugliest rotoscoping techniques ever committed to film.

Biff! Pow! Samurai aren't just for kids!
Inumura Daikaku demonstrates proper demon-butt-kick-jitsu technique

The good news is that the bad animation is the exception and not the rule, and most of The Hakkenden is quite good. There are some instances when a shift in visual style is used very effectively. (Ironically, one strikingly beautiful instance is a brief scene in “Hamaji’s Resurrection.”) The Hakkenden is not prone to wild, extended action sequences, but swords draw blood fairly regularly, and most of the action scenes are well choreographed and have a real visceral kick. The sequences involving the supernatural are rarer, but the ghosts and demons that manage to break through are all appropriately bizarre and horrifying.

This DVD re-release of The Hakkenden is quite good. Despite the age and condition of the source material, the image is generally sharp and clear. None of the discs are anamorphic, since the series was originally seen on broadcast TV, and both the Japanese and English soundtracks are only in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The English dub is quite competent, but samurai should really speak in Japanese (unless it’s Ken Watanabe stealing a movie out from under Tom Cruise). Only disc 3 comes with any extras, which are limited to a character art gallery, clean opening and closing sequences, and an excellent twenty-minute recap episode that bridges the season break between episodes 6 and 7. The recap episode is especially impressive for succinctly summarizing the series to that point.

It really does feel like a tremendous amount of story from the original novel was cut from The Hakkenden. But there’s also the strength of the source material and the skill of the adaptation to leave you wanting more. Despite its animation flaws, The Hakkenden is still a success, and one that can make Western viewers lament the fact that only the briefest excerpts of the novel or its manga adaptations have been translated into English.

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