In 1626, during the reign of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, the Lord of Kofu Domain, Tokugawa Tadanaga, orders two swordsmen to fight a duel using live bladed swords instead of wooden bokken. Not only is such an order highly illegal under the pacification policies of the Tokugawa shogunate, the two swordsmen – Gennosuke Fujiki and Seigen Irako – are both disfigured: Fujiki has a dismembered right arm, while Irako is blind with an impaled left foot. Flash back a dozen or so years, and both men are star students of the Kogan-Ryu school of swordsmanship: Fujiki, intense and serious, cares deeply about the school and its future; Irako, enigmatic and ambitious, cares only for the wealth that could come into his hands if he succeeds to the school’s headship. Irako seduces Lady Iku, the concubine of the school’s mad sensei, Kogan Iwamoto, even though he has been promised in marriage to Iwamoto’s daughter, Mie; Fujiki, meanwhile, loves Mie but submits to Iwamoto’s demand that she marry Irako – even as he prepares to learn the secret “nagareboshi” (shooting star) technique with which he can defeat and kill Irako. The consequences of their actions will be devastating for both men and all those around them – and will ultimately lead both to participate in the illegal duel ordered by the Lord of Kofu.
Based on the manga by Takayuki Yamaguchi (which was in turn based on the first chapter of the novel Suruga-jō Gozen Jiai by Norio Nanjō), “Shigurui: Death Frenzy” was produced by Madhouse Studios and aired on Japanese television in 2007. Noted for its time-shifting narrative and rather abrupt ending, “Shigurui” is rendered in an impressionistic animation style reminiscent of both classical East Asian art techniques and the ukiyo-e art style of the later Edo period. Violent, graphic, and atmospherically claustrophobic, “Shigurui” is a tragedy in the mould of Aeschylus or Euripides (and certainly evocative of Akira Kurosawa’s use of Shakespeare), in which hubris breeds its ultimate nemesis, and all the characters live within a context of inevitable doom. The minimalist soundtrack, consisting largely of traditional Japanese instruments (and, strikingly, a didgeridoo), evokes the aesthetics of Noh theatre as well as the horror and tragedy that are embedded within truly folkloric narratives. Dividing critical and popular opinion alike, “Shigurui” is a powerful, if uncomfortable, viewing experience.
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