The mark of a skilled executioner in feudal Japan was to be able to slice off the head of a victim and yet still leave it attached to the corpse by a single shred of flesh. Here is a story that operates with the same level of merciless and inhumane skill, the better to systematically drain every ounce of humanity and compassion out of its characters.
It will also cause most people—those who aren’t gorehounds, anyway—to lose their lunch. Maybe even the gorehounds, too.
I’m torn. On the one hand, Shigurui is brilliant and artfully assembled—as much a cold-blooded dissection of depraved human behavior as it is a showcase for it, about how culture and circumstance and social abstracts can turn people into total monsters. On the other hand, it’s just nasty. People are disemboweled, dismembered, beheaded; have noses and jaws and faces torn off, sliced off, smashed off; are burnt, blinded, disfigured; raped, groped, tormented.
And yet this isn’t a cheap piece of exploitation trash like Eiken or Colorful!. Everyone involved had serious intentions, and believed they had good reasons for doing what they did: to hammer home how the almost coolly abstract “way of the sword” in classical Japan was bought and paid for in terms of mangled bodies and ruined lives. The whole package has been put together with consummate craft. It is brilliant and horrible at the same time, and while I do think it’s worth watching I’m not sure anyone—not even a fan of this material—needs to see it more than once.
Shigurui is set in 17th-century Japan, after the unification of the country under the banner of the Tokugawa clan—a peaceful time, or so went the conventional wisdom. At the Kogan martial-arts dojo, the star pupil is a young man named Gennosuke Fujiki—stoic, taciturn, and completely devoted to his master and the lineage he may soon be asked to continue on his own. Kogan himself is a hulking, white-haired madman, sliding in and out of dementia at random, groping both his daughter and his concubine indiscriminately, but still able to comit stupefying feats with his sword even when he’s not all that lucid.
One day there arrives at the dojo a wanderer, Seigen Irako—tall, dandyish, downright effeminate in his handsomeness. Irako has a great deal more ambition than anything else—including respect or dignity—and rather rashly challenges the star pupil in the dojo to a duel. At first it seems Irako has the upper hand when Gennosuke gets his fingers smashed (through what amounts to the samurai equivalent of dirty pool), but then Gonzaemon—the dojo’s other star disciple, a monster of a man with many missing teeth and a hacked-open mouth—teaches the upstart a thing or two courtesy of a gargantuan wooden sword that makes the zanbatō wielded by Kenshin’s Sannosuke look like a twig. Humbled, Irako asks to be taken into the dojo as a student. This they do, but only after an initiation ceremony that has Irako nearly wetting his pants in terror: it involves sticking a bean to his forehead and having the shaking, trembling, clearly-demented Kogan slice it in half without touching anything else.
Irako quickly rises to the top of the ranks in the dojo, but it’s not enough for him. He covets Mie, the daughter of Kogan—a lovely and gentle young woman, but inaccessible to him since she will be promised only to the successor of the Kogan line. His frustration soon eclipses everything else; at one point he rapes a village girl as a substitute for Mie, then turns to coveting Lady Iku, Kogan’s concubine. Iku’s something of a local legend: all men who have ever become involved with her have died horribly—mostly because of the company she has kept (especially Kogan himself).
This doesn’t stop Irako from getting involved with her, especially since Iku has nothing but contempt for Kogan and would be happy to see him taken out of the picture. Easier said than done: Kogan has never even been so much as disarmed in combat, his near-dementia notwithstanding. He’s also canny enough to realize that Irako and Iku have been plotting behind his back, and sets up a trap for both of them that is, to put it mildly, grotesque. Irako loses his sight, and both he and Iku are banished from the dojo. Then some time later he turns up again, having found ways to make himself even more deadly despite his blindness, and sets about to destroy the dojo and kill Kogan.
What’s most striking through all of this is not just Irako’s behavior, which is at least comprehensible, but Gennosuke. In every moment and through every decision he stands by Kogan, even when the old man’s actions are questionable at best. Loyalty matters more to him than its actual fruits, and if Irako and Iku suffer horribly, then they’ve have it coming, haven’t they? The end result, though, is not that we feel that much more sympathy for Irako, but that everyone—Irako, Gennosuke, Seigen, Iku, Mie, Gonzaemon—become that much more inhuman and monstrous.
It’s deceptive storytelling in the extreme. At first the deck is stacked to make us think Irako will be the villain, but by the time all the cards are out of the deck, there’s not a single character we can feel empathy for. They’re all vile. They may not start that way, but that’s how they end up. Watching them interact is like a samurai version of a demolition derby with their bodies as the cars.
The story ends after only twelve episodes, as the manga was still ongoing at the time the show was commissioned. To that end, Shigurui falls into something of the same category as Berserk, and for more reasons than one. Because it’s incomplete—we don’t even get to find out how Gennosuke loses his arm, as established in the opening scenes—the focus is instead mostly on Irako’s behavior. You could cite this as a reason why the whole thing comes off as it does, but I don’t think the problem here is one of a botch in the adaptation, as the original story was just as difficult to choke down and had the same gruesome tone.
I speak from experience there. I encountered the manga of Shigurui in its original untranslated form at Book-Off in New York. “Fetishistic” was the nicest word I could think of to describe it. Every single page, from the cover and frontispiece through to the back flap, was a triptych of blood, guts and suffering—yeah, just the sort of thing to let your neighbors on the train glimpse over your shoulder while you’re riding home from work. Even my exposure to Ichi the Killer (both the manga and live-action movie) didn’t prepare me for this. And yet I could tell there was more going on than just a manga atrocity exhibition. I was dead certain that nobody on this side of the Pacific would ever pick it up for publication—no, not even envelope-pushers Dark Horse, and not even in shinkwrap.
It’s become commonplace to use the word “well-made” as a kind of backhanded praise for something, and I will pre-emptively plead guilty to that usage right here. Shigurui is if nothing very well-made indeed, animated (albeit minimally) with great attention to the way a human body can contort and be contorted. Everyday moments are turned into nightmares through generous helpings of blood and guts. The camera rarely looks at anyone head-on, and when it does their faces are typically in shadow. It’s such a good-looking show, in fact, that I wanted to say better things about it. But a show is about more than just how it looks.
And, sadly, I suspect most of the audience for Shigurui over here is going to consist of the folks who gobbled up the middlebrow sadism of Ichi and got off on shows like Elfen Lied and Gantz. There may be more here than one-upsmanship gross-out, but let’s not kid ourselves about what the real attraction of this title’s going to be for most people. They want to see people get sliced up real good, and they will.
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