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Shigurui: Death Frenzy Complete Box Set

FUNimation // Unrated // March 31, 2009
List Price: $69.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted April 25, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
Shigurui: Death Frenzy is a violent and bloody anime that can be hard to watch at times.  Based on the first chapter of a book by Norio Nanjo, it takes place in the 1600's in Japan, a very violent period, and the show doesn't flinch away from showing just how hard and demanding life could be.  With CGI animation for some of the more gruesome sections, this show is definitely not for the faint-hearted.  Like other anime shows (Gantz comes to mind) if you can get past the gore and spewing blood you'll find an excellent series that is well worth watching.  This series is also the first time that FUNimation has released an anime show on DVD and Blu-ray concurrently.  There's a kink or two present, but the splendid image and compelling story make up for the flaws.

In ancient Japan a lord has announced that he will have a tournament where all the best samurai in the land will compete for honor.  This isn't going to be just a show of skill however.  The lord has insisted that the samurai that compete use real swords rather than wooden bokken.  Even when a magistrate commits sepiku and pulls his own intestines out so that the lord can see what real swordplay does, he doesn't relent.  If anything, seeing his underling kill himself makes the lord all the more excited about the tournament.
With all of the local leaders commanded to bring their best samurai, the contestants for the first match, Fujiki and Irako, are a bit unusual.  One is missing his left arm, and the other is blind and with a lame leg.  How can these two be highly trained fighters?  That's what this series is about.
After the attention-getting first episode, the narrative flashes back to eight years ago where Fujiki was the star pupil in the dojo of Kogan Iawamoto, founder of the Kogan style of fighting.  He hopes to replace his master, who is suffering from extreme dementia, someday and marry his daughter the lovely Mie.

This all changes one day when a brash young man, Irako enters the dojo and demands to fight Iawamoto himself.  The rules of the school state that any challenger must best two students to prove himself worthy of battling the master.  Fujiki is his first opponent and he defeats him quickly, which humiliates the young samurai to no end. 
When Irako sees the power of the second in command however, he quickly admits defeat and begs to join the school and train there.  Once admitted Fujiki and Irako become life-long enemies, competing not only to be the heir to the Kogan style, but also for Mie's hand in marriage.  This competition is hard on both parties, but hardest on poor Mie herself, and eventually leads them to face each other, broken and battered, in the tournament shown in the first episode.
This was a very good show, a character study of two very driven men.  They have different backgrounds and reasons for striving to be the best, and this examination of their motivations drives the show.  It's an interesting drama with neither man being totally good or completely evil.  The grey areas in each samurai's personality that gives the series its driving force.
My main complaint is that this is a very intense show.  It is heavy and sometimes depressing, and there isn't anything to lighten the mood or even give viewers a break from the constant violence.  It's one of those programs where just when you think that things can't get any more bloody or twisted, they do.  Not only is there a lot of extreme violence, but a good amount of sex too.  When Iawamoto finally decides (rather early in the series) who is going to marry his daughter, he has the ceremony performed and then commands all of the students of his school to hold Mie down so her husband can impregnate her right then and there.  He's in a hurry to have an heir after all. 

The animation style is unique and helps set the tone and mood for the show.  For the most part the show looks like an old sepia toned film including a lot of added grain, and that serves to make the bright red blood all the more shocking.  It's a very effective style and one that I wouldn't be surprised to see again.  
The Blu-ray Disc:

This highly stylized show comes with a AVC encoded 1.78:1 image and a looks wonderful.  The show uses a very dark palate, browns, grays and earth tones, it almost looks like a sepia toned black and white movie, and there is a fairly strong grain that was intentionally applied on top of that.  This gives the show an old-fashioned feel, like we're looking back in time at events long since past.  The level of detail is very good, the colors are solid, especially the reds, and the lines are very tight.  On the digital side I couldn't find anything to complain about either.  There were no visible compression artifacts and edge enhancement and DNR weren't present either.  A very good looking set of shows.
Here's where I have a bone to pick with FUNimation.  The set includes a magnificent sounding Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, but for the English dub only.   The original Japanese audio track is presented in Dolby Stereo only.  Assuming that the Japanese did not trash the master recordings, presenting them in a lossless format would have been the preferable thing to do, even if it was only mixed in stereo.  As it is, the English track sounds significantly better than the Japanese one.  The soundstage is more open and the action sequences make good use of that.  It's a shame that the clear and forceful Japanese audio wasn't mixed for surround too.   
The show has optional English subtitles, which are white, and sometimes they blend into the background making things hard to read.  This didn't happen too often during the episodes that I watched in Japanese though it was a bit of an irritant.
Not a lot in the way of bonus material.  There are commentary tracks on episodes 4 and 10 with the ADR and an English voice actor, a clean opening and closing, and a pair of art galleries.  That's actually fine with me.  Most anime extras aren't very interesting (does anyone really want to see how a show is brought to life again??) and if a lack of fluff material keeps costs down, I'm all for it. 
One thing that was a disappointment is that the booklet that is included with the DVD set is missing.  Why FUNimation would want to omit that from the higher priced Blu-ray set is a head scratcher.
Final Thoughts:
Though this series is very shocking and violent, at its core there is an excellent story of two men who will, and do, sacrifice anything and everything to achieve their goals.  FUNimation does a good job with their Blu-ray release, but going just a little farther would have made the presentation much better.  Including a lossless Japanese language track would have been very welcome, but omitting the booklet that is included with the DVD release was a bad move on their part.  Still, when all is said and done, this is an excellent looking show that, though hard to watch in places, is worth seeing.  It gets a strong recommendation.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.
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