Shigurui: Death Frenzy is not for every fan of anime. Let’s run through a hypothetical situation and see if it’s for you!
Let’s say you were a teenager and you saw Ninja Scroll way back in the day. You were thrilled by the sheer brutality of it all. You got a kick out of the fact that the Devils of Kimon were not only powerful boss characters, but also perverted in one way or another. The world was torn by violence and deception, but Jubei’s power and skill were matched by his moral fiber, and this gave you hope. And the final showdown took you to a hellish paradise of intensity because it was a battle between a villain who could not be killed and a hero who refused to die.
Then years went by and your body became stooped with age. You started noticing patterns in anime, and you were never completely comfortable with the cliches. You saw Samurai Champlooand, while you might have enjoyed it, it always made you uncomfortable that the two protagonists were level ninety-nine gods of war who inhabited a world of weaklings, and could dominate everyone, and so they never had any of their values challenged. You wanted them to be strong, but you also wanted to see them broken, because deep down inside, you knew that a hero was someone who could rise after being broken. Because a hero is not a hero if he is surrounded by an aura of cool that keeps him safe from harm.
If any of that fits, then Shigurui might be your kind of art.
The series opens with two misshapen freaks, like something from a Jodorowsky film, who are willing to duel to the death for the enjoyment of a privileged class. Gennosuke, who has swallowed so much pain that he can barely speak, has only one arm, and his back is grotesquely muscular in order to compensate; Seigen is blind, his face a twisted mask of psychotic nihilism, his bent-over stance so undignified that it’s shameful for the viewers even to look at it. The upcoming fight is so senseless, so needless, so wasteful, that one man has already pulled out his own intestines in order to protest it. The camera pans across the two fighters as they face off, willing one another’s death.
This scene, like all others in the series, is slow. Not slow in the sense that the pacing is poor, but slow in the same sense that a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western confrontation is slow. It’s tense, and filled with a sense that life really is at stake, like the entire world has stopped to watch and will not move again until a life has ended violently.
Then we find out the rest of the series is a flashback. You might think that knowing Gennosuke and Seigen are fated to encounter one another in the future, and thus have a “survive any situation free” card up their sleeve, would take some of the edge off the narrative. Not so. Shigurui is an elaborate work about the horror of being alive and the uncompromising demands required for survival, and our two protagonists find themselves in some situations so horrible that death would be a release.
There are very few anime cliches to be found in Shigurui. When we first meet young Seigen, a brash loner type, it’s easy to assume he will act as a counterweight to the Eastern notion that the group comes before the individual (and thus step in line with a thousand other Eastern protagonists who subvert this notion). He’s all swagger and self-confidence and smiles, then tests his skills against a sword school’s resident “big guy”. We all know that, in anime, the “big guy” has to pay for his muscles through lack of brain power. Big equals dumb or, at best, comic relief. Which is why it’s so shocking that the resident big guy is able to outsmart and outfight the “hero” Seigen, and not only beat him, but force him into the humiliating position of cowering like an animal.
We want to see the individual stand up to the collective, which is one of the reasons why Shiguruiis so unsettling. Gennosuke and Seigen are both powerful individuals, but they live in a realistic world where one’s station is determined by birth and one’s rank is determined by how much the individual is willing to sacrifice for the group. Imagine if the wandering vagabond Mugen from Samurai Champloo actually did get hungry. Not just cranky from missing lunch, but really hungry, so hungry that he was forced to join a sword school run by thugs he despised, but dared not challenge for fear of hunger. Or imagine if his friend Jin was a swordsman great enough to overcome anyone in single combat, but three or five or ten men could easily surround him and kill him, as in real life. Just imagine the drama of watching them wrestle with their own conscience when they had to do distasteful things in order to survive! Imagine the discomfort of seeing their ideals challenged by the same world we ourselves live in!
That is Shigurui. Men and women born into terrifying circumstances, slaves to monsters, and becoming monsters themselves. As visually dark as Boogiepop Phantom but much easier to understand, as action-packed as a field trip to a slaughterhouse, as sobering as a weekend stay in jail, and as horrifying as an alarm clock going off at six AM.
To touch on a few other things: The music is powerful, usually subdued and minor-key, sometimes explosive and jarring. The introduction is unique and intense, without any J-pop influences, and the ending credits are black and dignified. As an added bonus, the series contains a one-man sex scene which, if you happen to catch it, is one of the most bizarre things you will ever see in an anime; I know I couldn’t stop talking about it for days. The twelve episodes available are not the entire series, despite what Amazon and Netflix say, but the last available episode contains a climactic showdown so vicious and so dramatic and so tense that it nearly surpasses any showdown I have ever seen in any medium.
Verdict: This series will separate the brutal from the prudish. Those who mistakenly believe they like “violent anime” may be in for a rude awakening, while those who crave intensity and slow drama and depictions of everyday horror, and are not necessarily fans of anime, may just love Shigurui: Death Frenzy.
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.