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"Shigurui": Killing Time

by on March 30, 2009

Shigurui has a rather interesting tag-line: “The Beauty is in the Kill.” That should be sufficient warning to anyone curious about the show: it is excessively violent. It goes far beyond average cartoon violence, even by anime’s more lax standards. Faces are cut off of heads, fingers are forced into unnatural positions, intestines are yanked from slashed-open abdomens, a man’s mouth is significantly widened by a sword slash. The list is endless. And it is all shown in astonishingly graphic detail. I haven’t even mentioned the show’s sexual content. This is not something for the young, or for the squeamish.

Its makers, in a very interesting interview included in the box set’s accompanying booklet, claim that they wanted the violence to have a point, that they didn’t want to “be provocative for the sake of being provocative.” This is a nice sentiment, but how can they square it with the scene they shot of one man cutting off a woman’s nipple and another man eating it? Occasionally the violence works, as in a scene involving the torture and banishment of one of the show’s main characters. Another scene has a poker being put to uses that shouldn’t be described on a family-friendly website, but the emotions and reactions to the event at least make it an integral, interesting part of the story, instead of a cringe-inducing celebration of blood. But these moments are sadly rare.

Shigurui‘s plot is simple and at least superficially similar to innumerable other tragic stories. We are introduced early on to two men, Seigen Irako and Gennosuke Fujiki, who are being forced to battle each other to the death. It’s not shaping up to be much of a match; the former is blind and crippled, while the latter is missing an arm. The show then goes several years back in time, to the first meeting between these men, and tries to tell us the story of how they came to be in this sad predicament. It’s a fairly straight-forward tale of ambition and vengeance, though its simplicity is disguised by a jumbled and convoluted presentation. The chronology is all wacked up: the show skips back and forth between different points on its timeline, sometimes informing the viewer of this change, but more often leaving it to him to figure out for himself. We are also sometimes dropped without warning into the head of a character, to hear his thoughts and see his fantasies, which will leave you wondering whether what you’ve seen actually happened or was just a daydream. All of this is an annoying way to tell the story, especially since, once you’ve puzzled it all out, it’s not a half-bad tale. I understood the gist of it by the end, which is more than I can say about some other shows I have watched, but I was still confused about quite a few things.

You’ll at least have plenty of time to puzzle these things out, because Shigurui‘s sense of timing is terrible. The show is sl-o-o-w-w-w. It attempts to turn silence and pauses to dramatic effect, a la several masterpieces of Japanese film-making, but it backfires. There are too many pauses, too many silences, too many spaces of time where nothing happens. That’s how the series stretches what could have been a feature-length story (or, at most, a six- or seven-episode mini-series) through twelve episodes.

I have already mentioned the show’s excessive and often unnecessary violence. This is irritating in itself, but it also prevents us from identifying any clear cut protagonist or antagonist. The staff mentions this in one of the episode commentaries, and seem to take it as one of the show’s strengths. It is possible to make a good show in spite of a lack of sympathetic characters, but it is an extremely difficult thing to pull off. The secret is to make the show itself sympathetic; to make it clear that the makers of the show know what kind of monsters they are writing about. (After that, it is actually possible to generate sympathy for the aforementioned monsters, but let’s not get overcomplicated here). The show does not do this. Nor, to its credit, does it sadistically worship gore and violence, which at least puts it a cut above the average slasher flick in moral terms. Instead, it simply presents the images, with little to no sign of judgment on the part of the makers. We are not led to care for or abhor any of the characters. They are simply there.

You’d think a show with a tagline about beautiful kills would at least have decent fight visuals, but you would be wrong. In fact, that tagline is misleading; it should say “The Beauty is in the Death“, because that’s what we see. The show is very realistic in its sword fights. That sounds like a good thing, but in fact it means that they end quickly, with a disturbing amount of blood, and are disappointingly boring in the meantime. The show’s color palette is so muted it might as well be in black-and-white (except for the ever-important splashes of red for blood). It splashes the blood and entrails around in a way that is sort of pretty, I guess, but any flash of color is pretty when presented against such dull backgrounds.

The show’s soundtrack is almost more annoying than all of the above complaints combined; the music is an irritatingly over-used “Japanese Dojo” theme that tends to repeat itself too often, until it begins to grate on the ears. Ineffective the show’s use of silence may be, but it is still preferable to the music. The opening theme is a long, uninvigorating tune, set against a shifting red backdrop, that goes on for far too long.

So what can I say in the show’s favor? Disappointingly little. The first of the show’s protagonists, Seigen Irako, is an interesting character; he is the most strongly portrayed, and we almost end up liking him. As it is, we simply prefer him as the lesser of two evils. As I mentioned before, the series’ basic plot is actually good, and other hands might have developed into a better show. The voice actors do the best they can, and manage to capture the characters fairly well. Both the sub and the dub are usable, but they are both also plagued with a fair share of problems; I imagine the show may be better viewed in Japanese, which I do not speak. The realistic portrayal of the Edo period is very admirable. And finally, I found the staff interviews and commentaries contained on the show’s two discs (and in the booklet that comes with them) quite interesting, mostly because I always wonder what was going through a person’s head while they make a show like this.

It’s hard to say who Shigurui is going to appeal to. Those not turned off by the gore and sex will likely be annoyed by the show’s confusing chronology; those able to stomach both will still not likely be impressed. In the end, this is a show that is likely to disappear under a shroud. Which, unfortunately, may be where it belongs.

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