Sex, violence and samurai; introducing Shigurui

Please note this post is heavy on images of an “adult nature”; though I understand many of you might be unsettled by such blunt depictions of sex and violence, the truth of Shigurui lies not in words alone, but its unrelenting presentation of old Japan’s institutional depravity. Basically, you’ve been warned.

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Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of “fluffy” anime; series with heart-rending love stories and elegant ballet dancing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from time to time, I like to taste the other extreme too; I mean a bit of the old “ultra violence”. It’s natural, then, that Shigurui fits the bill; the kind of anime many of us like to pretend doesn’t exist. So, before going any further, please note this post is heavy on images of an “adult nature”; though I understand many of you might be unsettled by such blunt depictions of sex and violence, the truth of Shigurui lies not in words alone, but its unrelenting presentation of old Japan’s institutional depravity. Basically, you’ve been warned.

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We begin in Japan around about 1629. Two arch enemies, both samurai, are facing off in a very real death match, but this isn’t exactly a traditional battle. While Fujiki only has one arm, his opponent Irako is completely blind and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, is missing half of his left foot too. Regardless, their hatred for one another is legendary and obviously, they intend to kill each other there and then. Cue the backwards time-skip; the rest of Shigurui will follow these bitter and twisted adversaries from the very first moment they meet, both young and unscathed, to this final confrontation.

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With both men being talented samurai, they first cross paths in the Kogan Ryuu kenjutsu doji, competing to surpass its current master Iwamoto Kogan and marry his beautiful daughter, Mie. It may sound straight forward, but Kogan is a harsh and cruel old man who flits between periods of disgusting senile incompetence and perverted blood lust. His followers, with their loyalty forced by insane Japanese traditions ingrained since childhood, rarely argue and simply maintain the system of abuse, torture and violence; murder and dismemberment are simply a part of the job.

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It should go without saying, but the women in Shigurui aren’t treated with much respect, rather, they are essentially slaves. They have no power; they are constantly raped, tortured, mistreated and used as tools. In one particularly painful moment, Kogan suspects his shunned wife, Iku, of adultery (in fact, she is having an affair with Irako), and so he literally rips off her right nipple and feeds it to his second in command. Indeed, the only true “heroes” or at least, sympathetic characters, in Shigurui are the women who, despite being constantly degraded, somehow discover an inner strength and hope.

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The series has an almost pornographic emphasis on the human body and how it can overcome such great damage. This is a theme that runs through director Hirotsugu Hamazaki’s other work, Texhnolyze, a similarly bleak and violent exploration of flesh that refuses to pull punches when it comes to depicting man’s penchant for inflicting cruelty. Indeed, each wound is a considered blow, executed with the precision of a surgical knife; entire noses and ears are lopped off without even a second thought while another samurai survives despite having his cheek sliced from ear to ear. It may sound a bit too much for some, but there is a grotesque honesty to the violence; it’s realistic, painful and absolutely involving.

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Now, having seen six episodes out of the total of 13 produced, I’m tempted to claim Shigurui as one of the best series to air in 2007. As you can probably tell by the images I’ve embedded through out this article, the art and animation from Madhouse Studios is evocative and without flaw; all at once, this is a beautiful and disgusting series. The pace of storytelling is slow and deliberate, while the soundtrack simply hums and swirls in the background, allowing the viewer time to ponder character motivation and emotion.

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Remarkably, there are no conventional leads in Shigurui, as both the central male characters Irako and Fujiki gladly follow the blood thirty orders of their psychotic master. Frankly, they are only interested in bettering themselves and each other, so indeed, it’s the women behind them who are the real heroes; Iku is isolated, caught in a loveless marriage but brave enough to risk death for another lover, while Mie is trapped under the ever watchful gaze of her perverted father and forced to live her life as a victim of rigid tradition. The show itself takes an objective view on all of this; it has no real interest in manipulating empathy and forces the viewer to interpret their own emotional reactions. Almost every episode is liberally sprinkled with sex and violence, yet Shigurui’s constantly sober approach and disquieting emphasis on flesh means this an odd mixture of the attractive and repulsive that’s simply impossible to ignore.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

27 thoughts on “Sex, violence and samurai; introducing Shigurui”

  1. Pingback: World of Anime » Sex, violence and samurai; introducing Shigurui
  2. Wow, that was quite an enthralling read. I’ve checked out the first couple episodes when it first aired, but due to lack of consistent subs, I eventually lost interest. Thanks to your ‘introduction’ (or re-introduction, in my case), my curiosity for Shigurui has been revived.

