Shigurui Death Frenzy - The Complete Series Review

The Series

Words can count for very little. Action icons forsake them in order to blow shit up and to shame the liberal thinkers who want to weigh right and wrong in their place. In modern blockbusters, words are crowded out by the setpieces, the bangs, and the punches - and their scarcity affords the catchphrases, the yippee kaye ays, the value that their writers couldn't generate on their own. More is less when what you're talking about is bad dialogue hidden by explosions. The number of words in a modern action film is necessarily small because there seem to be so few of them that have any value.
Very, very little of Shigurui Death Frenzy is dialogue driven. Words are rare, atmosphere pervades and beautiful silence is shattered by explosions of human offal. Each of the twelve 24 minute episodes will build to a climax which will be short, but after the hum of insects and the exchanging of perspectives, the playing out of inevitable conflict is left with little time to be anything other than brief. If the tension is the foreplay and the fights the consummation, then Shigurui Death Frenzy is certainly the anime equivalent of tantric sex.

The story is set in the beginning of the seventeenth century where succession is the matter at hand in the Kogan Dojo. The sensei has become cruel and frankly insane, and his two young pretenders are the honorable Fujiki and the supremely talented Irako. The story begins at the end as the disabled and scarred protagonists meet in battle at a tournament ran by a lord with a grudge against their school. The following episodes return to their first meeting and the events that are inspired by their battle to inherit the mantle of their sensei.
Betrayal, lust and illicit encounters fill each episode alongside the spare confrontations that illustrate the two central characters on view. The cruelty of their sensei is legend. He is beyond predictable as he provokes some healthy competition and decimates anyone speaking sense. His lover, his daughter and his possible heirs all fall victim to his game playing, and his followers do their best to carry out his erratic orders whilst managing the inevitable fallout.

Both of our protagonists are moulded by this tyranny and an unending enmity between them. They are born of a school which believes in not just defeating its rivals but disfiguring them to boot, and the violence of this series will test your sensitivities along with your stomach. Any swordfight ends with slashed bellies and dripping intestines, faces are burnt and nipples are cut in four. The series may be mainly about building up to very short conclusions, but these conclusions could hardly be more repellently violent.

Yet, this is all done so artfully with excellent biwa based music that scratches and holds on to every erotically and physically charged instant. The line drawings give proceedings a flawed humanity and the rhythm of image and sound is impeccable as tension rises and explodes eventually in inevitable destruction. Truth and beauty are the main victims throughout and the story offers little in terms of heroism and chivalry. This is dark, desperate chanbara with a heart that never sees the light of day.
So who will enjoy this? I think those who enjoyed the way that Fukasaku approached the jidai-geki will appreciate the nihilism of these swordsmen and their cruel mentors. I think those who hunger for something that doesn't eulogise violence but shows how authority is often predicated on it will enjoy a very grown up and nasty animation. And finally, if you want an example of building mood and ambience to re-create dread and a sense of oblivion, then the twangs of the score and the sheer wordlessness of Shigurui Death Frenzy is just what you've been waiting for.

Technical Specs

Manga UK have delivered a fair number of standards conversions in the past but this does not seem to be one. Each episode is presented using the full 16:9 screen and the contrast is handled well to ensure the blacks of the image are as deep as they need. Although the visual quality is impressive overall, I would state that this looks processed and video like rather than having a more natural appearance. Colours, especially the reds of the opening titles, look just a little too bright to my eye.
The audio offers a choice of an English 5.1 mix and the original Japanese stereo with English subtitles. The subtitles are optional and the quality of English, barring a couple of mistypes, is most acceptable. With the audio tracks, the extra channels of the English track count for little as the dialogue is forced and delivered a little theatrically. The Japanese track is lovely though with exceptional depth to the music and a much more integrated sense to the rare dialogue, in fact this is one of the best audio tracks I've heard in a long time.

Special Features

The majority of the extras here are offered on the second disc which comes with line drawings of the locations of the action and character introductions for most of the protagonists. These are presented as picture galleries which can be navigated through, and the bios give useful extra detail on some of the peripheral characters. Also offered are the opening and closing titles sans any of the onscreen text.

Two commentaries are offered from members of the American voice cast, along with the line producer, and frankly they both are far from compelling. They play up the lack of dialogue and the cinematic quality of the series, but to be honest it lacks anything approaching insight and the experience is much like listening to some strangers ruin your favourite films by groping for intelligence. They are clearly on the hop and don't prepare for the gig, not knowing the name of the composer of the music for instance(Kiyoshi Yushida).


A cracking and unusual take on samurai. This 2 disc set is well worth picking up and a blu-ray edition is available as well.

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