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!
Shigurui on Blueray and DVD
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Drew on September 07, 2018:
I liked hearing your take on the show, and I hate to be the "uh, ackchyually" guy, but there are a few pretty major timeline errors. Easily forgivable because the show's timeline jumps all over the place. Hard to follow at times, but Shigurui is the most horrifyingly beautiful anime I've ever seen. I think it perfectly captures the discipline, traditions, and yes "shigurui" of that time and place. Every time I hear the sound of cicadas I'm transported back to the Kogan dojo, with images of razor sharp steel and human gore. So this comment comes more from a love of talking about the show than a desire to set the record straight.
1) Someone already mentioned that Gennosuke did not decapitate the apprentice. Irako did that. That there was indeed an element of revenge in the killing, but Irako was getting revenge against the entire Kogan style for the way he was punished by them.
2) When the Kogan man with the wide eyes, Yamazaki killed a few guys and then ate one of their eyeballs, that was not in revenge for the loss of the apprentice. At least not completely. Those men were disrespecting the Kogan style, loudly and in public, and the Kogan men were eager to save face after having an apprentice defeated and killed. Yamazaki was certainly angry about his apprentice and out for blood, but he killed those men for disrespecting his dojo. That's why I love this anime, there are layers upon layers, and it says so much with so little.
3) Irako was not blinded after the first match with Gennosuke Fujiki. Irako won the first match with wooden swords, partially because Fujiki was too distracted by "that bastard's unnecessary red lips." Irako wasn't blinded until episode 5 or 6, and he was blinded by the Kogan Sensei. At that point, Irako had become a student of the Kogan style, and was well on the way to becoming the Sensei's heir. However, Sensei discovered that Irako was messing around with his mistress, Iku.
Samurai had strict codes about spending all of your time and energy mastering your swordplay skills. Any useful skill can, by extension, be considered useful for mastering swordplay. That's why everything from writing to cooking, to cleaning yourself is performed in a choreographed, artful manner. It's all about cultivating discipline and mastery. Anything unnecessary is considered a waste of time and an insult.
So when Irako comes strutting in there with his smug smile and red lips, insulting the entire dojo by demanding a match against their Sensei, Fujiki lost his cool and essentially became rattled. When someone is as cocky as Irako, it can be intimidating in a way. He wanted so badly to punish Irako for his arrogance, but he lost, beginning a lifelong grudge between the two. Instructor Ushimata then put Irako in his place. Irako, humbled by the display of true swordsmanship, pleads to become a pupil of the Kogan style.
Lauren on May 15, 2013:
Hi! I just noticed one discrepancy; it was Seigan that beheaded the kosho, not Gennosuke. Great informative article! :)
emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on January 09, 2012:
I think having the book that comes with the DVD set helps a lot. Even though I already know about this time in Japanese history, having the backstory to it is what sold me on it.
Chris Qu on January 09, 2012:
I've only watched the first episode of this. It didn't catch me as being anything special, so I haven't continued... but maybe I will. It's still on my hard drive, and it's kind of short. I might as well give it another shot.
emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on January 09, 2012:
Thanks for the compliment, everymom. This is a very unique and interesting anime. A word of caution, though--it's very graphic. And just like all modes of entertainment, this one has several genres, so if you find that this one is too disturbing to watch there are other genres of anime that might fit your taste better. Thanks for the comment!
Anahi Pari-di-Monriva from Massachusetts on January 08, 2012:
This is an awesome review of the anime DVD and also a great introduction to the genre, for me. It helps me situate myself if I know the roots of the story (the quotation from the Samurai book, e.g.). Your hub has made me curious enough to delve more deeply into the genre itself! Thanks!