    I definitely needed a change-up from all the sugary crap I’m taking in this season, anyway.

  3. Well, having read that I can say for certain it’s not a series I’d be able to enjoy. But I am inclined to agree that the animation is good – some of these screenshots are really, really attractive (once you tune out the blood and the bondage, anyway).

  4. i was just going to ask you to write something about it
    and the next two episodes are amazing
    i see it not only as one of 2007 best but one of the best anime ever

  5. Shigrui was crude and appalling in many many respects. Somethings these men committed through the show were down right gruesome and grotesque, they’re things that only someone twisted can come up with. Its one of these shows that shows you the ugly side of man-kind. Although its a graphical skeptical (Madhouse always creates solid titles) there are lots of still images, yes finely detailed but with little motion. One of those forms of entertainment that are gross and violent for the sake of crossing borders, meaningful this is not. Remember Hostel? I’m not even going there.
    I’m usually in line with your thoughts on most shows Bateszi but not this one, well I never was on that would stand violence I guess that plays a part. Heres hoping Madhouse spends its budget on something that actually has a heart.
    lol This might seem like a offensive post, but its not! I respect your opinion.

  6. Shigurui was an awesome show. I never understood why people didn’t pick it up. Maybe there was no moe. Only nipplechopping moe. Having completed it long ago, there really needs to be a sequel.

  7. This is another one to add to my list of to-watch anime. I have seen so many disturbing images seeing more probably won’t disturb me. I hope there’s something redemptive at the end, though.

  8. Wow, just the screens…wow, I have to get my hands on this. I’m going to wait till it’s over and then just watch all of it in one night. Ivy mentioned Hostel and I actually liked Hostel, disturbing, hopefully not. I’m in the mood for something disturbing, something twisted, freakish and awful. I wasn’t really sure what Shigurui was about, but the screens and your post really solidified my conception of the series. I’m looking forward to seeing this one. Ever since seeing Terra, I have such hopeful expectations when I watch shows you blog about.

  9. @Sagacious C

    Good stuff, the subs are still appearing fairly slowly, but I’m saving them up to watch in batches. I definitely recommend trying to see episodes 1 to 6 in as short a space of time as possible, since the end of 6 is very much the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end :) At the risk of spoiling, I won’t say anything else.

    @IKnight

    I completely understand how you feel, Shigurui will be a bit much for most. Also, looks like you’ve just started blogging? Good stuff, keep it up.

    @qwertypoiuy

    To be honest, I expected to find it hard to watch ~ mainly because it’s so entrenched within Japanese culture, but it’s like I’m totally swept away every time I sit down to watch an episode. Also, I’m looking forward to seeing how Fujiki loses his arm – something tells me it concerns his new “iron-arm” techniques and trying to block Irako’s perfect attack.

    @Ivy

    Given the rather graphic nature of Shigurui, I can’t complain about anyone who is turned off by the extreme gore and sadism it depicts. I’m well aware some people just won’t like this kind of thing. However, I think it’s unfair to compare it to “torture porn” movies like Hostel and SAW because I feel like the appeal of Shigurui is deeper than the cheap thrill of simply seeing a bunch of people being chopped up in gruesome ways. It’s more like a meditation on the brutality and cruelty of mankind, and how we contort our bodies to cope under extreme amounts of pressure. I mean, I always remember this scene from the first episode when this old samurai performs seppuku with his bare hands; can you even fathom the mindset of someone willing to literally rip out their own guts? Maybe you don’t want to? ;)

    @tj han

    To be honest, I’m not really surprised by the obscure/non-existent popularity of Shigurui. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that the vast majority of anime fandom, or at least, the vast majority of anime bloggers, have profoundly bad taste. That probably sounds arrogant, but whatever, it’s embarrassing to consider what’s popular among the vast majority of otaku right now. All the best shows are constantly ignored in favor of HAREM; MOE.

    Also, I read that the ending of Shigurui is a bit of a non-event that doesn’t complete anything. I really hope that’s not the case, at least, I want some closure between Fujiki and Irako.

    @Michael

    I hope so, too!

