Shigurui: Death Frenzy is a 12-episode anime series which aired in 2007.
Among the numerous things a review is supposed to accomplish, there's this: Give the reader a sense of what to expect from the content that's under examination in order to help them determine whether or not they should dedicate their valuable time to checking it out. To that end, I'll try to steer some poor souls away from trouble immediately by saying that Shigurui contains a massive amount of exceedingly gruesome gore as well as all manner of violent sexual predations, and in many cases those two things appear onscreen simultaneously. If you have a strong aversion to the stomach-turning, you can probably just continue on your merry way, because this show is two cuts above grotesque. That being said, I don't believe that art is under any obligation to be shiny and happy, and content of a violent and brutal nature doesn't necessarily make something “bad” (although, in this instance, the point is a little moot). But for anyone who remains undeterred, there is an actual review up ahead.
To say that Shigurui has high production values would be an understatement. Even by the standards of the frequent overachievers at studio Madhouse, Shigurui is looking at “high production values” in the rearview mirror half a mile back. It's a shame that much of the show takes place in dimly lit dojos and huts, because the outdoor backgrounds are nothing short of gorgeous. I'll be blunt in saying that the character designs are repulsive—everything about them is exaggerated, and from their overblown facial features to their overly pale, shiny skin, they look more like wax caricatures of humanity than anything else. Given the show's general love of putting the disgusting on display, I'd wager that this is intentional, and while the designs aren't aesthetically pleasing, they're fitting, and their remarkable level of detail and consistency can't be denied. The one artistic aspect where Shigurui falls a tad short is the animation; on the rare occasions where fluid animation is actually present, it looks great, but unfortunately the series defaults more to blink-and-you-miss-it shortcuts and fades for its fight scenes, which are less than enthralling (more on that later).
Shigurui is musically minimal. Most of the score consists of slower, more traditional Japanese music. Ominous drumbeats and strings are par for the course, sometimes punctuated by a deep, wailing chant. Atmospheric sound is common and used to good effect, with the old standbys of keening cicadas and chirping birds being the most noticeable. Some of the show's better music actually comes in the form of rhythmic folk songs sung by field laborers or village children as the samurai pass them by. To some degree, this befits both the setting and the “slow but violent under the surface” nature of the series.
And now we come to the writing, which, for the most part, is where I lose the ability to say anything positive about Shigurui. For all of its artistry and its attention-garnering violence and sexuality, the plot is built on fairly typical samurai fare: In the present time, a swordsmanship tournament is being held. Facing each other are two decrepit samurai, one of them blind and one of them missing an arm. They are both students of the same school of swordsmanship, they have a historic rivalry with each other, and the rest of the series is a flashback that delves into that rivalry. Revenge, rivalry, and betrayal can be made powerful with a quality story and good characterization (see Berserk, Gungrave) but it just isn't so here. Shigurui's writers seem to be going for the “slow but deliberate” buildup, and as a result the story dawdles, takes frequent forays into the backgrounds of characters and objects which have a minimal connection with the plot, and all the while fails to generate tension or momentum in any significant amount. A lack of complexity isn't always a bad thing, and good execution can take a simple plot, run with it, and make it compelling. But here is simplicity done wrong: Meandering, directionless, trying its hardest to pull something out of nothing and be more than it really is. Entire episodes could be skipped with minimal loss. You can practically see the seams where the plot is stitched together—in the first half of the show, someone is wronged, and in the second half, that someone seeks revenge in a methodical, predictable fashion while everyone else runs around like chickens with their heads cut off. The show's ending is somewhat fitting, but it's also anticlimactic in the first degree, and leaves many questions unanswered. It's insult to injury, and as a result, Shigurui's story is an absolute drag, a bloody, swerving run-on sentence with no period.
Memorable characters could probably dig the show out of the hole, but to call Shigurui's efforts in that area “paper-thin” would be to short-change paper. The leads, Fujiki and Irako, are both tools of the plot, and they bend to its will in completely unreal turnarounds. Irako goes from “sinister, merciless, master swordsman” to “blubbering, defenseless idiot” seemingly at the drop of a hat, and Fujiki, originally the least offensive protagonist, develops into a brutal, sadistic shell of a man for what appears to be no reason whatsoever. Both characters have motivations that are either completely unknown (Fujiki) or laughably simple-minded and one-note (Irako). As previously mentioned, the show would rather spend time delving into shoddily introduced plot elements than fostering any sort of actual interaction between these two characters; it glosses over their development as fellow swordsmen completely, and in the end the root of their much-touted, show-spanning rivalry seems to be limited to “Irako beat Fujiki in a practice match this one time and then Fujiki punched Irako in the face.” They hardly ever speak to each other; the show seems to be going for effective minimalism in this aspect, but it falls short. We know almost nothing about the ideals of either man, and while they might have good reasons to kill each other, the truth is that they're both cold and simple characters to a nearly inhuman degree, and it's nearly impossible to care about them or relate to them in any sense. Add to that some terribly flat supporting roles who seem to exist for the dual purposes of dying gruesomely and killing time while the show struggles to reach the 12-episode mark and you get a lackluster cast that's utterly incapable of picking up the slack left by the similarly flawed story.
In fact, Shigurui as a whole feels like the result of one big case of writer's block. That there's talent and effort poured into the series is beyond question—the near-flawless artistry, the attention to detail, and the willingness to show things that the audience might not want to see are all hallmarks of a strong creative team. It's even directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, who managed to score a home-run with similar directorial style in the slow-but-powerful Texhnolyze. I've little doubt that if Shigurui's writing had been handled differently, the show could float above average, maybe even to greatness. I'm all for rooting for the underdog, and I'd love to be able to write a cute blurb along the lines of “despite its outward mask of grotesquely twisted sex and violence, Shigurui has numerous redeeming qualities...”
...but, truthfully, short of the art and the general atmosphere, I just don't see anything worth praising. Shigurui has nothing to say. It has all of the means in the world, but no conceivable ends. It's completely without vision, and as a poor replacement for vision, it reaches onto the shelf and pulls out the book of sheer brutality and shock value. It's the angry pre-teen, screaming (admittedly creative) obscenities, hoping that others will mistake them for maturity. In a sort of sad irony, its positive aspects actually look retrospectively silly when coupled with its writing, like lipstick on a pig. The fight scenes, which amount to staring contests punctuated by swift blows delivered via animation shortcuts, could have been effective if there was any emotion brewed between the characters involved, but lacking that element, they ring hollow. The slow, traditional music and voice-over narration sound absurdly ham-fisted and out of place next to the needless sexual violence. Countless artistic shots of butterflies and cicadas, symbols of change and rebirth, are not a substitute for writing characters who actually undergo convincing development. The show has zero self-awareness; at its best moments it's a halfway entertaining gut-spiller, and at its worst moments it's borderline BDSM smut, yet from start to finish it operates under the disingenuous pretense that it's an engaging work of art. In all walks of life it's best not to kid yourself, and I can't help but recommend that if you're going to make something as pointless and mind-numbingly gratuitous as this show, you could at least maintain some honesty about it.
Score: 4/10; avoid unless extreme boredom and/or extreme curiosity get the best of you.