The opening moments of Shiguri are divisive: after a montage of lingering, abstract motions, a retainer prostrates himself before his lord and, in slick, gory detail, fatally offers his intestines up to enforce the severity of his request. What follows in the succeeding episodes is often harrowing, frequently disgusting, but never gratuitous - a meditation on the consequences of violence, set within a fiercely feudal system where the sword is the highest form of law. Coming from the same director as the exquisite Texhnolyze and the same studio as Aoi Bungaku, the subdued and graceful viciousness of the story is accompanied by visuals that are as dark as they are breathtaking. The whole then is a deeply affecting series that challenges many tropes common to the samurai genre and proves there is still a place for a poised and measured storytelling style.
raw and primal, as far from top-knots and toffs as possible
When a local lord calls a tournament, two visibly deformed swordsmen enter the arena: one missing his left arm, the other is blind and limping. The pair share a chequered history as two of the last practitioners of the Kogan style of swordplay. Named after Kogan Iwamoto, who after a faux pas concerning his polydactylism cost him a high ranking position, set up the school. Seigen Irako joined when Gennosuke Fujiki was still an assistant instructor, and after only a year came to rival him in proficiency. Both men vie for the position of successor to the Kogan style, and for the affections of Kogan's daughter, Mie; Seigen's hubris however will be his undoing as the school is unforgiving of slights against them and the punishment meted out will surpass mere cruelty. Revenge however, is just as ruthless.
The first story of Aoi Bungaku, No Longer Human, is covered in a soft, often wintry mist that permeates through to the character's unsurprising end. The remaining five stories however are vividly realised, varying between sharp reality and kaleidoscopic dreamscapes; each conveys the vagaries of humanity with poignancy and skill. So too changes the attitude in each story, from the purgatorial trappings of the first story to the theatrical analogy of Run, Melos! to the Rashomon-esque multiple viewpoints of Kokoro. An ambitious and vibrantly successful venture that wears its literary roots proudly, portraying characters with unflinching amorality and focusing not on full-circle stories but short vignettes of startlingly tangible people.
the stark implications of madness and jealousy, grace and fervour played out with such composure
The first four episodes tell the story of Yozo and his attempt to come to terms with his more base instincts and emotions which more often than not lead him to psychological turmoil, not helped by his sexual reliance or penchant for escapism. The second tale is of Shigemaru, a callous thief who one day comes across the beautiful but demanding Mitsuki whose bloodthirsty attitude is tempered only by her morbid fascinations. Shigemaru battles with his fear of the forest's cherry blossom grove while capitulating to all of Mitsuki's murderous whims. The third story is of a gentleman known only as Sensei who invites a scruffy man, K, into the house where he is staying; told from two differing perspectives, both concern the daughter of the house, her affections and the results of a cross-communication between the men. The fourth narrative is of a man tasked with adapting a story for theatre but the process opens old wounds with the parallels it has with his own life. The final two stories are set within the world of a fickle and flamboyant king: the fifth sees the capture of the wicked criminal Kandata, his execution and descent into hell; the sixth follows the artist Yoshihide who, disillusioned with a kingdom he sees as rife with violence and cruelty, is ordered by the king to paint a vision of the land on the walls of his tomb.
When beginningUmineko no naku koro ni, it was been difficult to predict that the series would by the end feature no less than six witches, one dragon, one butler, three military bunny girls, seven floating females wearing school uniforms crossed with leotards, and hordes of sharply suited goat-men. Saying that it eases into these bizarre characters with subtle hints and smart progress would be a bare-faced lie - it springs these absurdities without warning or concern for cohesion. This is indicative of the overriding attitude of the show: favouring reckless abandonment of storytelling for twists that often test the limits of patience. Were it not so melodramatically entertaining it would be hard to endure.
The softly spoken, servant loving George is in fact a kung-fu master able to literally kick someone's face off
Starting with a set up familiar to those who experienced 07th Expansion's prior work, Higurashi no naku koro ni, a typhoon has sealed off an island of eighteen members of the Ushiromiya family who are tasked with solving a riddle to earn the family inheritance. The riddle pertains to a Golden Land touted by the mysterious witch Beatrice, who takes a sadistic pleasure in torturing and murdering the family members as the bonds fracture and accusations fly. Initially a murder mystery with occult overtones, when the witch Beatrice finally reveals herself, one of the family members refuses to acknowledge her status as a witch and starts a competition to prove each murder could have been committed by a human rather than magic. The series covers four stories, resetting after each one, and introduce increasingly more characters, both magical and human, as well as a deeper look at the magical world inhabited by Beatrice.
Kara no Kyoukai is, without hyperbole, one of the most ambitious and intelligent series, movie or otherwise, to come out in the past ten years. As the progenitor of the Type-Moon dynasty it is afforded the means to avoid the overbearing franchise overload that can scare away fresh viewers. It presents a world precariously balanced between a chaotic realm of magic and spirits, and the more mundane world of humanity. Instead of falling prey to the common fantasy trap of treating the setting as the story, a stunning selection of characters is carved out who are not attempting to simply survive but trying to thrive in the ordinary world of emotions and ego. Bolstering this cast are some elegantly malevolent antagonists: from the physically tortured to the mentally deranged, rarely has there been as solid a set of evildoers in one series.
they are painted in shades of grey: whether twisted by magicks or a natural predisposition
Following the story of Mikiya Kokuto as he leaves high school, he is immersed in the unseen world through his affection for the stoic Shiki Ryougi who suffers a near fatal accident which causes a dormant power within her to awaken. Araya Souren, a mage of immense skill, meanwhile wishes to reach the Spiral of Origin, Akasha, the source of all knowledge and a kind of holy grail for those seeking knowledge; to do this however and to avoid the universe's natural defences against this sort of intrusion, he constructs an elaborate plan to use Shiki's now awakened power: the mystic eyes of death perception. Summoning aggressors to temper and hone Shiki, his quest has severe ramifications and the aftermath spills out long after he is assumed defeated.
The first two episodes of Black Lagoon are a carnival of ridiculousness. The climax of the opening story sees a boat use a ramp to launch torpedoes at a pursuing helicopter while the instigator of the plan flips off the doomed pilot. To say the series is quite silly would be an understatement. Even through two seasons it doesn't ever forget just how absurd a lot of it is, but tempering that craziness is a slick and very poignant look at villainy, existentialism, obligation and trust. What makes this mix so rare - gunfights, car chases and philosophising - is how well they meld together and crucially how entertaining the entire package is.
The duality between childlike abandon and adult seriousness is unique and gifts the series with sentiment that one wouldn't expect it capable of
The series starts atypically enough with a Japanese salaryman, Rock, being kidnapped by a mercenary company, the titular Black Lagoon, and opting to stay with them after his initial ordeal is over. The story follows him through the exploits of the company and his attempts to come to terms with his new life within a city a villains. The narrative is broken up into a collection of stories lasting anywhere from two to five episodes and involve a transport job gone wrong to an overseas gang war and all points in between. As well as the three other members of the Black Lagoon company, Rock collides with an eclectic batch of characters including combat maids, scarred Russian soldiers and pistol toting nuns.