    @Xerox

    Since you’re in the mood for something on the more disturbing side of anime, you’ll enjoy Shigurui. I watched episode 8 last night and this one character looked like he was giving himself a blow-job; so, approach this with caution! With that said, be sure to give it a fair couple of episodes to hook you in. It has a very relaxed pace… The first episode can be a little strange because it pulls a “Berserk” by throwing you far into the future, only to suddenly switch back and explain how things got to a certain point. If you can manage it, try and watch at least three episodes in one sitting.

  10. Forgive my late reply, and my rude understanding of animé culture, but isn’t the art form of Shigurui resemble Basilisk? That’s my first impression of the series on the superficial level.

    I guess if I can relate to the story, it’d be probably how it mirrors to that of the pre-Islamic Arab landscape: treatment of women, a basic disregard for human compassion in favour for bloodlust and outward hatred… basically the perverseness of human nature.

    In regards to tj_han’s article on “yin and yang of animé“, is it safe to label this show as “yin” — an antacid for the overwhelmingly moé-centric shows this season?

    Objective-wise, perhaps I’m ignorant here, but it seemed that using the Ieyasu Tokugawa era as the setting for Shigurui is getting a bit tiresome. I’m sure there are a lot more drama that has happened in the Yamato or Muromachi era. I digress though.

    On a personal level, however, I don’t feel comfortable with the outward portrayal of violence here. (Maybe my significant other might be interested in this, however.)

  11. @TP

    Don’t worry, you weren’t late; I only posted this on Saturday, after all, and an eloquent comment is always welcome.

    I also thought about comparing it with Basilisk, but where Basilisk is clearly an animation series with super-powered ninja, Shigurui is an ultra realistic portrayal of samurai. Even on a superficial level, they don’t really compare, since Basilisk is obviously intended as melodramatic popcorn fare, but Shigurui is an uncompromising artistic endeavor. It’s a lot like Texhnolyze, but set way in the past rather than way in the future; a kind of lawless contempt for anything that’s good in the world; there is very little hope for these characters.

    Your relation with the Arab landscape is about right. These guys can maim or kill each other with very little to stand in their way. It’s simply survival of the fittest, though several of the characters clearly enjoy the violence they are inflicting on others and obviously don’t see their cruelty as morally objectionable. I suppose we have to remember that these men and women were raised in a culture of violence and punishment; to them, chopping off a head or two is simply the way things go.

    Also, Shigurui is definitely the opposite of “moe-centric” material, but I’m hesitant to use TJ Han’s “yin” phrase because he uses it to describe anime that, despite being objectionably good, are fundamentally hard to watch because they are so negative. I agree with him in the sense that there are certain anime (Bokurano, for example) that are simply down-beat and depressing, but I never really get that feeling from Shigurui. I had to describe it as an “odd mixture of the attractive and repulsive” precisely because while I feel like I should be totally disgusted by what I’m seeing, I find it oddly fascinating too – in fact, I can hardly tear away my eyes from the screen during an episode.

    I don’t really know anything about Japanese history, so I’ll just pass on your comment with regards to the period setting. Tokugawa does come up a lot though; I always remember that name from the Ninja Scroll movie.

    Finally, you should give it a shot. I don’t think you’re supposed to feel comfortable with the violence, but that doesn’t make it as less fascinating. Shigurui is a rather visceral and objective exploration of violence, people are exploited and the weak are executed, but just because something makes you feel disturbed shouldn’t deter you from trying to meditate on what you’re seeing.

  12. Shigurui is easily the best anime I’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen as much as the average anime fan, but I seriously doubt anything could be better than this. I think it’s about time this got some attention. I find it amazing that every episode is completely necessary to the entire story, it’s like watching a beautiful and distorted painting come together. Yeah, that’s what Shigurui is like, a moving and enthralling painting. Not even a single frame is wasted in this anime. If there’s an insect there flying, if there’s a flower in the foreground, it’s there for a reason. I just love it. And so much detail is put into each episode they feel like 12 20 segment movies instead of episodic adventures like most anime.

    And the dialogue is great, the animation rivals anything that’s out there. The movements are extremely realistic, and the facial expressions are human-like. That gives this anime so much more. The best part, though, is easily the direction. I have to say the final 2 minutes of episode 6 (the part where the monsters were “born”) was probably the best 2 minutes I have ever seen in anything….just amazing.

    If Kurosawa and Takashii Miike came together and made an anime, this would be it.

  13. i’ve watched the whole series already…… and i do hope that it’s just the first season… looking forward to new episodes (if there would be).

