Shigurui Death Frenzy in a Historical Context
Anyone who has seen Shigurui Death Frenzy knows that it is a visual masterpiece set in an epic time and place. I don't know about you, but whenever I see an anime like this I think to myself, "this has to be based on reality!" Or, at least I wish it was. And being the history geek that I am, I looked into it.
If you are like me and own this masterpiece, one of the best sources to research is included in the DVD box set. It is a booklet with information about the inspiration for this anime and the time it was set in, so I'll start with that.
Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, by Tsuramoto Tashiro, is the main basis for this anime. The literal meaning of hagakure is actually "hidden by the leaves," or "hidden leaves," for all you Naruto fans who recognize this as the name of Naruto's hometown, Konohagakure. The line in this epic book that is the sole inspiration for this anime is:
The way of the Samurai is in desperateness (shigurui). Ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Common sense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate.
Rightly so, this anime is all about desperate men. But what is interesting about this line and this book is that it was written about 100 years after the start of the Tokugawa period--so a time of relative peace. Samurais were becoming obsolete during this time, but many still looked upon the times of battle with great nostalgia. That is the case for this book, which was complied by Tsuramoto between 1709-1716 and consists of commentary by Yamamoto Tsunetomo as he recalls the "good old days." Often times, nostalgic memories are somewhat removed from the truth, but they make for awesome stories, which is perfect for an anime like this.
So, after some quick research, while the references to daimyo and shogunates are accurate, the actual characters, like Genosuke Fujiki and Seigen Irako are not real. But that does not take away from the authenticity of this era in other aspects. One aspect, in particular that I found interesting were the homosexual relationships between the samurai and their kosho, young page boys who attended to their everyday needs. This was an accepted practice in 15th-17th century Japan, but the relationships were more than merely sexual--they were bonds of trust and loyalty. This is evident in episodes 7 and 8 where Gennosuke, in a revenge match decapitates the head of a young kosho and leaves the body for his master to find.
What happens after his master finds the body of his beloved kosho is truly telling of his loss and how he deals with it. I couldn't find an actual clip of the scene, but this amv covers a lot of it. The guy that slays a man and then eats his eyeball is the one seeking revenge fro his beloved kosho. Also, the song in this amv is by Buck Tick, my absolute favorite band.
The Female's Role
Obviously, back then, females were little more than objects. This is also evident in this anime. There is a scene where a girl is chosen to "be with," Lord Tadanaga. She is inspected first, to make sure she was "pure," but then the selfish and sadistic lord humiliates and chokes her. I find that to be quite believable, as lords and daimyos back then felt privileged and entitled to whatever whim they had a craving for.
Mie Iwamoto and Lady Iku are the other female protagonists of this anime. Mie, who is just as crazy as her father, Kogan Iwamoto, is used as a tool so that he can continue his line. This is very accurate as daughters were married off solely so that the men in charge could hold on to their power. Lady Iku is another tortured soul as she is Lord Kogan's concubine but in love with Seigen Irako, Gennosuke Fujiki's sworn enemy.
There are some scenes that are quite painful to watch, especially if you are a woman. The scene where Lady Iku is disfigured by Kogan, is one of them. And the way that Mie starves herself and practically wastes away because of her father's oppression is also hard to watch, but they give this anime a very realistic and authentic feel.
Kogan Sword School
The plot of this anime revolves around sword techniques and sword schools, and which one is better. This is a pretty popular theme in samurai anime. In Shigurui, it is the Kogan School that is questioned by Seigen Irako and thus a life-long animosity between him and Gennosuke Fujiki, a Kogan style student, ensues. What makes Irako so extraordinary is that he is blinded after their initial battle at the beginning of the series, but vows to come back stronger than ever.
In reality there are three traditions of sword techniques in Japanese history: Shintoryu (Shinto-style), Kageryu (Shadow-style), and Nenryu (Attention-style), and from these there are all kinds of infusions and new styles. The Shinkageryu tradition is an example of this. Shinkage-ryu, which means "new shadow school," and was founded by Ise no Kami Kamiizumi after having studied both Shinto-ryu and Nen-ryu.
So, of course, this aspect in Shigurui is quite authentic as it is very seemly that a student of one school would challenge someone who has left it in search of better.
There are other things that can be traced back through history in this anime, like the introduction of guns by the Christians and swords having legends built around them. Over all I found this anime to be awesome. I found myself watching it and trying to confirm the years they cite with the corresponding Shoguns. I am a nerd like that. But even if you are not, this anime will make you feel like you learned something after you watch it.
I will say, however, that this anime is slow paced. The music is minimal and subdued and fitting for the time period. It is not all action jumping off the screen unless there is an actual fight scene. It is kind of hard to follow sometimes, so your attention is important. There are themes, as I have suggested, that will not make sense unless you are familiar with the historical context, so if you are just an otaku looking for a new anime to watch, this might not be for you. Watching this anime does require a bit of discipline.
But, if you just want something visually stunning, or something with merciless slaughtering, this is the anime for you, as long as you are open to the historical interpretation being given. And if you feel the need to explore some of the themes I have highlighted, then I think you can say that this was a well rounded use of your time. Enjoy!