Anime Theater: Basilisk

Like kunai in the throats of our hearts, these are the days of our...apparently very misty photo shoots.

Like kunai in the throats of our hearts, these are the days of our…intergalactic photo shoots.

  • Basilisk: Kouga Ninpo Cho (just Basilisk in its English distribution)
  • Year: 2005
  • American Distributor: Funimation

When I say “love story”, what comes to mind? If you’re a literary sort of any kind, or if you ever attended a New York school like myself, then whether you like it or not, the first thing that pops into your head is, of course, Romeo and Juliet. The tale of a true, deep love unfulfilled due to the cruel auspices of fate, and the warring passions of two families, R&J has been captivating audiences for almost half a millennium now. On the other side of the coin, we have the world of Anime, where everything, even the most staid premise can be made anew by the creative madness of the men and women who make these things. So what does this have to do with today’s subject? Well, if I was to describe Basilisk in a sentence, it would be to say that someone looked at that old tale of love and loss, and said “You know what would make this story AMAZING? Ninjas.”

In fairness though, despite that rather silly description, Basilisk is a mighty enjoyable, occasionally heartrending and endlessly creative (yes, creative) little gem for anyone who’s in the mood for some high romance, but feels that there should be a body-count. Just like any true-to-life love story…

Note: Character in image may be more violent than they appear.

Don’t Go Stabbin’ My Heart

It’s a good long while into the Tokugawa Shogunate, and things are looking pretty good for Japan. Well, insofar far as no one is dying in the numbers they had been in the literal CENTURIES of war that had preceded it. It’s not quite so peaceful in the government, unfortunately, as a dispute within the family as to which of two siblings will be the next Shogun is threatening to tear shit apart with the ever-escalating deviousness of its participants.

And so, former shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the OG shogun and owner of the most disturbing chin in Anime), along with some of his advisers,  comes up with an idea; take two opposing groups of fighters, and let them battle it out, with each side representing one of the princes. And whichever side wins, then their represented heir will be crowned the official future ruler-to-be, and the other heir can suck it. But samurai are valuable, especially in these tenuously peaceful times, so the question becomes how to represent the sides?

Entire Hanzo Hattori, historical ninja extraordinaire. See, turns out a while back there were two ninja villages, the Kouga Manjidani and the Iga Tsubagakure, who hated each other with a burning, acidic flame that had been festering for generations. So insane were the powers that each clan wielded, and so destructive was their conflict, that the original Hanzo stepped in, and forced the two clans to calm the FUCK down, and sign a peace treaty. And so, the two clans stopped killing each other, and faded into the background.

Holyshitthechin

That goiter of his is hiding a great deal of malice, that it is…either that, or his testicles have retreated to his face in rage.

Hearing this, Ieyasu (and his chin) have another stroke of genius; have an elimination-style set-up, where each clan chooses its top ten members, and writes their names on a scroll. The rival clan then needs to steal said scroll, and kill the ninja listed thereupon. The government doesn’t lose any soldiers, and a potential threat is eliminated. Ieyasu orders Hanzo, now the holder of the peace contract after his dad snuffed it, to ABOLISH the treaty, and the game is on. To the winner will go the favor and protection of the shogunate, basically ensuring survival for the clan that comes out on top. And the loser, well…

And so tragically, on the very eve of a marriage between the two young leaders of the clans, Iga no Oboro and Kouga Gennosuke, a marriage that may have FINALLY began to close the wounds between the two groups, the stage is now set for decades of raw, seething hatred and violence to be unleashed. And no one will escape unscathed…

Ninja vs. Ninja vs. Ninja vs. Ninja vs…

So, what with the star-crossed lovers and the ninja, this all has the potential to be rather silly, does it not? The story, however, is handled deathly seriously, and the large and eccentric cast of characters help to make the conflict come alive. See, the greatest joy of Basilisk is not as much in the story (sharply written as it is) as it is in the characters. For roughly 17 episodes of the 24-episode-long series, you’re treated to a parade of the most interesting, jaw-dropping or just plain strange powers imaginable.

Each of the ten members of each clan has some strange power or ability, ranging from the unusual to the bizarre to the blindingly horrific. With no specificity, we have men who can melt into walls and move through them, and a woman who can summon swarms of various attacking animals. We have a man who can turn his immense body hair into a shield, and another who can literally mold his face into any shape he so desires, making him the perfect spy. We have a person who can suck blood by touch, one who can manipulate wire to cut stone, poison people with arousal, stretch limbs, inflate, make blood mist, create small tornadoes, spit glue, skitter along the ground with brolic chest muscles, melt into a goo state when exposed to salt… the sheer variety is truly astonishing, and it really is fun to watch just to see what crazy-ass power they’re gonna whip out next, and I’ve left out a whole bunch that actually are story important.

