A little while back you might remember I reviewed the Shiny Eyed People mov- Err, I mean, Shinobi. Well, I’m back with the shiny-eye references in this review – same tune, different medium, and possibly a lot more violence. Come on, what did you expect? This is anime.
Based on the same story, written in the 1950’s by Futaro Yamada, and adapted from the more recently serialised manga Basilisk by Masaki Segawa (now publishing in English by Del Rey), this series has basically the same plot as Shinobi – two ninja clans of long-standing enmity set at each other’s throats by the aging Shogun. In this version however (in comparison to the film) the fact that the battle is a competition for Shogun succession, rather than a thinly disguised attempt to rub out two dangerous fighting clans in one stroke, lends the narrative a lot more substance. Likely the question of succession was not nearly such an issue while Ieyasu Tokugawa was still alive; he was dead by the time the rivalry between Iemitsu, his eldest grandson and official heir to the Shogunate, and his younger grandson Tadanga, really began to ramp up.
And likely, what rivalry there was before his death wasn’t nearly as bloody a point of contention (relatively speaking) as Basilisk would have you think, but then again, this is anime. If it had any bearing on history, or even reality for that matter, ninja dudes would not be able to puff up their bodies and bounce an enemy to death and near-completely vacuous girls like Oboro, heir to the Iga ninja clan, would have died from tripping over tree roots in a forest a long time ago. After a quick demonstration of secret ninja power, Ieyasu Tokugawa has the peace treaty holding the two clans back revoked and declares that a ten-aside competition (to the death, of course) will decide which of his grandsons should succeed their father. And by the looks of the first few episodes, one of those grandsons is smart enough to realise that helping his sports team along can only be points in his favour.
Meanwhile, unaware of the impending doom about to fall on their heads, Oboro Iga and her somewhat too-honourable-for-his-own-good lover, Gennosuke Kouga, have been practicing dancing and sleeping (supposedly as a trial run for their upcoming inter-clan nuptials). They’re intercepted on their way home from one of their innocent trysts by Oboro’s clansmen and the stolen decree from the retired Shogun, complete with bloody proof-of-purchase. In an attempt to get the jump on clueless Kouga, the Iga baddies invite the rival clan heir back to their place to wine and dine and hopefully assassinate him. They have to keep it a secret though, because not only will Oboro not agree to them killing her husband-to-be, clan rivalry or no, but this is where the shiny eyes come back in. This girl might be a bit on the helpless heroine side, but in retrospect when you’ve got a stare that stops ninja tricks dead in their slimy tracks, you probably don’t need to know how to throw a kunai after all.
That glossy Gonzo look, and the studio’s trademark smooth, fluid action direction, is definitely present in this series, but character designs almost hark to something more indicative of a studio like Madhouse. Overly broad shouldered men, women fighting in next to nothing, and some truly gross ninja abilities. The twenty ninja, not all of whom appear by the end of the first DVD, have some mad, and occasionally nightmarish, skills, and blood and numerous other unidentified fluids fly around the screen with all the enthusiasm of Ninja Scroll.
And that’s about it, really. People knocking each other off in increasingly spectacular ways, evil, shadowy political figures playing with people’s lives and futures and two would-be lovers caught in the middle. Half the fun of this series comes from the ninja showcase – who are they and what can they do? There’s no denying it’s a question worth the answer and of course the range of possibility far exceeds the CGI-laden Shinobi. But the rest of the fun, despite the apparently unwritten law that the majority of ninja guys must be as hideous as possible (it’s already assumed all ninja girls must be as buxom as possible), is that the story is actually really gripping. Two lovers torn apart by warring families is nothing new, but when one is actively trying to kill the other, and the other may very well be inclined to let them merely to stop the fighting is when you start to wish you had more than one disc in your hands.
Because this isn’t a deadly ninja game after all; it’s a war between harsh reality and the fairy tale ending, and Basilisk is the Sudden Death play-off.