A rare entry in the samurai genre, Shigurui is a unique combination of exploitation aesthetics and elaborate scenario and characters.
The story begins in 1629 Shizuoka, during Tokugawa Tadanaga’s rule when two opponents, one-armed Fujiki Gennosuke and the blind Irako Seigen are about to duel with real Japanese swords, in a tournament staged by the daimyo. The story then takes a leap backwards, when Irako first enters the Kogan-Ryuu school, searching for fame and acknowledgement. Slowly and violently he becomes a member of the Dojo, while the Grandmaster of the school, Kogan Iwamoto, becomes more and more mentally unbalanced, to the point that he turns into a bloodthirsty beast. The story then revolves around the antagonism between Irako and Fujiki for the succession of Iwamoto, and the power struggles among them and the other students of the school, as “Shigurui” becomes an agonizing thriller.
The violence that permeates the anime becomes evident from the beginning, as the battles ensue very early. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is much more than a usual hack’n’slash title. The various characters are explored in depth, in their majority, and as Kogan succumbs to madness, their relationships become more intricate and dangerous, and the students’ training takes a completely unusual turn, in genuine thriller style. As sex, torture and a number of bloodbaths make their way on screen, the exploitative nature of “Shigurui” also becomes visible. The mixture of all the above elements proves the direction’s artfulness. Add to that the relatively slow pace, the dementia that characterizes the script and the total lack of the honor usually associated with samurai, and you have an utterly original entry in the category.
Technically, the title follows the high standards established by Madhouse, with excellent period images, great detail on the various characters, and impressive motion. The last two aspects are better witnessed on the battle scenes, which are grotesquely realistic, in their majority. The feeling is heightened even more by the elaborate, but almost sickening sound that features in the moments when steel meets flesh, the shades of grey that rule the coloring, and the various twisted images that occasionally appear on screen.
“Shigurui” is a true masterpiece, although its extreme violent nature will keep many from witnessing its artfulness.