Yes, that man has no arms and legs. Yes, he fights. No, you really are NOT ready…

The clans are counterbalanced in a sense; generally speaking, the Iga tend to have more traditionally battle-capable powers, and therefore are less abstract. Meanwhile, the Kouga tend more toward stealth and subterfuge, and their powers tend to be more unusual and specialized. That aside, fighters on both sides are exceedingly capable, and the battles between them are always interesting to watch, if a little disturbing sometimes.

Working to the show’s favor is a strong focus on moral evenness. Neither the Iga nor the Kouga are shown to be completely villainous or beyond redemption. Granted, the show’s one true villain is from the Iga (and BOY is he a bastard, more on him later…) and said clan tends to be more antagonistic and ruthless, but the Kouga have some real hateful folks on their side too, and both sides have members who run the gamut from simply trying to protect their loved ones, to honestly thinking that they’re doing the right thing, or in many cases just acting on a hatred that is the only thing they have ever known. It’s a well-done morality, and lends the story a core it would otherwise lack; neither side is clean, and neither side is evil. They’re all culpable in letting this cycle continue.

Defined Shadows

As for the characters themselves, they are an interesting bunch, running from the brutal, the cunning, the goofy, the sadistic, to the innocent, all the way to the barely human. At the core of our cast are our two starcrossed lovers, Gennosuke and Oboro. Gennosuke is a pacifist, but also a badass par excellence; being a master swordsman, tactician and having one of the most startlingly off-putting abilities in the series (I won’t spoil it here, but believe me, it’s a game-changer.) He spends most of the show trying to stop the conflict, but he’s a worthy pivot for the show, being a strong moral and martial center.

Seriously, run. Yellow eyed people are never a good thing, I don't care how much scurvy they have...

Yeah, I don’t care how pacifistic he is. If a person looks at me like that, my butthole retreats into my liver…

Oboro, meanwhile, is adorable as all hell, with her big purple eyes and soft disposition. She’s also an ingenue of the highest order, all soft-voice and peace and tranquility, but never quite crosses into pushover. She has the unique ability (stated in the second episode, so this isn’t a spoiler) to actually CANCEL ninja abilities with a look, owing to her unique eyes. And in a series where the freaky powers are the beginning and end for these guys, that’s a catastrophic talent. Like Gennosuke, she too spends most of the series sidelined by her beliefs, but enough happens TO her to make her memorable. Seriously, you’ll want to hug the shit out of her by the end…

Tenzen, giving his version of a comforting smile. To his credit, only seven women developed ovarian cancer from looking at it…

However kind these two are, they’re surrounded by far more morally questionable people, and none are worse than Yakushiji Tenzen. Tenzen, being the second-in-command of the Iga (and since Oboro isn’t much for leading, the de-facto boss of said side), is essentially the villain of the show, and a startlingly vile one at that. In a show where everyone is at least minorly good, Tenzen stands out for being utterly, unrepentantly monstrous, doing everything from murder and manipulation, to rape and infanticide in his run. And his power, aside from his deeply horrific cunning and swordsmanship skills, is a hell of a showstopper. He’s a top-tier villain, and if I ever feel inclined to make a list of said characters, you’ll definitely be seeing him again.

Acting as second on the Kouga side, we have Muroga Hyouma, uncle, mentor and guardian to Gennosuke and blind sage extraordinaire. He acts as a typical “wise disabled” character, but parted from the nearly blind idealism of his ward (pun intended), is a far more effective portrait of what the characters here SHOULD be; a man who is just as wounded by the conflict, but is willing to force himself to look past that for the sake of peace.

To go through the remaining cast would be long and exhausting, so just to highlight a few mainstays. For the Kouga, we have master spy Kisaragi Saemon, an affable, easygoing sort of man who’s cleverness allows him to rack up a high body count. Kagerou, a woman with whom sex is literally a deadly affair. And Jousuke Udono, a large, jolly sort who uses his obesity in unexpected ways.

Bringing on the Iga, we have Mino Nenki, a hairy beast of a man who could give Sindel a run for creativity. Yashamaru, a man who uses tremendous amounts of garotte wire to slice people to ribbons, and Azuki Rousai, an ugly, grumpy old man who has top tier martial arts skills and limbs that can go several dozen feet in any direction. I’ve elected to keep the stranger, more entertaining characters and powers secret, but this gives you an idea of the sheer variety at hand. Every character, even ones who last less than five episodes, are memorable in their own right, and serve to make a tale that might otherwise seem stuffy come alive.

Christ, look at that head. Rousai is either part watermelon, a VERY good Xenomorph cosplayer, or saw Ieyasu’s chin and figured “Ohh, I can beat that.” Either way, he looks like a torpedo…

Still, this leads to a relative weakness with the show. We’re talking about a cast of 20 main fighters, so by default, a good chunk will need to fall by the wayside. Of this sizable cast, a good half of them are dead before the series is even half over, and more upsettingly, they tend to be the more unusual looking or acting ones. This is probably because the more “human” characters would be more story-acceptable, but it’s still a notable weakness for the story.

