With the success of Rurouni Kenshin / Samurai X, historically based stories of period Japan are undergoing something of a renaissance in anime at the moment. Frankly, you can’t move for the ‘ching’ of the unsheathing of katana nor round a corner without witnessing a tale of honour and betrayal. There’s Samurai Champloo, Peacemaker, Kai Doh Maru and the soon to be released Samurai Gun. Each of these series brings its own unique bullet point to the mix: Samurai Champloo has its cut-up, hip-hop swagger, Peacemaker has its juxtapostion of humour and brutal historical conflict, Kai Doh Maru has its magnificent watercolour set dressing and Samurai Gun has, well, I’m assuming – guns.
Add to this list Studio IG’s Otogi Zoshi. Otogi Zoshi shares similarities to the earlier IG production, Kai Doh Maru. Both are set in the Heian Era, both feature female warriors forced to impersonate men and both have striking art design. Otogi Zoshi’s stylised painting-like backgrounds, however, are less evocative of Kai Doh Maru’s pastel watercolors, than of dry brush with muted color washes. Its well chosen palette of earthy tones effectively conveys the feeling of the harsh drought and famine.
Otogi Zoshi opts for a historically accurate representation of the era. The team have brought on board a heavyweight, academic consultant from University of Tokyo (who turns up in an enlightening extra discussing the accuracies and inaccuracies of the series).
You can’t go wrong with go with a ‘quest’ set-up which, in the first volume, brings Hikaru and Watanabe into conflict with the simian-like Tsuchigumo clan. Action is nicely staged and conveyed dramatically with silhouettes against blood red backgrounds.
Our leads, the disturbingly unblinking Hikaru and the earnest Watanabe, are a strong pairing who have a great rapport that displays, in turns, loyalty, vulnerability and humour. They are not your standard ice cold killing machines with unhappy childhoods or slain families to blame. With threats from both inside and outside the court, and the need for Hikaru to cover for her ill brother, you feel they are more the victims of really bad circumstances and that saving the land and living happily ever after are not are foregone conclusions.
The first disk also throws some surprising twists at the audience. As with Hikaru’s identity switch, these reinforce the ‘things are not always what they appear’ theme. New characters are slowly introduced and provide fresh dynamics to the troupe.
With its well choreographed fights and engaging characters, Otogi Zoshi has all the grace and style you expect from Studio IG. If you are not suffering samurai fatigue, then Otogi Zoshi is well worth the journey.