Once again, I’m fighting the urge to collapse into complete blathering fandom. Basilisk is as grand and glorious an anime as anyone could ask for, violent and beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. I love most any show that taps into Japan’s feudal past (read: ninja and samurai), and they generally have a good track record: Hakkenden, Requiem from the Darkness, Shura no Toki, Otogi-Zoshi. Basilisk sits comfortably among the very best of the bunch.
The show also works a roots lesson in popular Japanese culture, sort of. The source material is Masaki Segawa’s manga of the same name, but that in turn is an adaptation of Fūtaro Yamada’s 1959 novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls. Yamada pretty much created the mythology of the ninja in fiction as we know it right now, paving the way for everything from Buichi Terasawa’s Kabuto to (what else?) Naruto itself. They could have just slavishly followed the plot of the book, which would have worked decently well since the original novel’s two tons of fun all by itself. But the creators of the anime used the original material as a springboard to add backstory and characterization, and turned what could have been a merely fun show into an outstanding one.xfuni=9
The setting: Japan in the early 1600s — the first years of the nationwide peace established by the iron fist of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Two ninja families — the Kouga of Manjidani and the Iiga of Tsubagakure — were bitter rivals during the warring years, as their services as spies and assassins were put to use by clans competing for power. Now, with the country no longer at war, they hone their skills in private and wait for an opportunity to employ them once more. Since then, a whole generation of Iga and Kouga has come into being — one which has never known war, and has no interest in propagating the grudges of the past. The members of the new generation include the handsome and principled Gennosuke of Kouga, and his beloved from Iga, Oboro — both successors to their respective bloodlines, and soon enough a marriage between the two of them will bring Kouga and Iga together in peace. That’s the plan, but you know what happens to best-laid plans.
Behind Gennosuke and Oboro’s Romeo-and-Juliet romance there’s a much darker plot brewing, a struggle for the future of the country accompanied by troubling questions about whether the Iga or Kouga should be allowed to exist in this day and age. There are many in power — like the Shogun Tokugawa himself, and his advisor Hattori Hanzo — who fear the nigh-supernatural powers of Iga and Kouga may be used to destroy the peace they’ve forged. To that end, they arrange a contest of skill: ten ninja from each clan will fight to the death to determine which family shall rule Japan from behind the throne.
The show itself kicks off with a demonstration of skill by ninja from both sides — the bestial, phlegm-spewing Kazamachi Shogen, and the boyishly handsome, wire-whip-wielding Yashamaru. It’s all but a draw, and the two are charged with delivering news of the duel back to their respective clans. When Gennosuke and Oboro learn of how war has been declared against them — by proxy, no less, and right under their noses — they are appalled. Rather than fight each other, they resolve to travel to the capitol, seek an audience with the Shogun and demand an explanation for what’s going on.
That first fight and the whole rest of the first episode, which include a flashback to the turmoil endured by the previous generation of ninja, are eye-popping to the point where I worried I was witnessing yet another a case of U.F.E.S., or Unsurpassable First Episode Syndrome. You know how this plays out: you see a spectacular opener for a series, then watch in dismay as the rest of the show tumbles to dust. Thankfully, nothing of the kind happens with Basilisk. Yes, that first episode does use up a lot of the show’s animation budget — that, I expected — but the rest of the show is so dramatically solid that it could have been nothing but static slates and I would have still eaten it up.
Basilisk takes the time to introduce us to each of the ninja on both sides of the conflict, to define them as characters, and to get us involved enough in them to make us feel their death as a real loss. Neither side is the “good” or “bad” side; there are people of both principle and malice among Kouga and Iga alike. Consider Yashamaru, the glowering young man who wields specially-treated women’s hair braided into wires that strangle and kill. Also on his side is Hotarubi, a sinister-looking young girl commanding swarms of deadly butterflies (and a serpent that slithers out of her sleeve and bites unsuspecting opponents). By themselves, they’re unsettling — but then we’re give a scene where they meet in the forest in secret, hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes in exactly the same way Gennosuke and Oboro do.
The show takes the time to establish the feelings many of the characters have for each other (both positive and negative), which makes it all the more devastating when they cut each other down. Even the true grotesques, like the sluglike Amayo Jingoro of Iga (who can turn into a sort of living ooze), are seen as objects of pity and not revulsion. With Yashamaru and Hotarubi, the former’s killed by Kouga ninja Kisaragi Saemon, who has the power to impersonate anyone he comes into contact with. Thus disguised, he leads Hotarubi to her death, but it’s his doubling for Iga ninja Yakushiji Tenzen that creates the most turmoil and violence.
Tenzen is probably the closest thing the series has to an out-and-out villain: a power-hungry sadist with plans to oust Oboro and lead the Iga to victory on his terms. He also seems to have paid a visit to the same paranormal apothecary as Blade of the Immortal’s Manji: even if stabbed through the heart and decapitated, he can still regenerate thanks to a parasitic creature which brings him back to life. He’s seen centuries of life, and borne witness to the fading power and influence of the ninja as a whole. Seeking power is his way to bring back the glory that only he feels like he remembers firsthand; it’s also what compensation he can find for being resolutely trapped in the same body for so long without even the release of death as comfort. The show makes vigorous use of him as an epic-level embodiment of evil: sure, we hate him, but we also completely understand why he’s like this, and that makes him fascinating to watch instead of merely repulsive.
Many other relationships and conflicts come to light one by one. There is Kagero of the Kouga, beautiful and deadly (those two go together like ham and eggs in this show), capable of killing with a breath by exuding poison when aroused. Savagely jealous of Oboro, she’s determined to have Gennosuke all to herself, even if it means wrecking whatever plans could remain for peace between their clans. And then there’s Gennosuke and Oboro themselves, both equipped with the power to kill with a single stare but reluctant to use it. Each of them have to assert power within their respective clans, but face adversaries from within and without (like Tenzen, or Oboro) as well as their own inner barriers towards victory.
The best thing about this story is how it has been given full support by the show’s visuals and production design. The general look for the characters (and much of the plotting) was taken from Masaki Segawa’s manga version of the novel, and while I have mixed feelings about Segawa’s art — he veers between polished beauty and staggering ugliness a little too freely sometimes — I have no reservations at all about the way his work has been used here. Animation studio GONZO (they of Blood+, Gantz, Gankutsuou, ×××HOLiC, Witchblade, and many more) deliver thoroughly spectacular work here from end to end; there isn’t a single episode that doesn’t have at least one “wow!” shot in it somewhere, and there are endless individual frames I’d be happy to blow up and hang on the wall as a poster.
When I reviewed the live-action adaptation of this same story, Shinobi, I applauded the movie’s look but lamented the way the story had been gutted and reshaped for no particular good reason. Characters were simplified, condensed or thrown out entirely, and the novel’s original ending — which worked perfectly as it was — was ditched for another ending of unbearable lameness. It’s not as if the original story wouldn’t have fit into the space of a two-hour movie, either. But Basilisk makes up for Shinobi by such a wide margin that I’m going to be savoring it for years to come.