This also means that the show has very little time for the “greater conflict.” Although the mentioned framing device of the struggle for succession DOES come back in a big way, it’s really late in the series, and seems kind of tacked on to remind us “Oh yeah, by the way, there’s political stuff here!” Most of the show is the Kouga, led by Gennosuke, going to the shogunate headquarters to request a stop to the madness, and the Iga following and trying to complete their mission. It never quite becomes STALE, per se, but one could sum up a fair chunk of the show by saying “watch a bunch of ninja travel, and occasionally bump eachother off…”

Pretty, But Deadly

Moving on to the actual mechanics of the show, you see that the artstyle is very…raw, for lack of a better word. It’s not ugly, not by a long shot, but there’s very little fancifulness. The women are attractive, in several different ways, but none are particularly moe or overtly fanservicey. And most of the men are of the muscular, masculine kind, and even the “prettier” ones are fairly toned and manly looking.

Dem EYES

Except for Yashamaru, who is about as manly as a placenta.

Complimenting this is some really great animation. All the fights look great, and even though you’ll definitely spot an off-model bit of animation here, or a still shot there, the show generally has a strong, consistent look. Less memorable is the music, which although serving its purpose and having a few standout tunes, doesn’t really stick in the memory. It does its job, and moves on.

I watched this show in English, and we have here yet ANOTHER Funimation effort. But, as they are wont to do, Funimation puts out a very strong effort here, with a diverse and effective cast for all the 30+ named characters (!?) putting in work. Troy Baker’s Gennosuke is a strong, stoic type, and Baker’s throaty, resonant voice gives him the strength without draining him of his tenderness. Opposite him, Oboro is played by the lovely Laura Bailey, who once again shows her versatility by playing Oboro with all the sweetness and tenderness she needs, but managing to give her the all-important conviction MUCH LATER in the show when it’s needed.

“Hello kids, today’s word is “window dressing”…”

The crowner here, though, probably goes to Funimation standby Mark Stoddard. He isn’t one of the names that shows up at the top of the popular lists, but he always does great work, and this is probably my favorite role of his. Stoddard has a uniquely low-pitched voice, so low that it sounds like it’s being tuned somehow, and it’s that unusual quality that he puts to great effect as villain Tenzen. Stoddard imbues his character with a rumbling menace, and a faux-politeness that simply oozes malice every time he opens his mouth. In short, he sounds as evil as he looks.

As for other standout voices, Jason Liebrecht gives a typically high-grade performance as Saemon, a man who, although fundamentally good, finds himself doing bad things as hatred and personal loss pull him ever deeper into the conflict. Christopher Sabat puts his throaty pipes to good use as aggressive man-mountain Kasumi Gyoubu, while personal favorite Jeremy Inman makes the most of his time with Udono, playing him as fun, good-natured and amusing, but not without a bit of insight.

On the Iga side, we have John Burgmeier’s Chikuma Koshirou, one of the few really decent men of the Iga, but one not above being murderously hateful either. Burgmeier allows him to be good, but not so good that his less scrupulous actions are unexpected. Jennifer Seman’s Akeginu is well-performed, which is lucky since she does a LOT of exposition, being one of the (comparatively) less bloodthirsty ninja in the series. And finally, there’s Colleen Clinkenbeard’s Hotarubi, a yandere of the highest quality who has one of the sadder personal tales, but makes up for it by being generally crazy and bitchy, and Clinkenbeard’s always appreciated work makes her a real interesting piece of work.

Niiiiiiiiin-po!

So at the end of the day, what are we looking at with Basilisk? Is it a love story with ninja? A ninja story with light romance? A strange parade of strange people killing eachother in strange ways? Romeo and Juliet for the Hellsing generation? Well, it’s all these things and more, and although it may not always be perfect, and in fact many times is far from it, it’s always enthusiastic, and always a good time.

———————————————————————————————————-

The Breakdown

Visuals: A sharp art style complimented by smooth animation. Some characters look a little awkward, though, and the occasional hiccups do grate a bit, and even occasionally pull you out. Still, there’s something to be said about managing all the gaudy chaos this show represents, and the twenty ninja, in full swing, are a sight to behold. 23/33

Sound: Solid opening and ending themes can’t save an otherwise underwhelming soundtrack. Some of the music, particularly the calmer arrangements, strike a cord, but otherwise just end up as background noise. What does save it is across the board solid performances, by both the main players and the ninja in general. 25/33

Content: Twenty-four episodes of chaotic, absurd, disturbing ninja madness, with a not-entirely-terrible love plot thrown in. A tale of starcrossed lovers drowned in blood and violence, the story keeps one’s interest while the action keeps one thrilled. The conclusion kind of piffles (and if you know this story at all, is entirely predictable), but this doesn’t stop the affair from being enjoyable front to back. 29/33

The Weight: For making an old-new-age love story with a twist: 6 points.

Verdict: Emotions, Murder and Mayhem: 8/10

Silver Award

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