  14. Shigurui is yet another proof that Madhouse has currently no equal when it comes to more mature anime. I find Hirotsugu Hamazaki’s work really difficult to describe. It is disturbingly realistic in its undeniable brutality to the point of being outright repulsive, but on the other hand there’s a sick, twisted beauty to all the voilence. The masterfuly executed slow, tranquil pace, combined with amazing animation stands as a contrast to the despicable actions of all the “heroes”.
    What I loved about Shigurui is the fact it showed the other, darker side of the samurai. As much as self discipline, honour and loyalty are admirable virtues, they were taken to the extreme. That led some of the samurai to be dangerous murder machines without any second thoughts. Instead of protecting the society, they became a blight on it, as they had the power do virtually anything to those beneath them and didn’t hesitate to put it into use.
    Fujiki and Irako are great examples of how corrupt they have become. People with that much skill and such strong spirits could’ve achieved anything. But the unquestionable loyality to Kogan and the honour of the school in the case of Fujiki and the thirst for vengeance for his humiliation in the case of Irako led them to their own destruction and possibly death.
    I do hope there’s going to be a 2nd series. There’s still so many unanswered questions besides the obvious one (who won), like why does Mie hate Iraki and how did Fujiki lose his arm.
    What is frightening about this anime is that it is absolutely true. People can be pointlessly cruel without so much as flinching. And humanity has already seen what can unquestionable loyalty lead to in the case of Nazi Germany.

  15. I think it’s pretty clear who won and why Mie hates Irako.

    She hates him because of what he did to her father right in front of her, just as he was showing, for the first time, his affection to her (and also some emotion).

    As for who won, Mie foresaw the end of the match right before it started…

    Also, it seemed to me that the whole tournament shown in the first episode was put in place because of the link between the ruler and Irako (as well as his wishes to see him display his technique), given that both of them were fundamentally cowards and shared a fascination for death.

  16. Mie was still in love with Irako after Irako killed her father in front of her. If you continued in the manga where the anime left off….it shows. However, there was a turning point. When Irako chopped off Fujiki’s arm in their first battle, and after Irako killed Ushimoto (that big mouth guy) in brutal fashion, she became to detest him more and more.

  17. This anime is easily the most sincerely serious samurai anime i have seen so far. And yet, its seriousness is not fake or pretentious . I have seen other samurai animes such as kenshin(including the ovas), samurai champloo and others i cant remember at the moment. But this anime, imo, is far more serious with the atmosphere(ie. the background music/buddhist chanting and such). It really explores the peak of swordsmanship a samurai can hope to achieve. I recommend this to anyone who wants a serious anime that doesnt waste time w/ themes such as harem.

    I have finished watching the anime and am currently reading the manga. I was hoping if you all could recommend other serious(in terms of martial arts) animes such as Shigurui. I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

  18. Shigurui was a fascinating series, but it was clear to me that the animators were frankly lazy. Before every fight scene – all of which consisted of basically a “swish-swish-shink” and then five seconds of stunned silence and then a head roll – there was about a minute of stills and facial expressions. The animators unabashedly compose each episode of about 60 percent “filler time” against about 40 percent action/dialogue that legitimately contributed to the series. In the review, you said “The pace of storytelling is slow and deliberate”, but the effect of this is more painful than suspenseful or pensive or any positive attribute. Each episode could have afforded to be ten minutes long. If you prefer well-developed series with a reasonable amount of action and a half-decent soundtrack, this series is not for you.

    Certain artistic techniques were entertaining and valuable to the emphasis on flesh as a theme. It was far more graphic than any series I’ve ever seen, at times bordering on guro and hentai. I’ll try to avoid detailing the series as a whole, but the portrayal of the characters’ bodies – and not just their faces – by the artists effectively mirrors the characters’ spirits and motivation. But this is the extent of positive reviewing I will give to this series.

    On the surface, the slow pace and irritating soundtrack might be seen as artistic, but these factors quickly become irritating when you begin to see through the artistic factor and realize the developers were really just cutting corners.

    1. I’m not convinced they were “just cutting corners,” though. I guess that’s my contention with your opinion, it seems like you were looking for something more action-oriented, while Shigurui is all about the methodically chilling mentalities of the (regularly glamorized) samurai.

  19. Not a bad anime, if you can get over the gore, but it doesn’t leave any closure either. I loved it and have it on box and can’t wait to watch it again and again.

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