I'll be blunt: ordinarily I would have dropped a series like Shigurui after the first episode and called it quits. On behalf of all the decent people who might unknowingly pick up this title, though, I compelled myself to see it through to the end. Thus, with an enormously bitter taste in my mouth I bring you this review, as I feel it my moral obligation to bring to light the sheer reprehensibility this anime so gloriously flaunts.
First and foremost, let me say that I'm not much a fan of gore. However, when accompanied by a decent story or at least a purpose, I can (and do) generally tolerate it. I sought out Shigurui under this premise, initially thinking it to be a violent samurai anime with deep roots in realism; just about every reference I could find hinted at such. This proves to be a horribly wrong and misguided perception, as the anime downplays its historical roots to focus solely on the sick and twisted elements of the samurai era. The series is hyper-violent in many ways, showcasing a gratuitous amount of perverted gore at the expense of coherency, as many a scene revolve around the buildup to some bloody atrocity for no explicable reason. As if the violence couldn't get any worse, it makes a further point to degrade women at every possible turn, often in the form of rape, torture, and even cold-blooded murder (while bound, gagged, and screaming.) It's utterly sick shit, and how someone could fathom making an anime revolve around such acts is beyond my understanding.
Second, excluding all my qualms about its content, the story is marvelously incoherent. It begins leading up to a deathmatch between two rival samurai, one a blind cripple the other missing an arm, but right as the fight is about to commence the anime jumps into a series of flashbacks which tell their stories. Or at least they attempt to. They follow chronological sequencing at complete random intervals, as one moment you'll see a samurai fighting, the next his mutilated head on a post, and after that he's back alive again up until the time he dies. Plus, between the men of the Mugen-ryuu dojo mutilating each other and raping/torturing their women, it's just in general hard to follow what's going on, as the events prove understandable only on a surface level. Thus, not only did the content appall me, but it bore me out of my mind.
And then, lastly, there's the ending, which has absolutely nothing to do with the duel that started the series off; hell, the anime ends precisely where it begins - back at the beginning of the fight. This, needless to say, makes watching Shigurui entirely for naught, as none of the senseless slaughter or rape has any semblance of proper context. The last episode is chock full flying limbs, pools of blood, and complete and pointless gore, and does absolutely nothing to provide any sort of closure. Given the "other" events that accompany it, I have little else to say other than it utterly disgusts me; if nothing else manages to do so, it proves that the man who thought up Shigurui is one sick son of a bitch.
On the surface, Shigurui at least tries to look nice. Indeed, it does have a tinge of pseudo-realism in many scenes, which makes objects such as swords look exceptional. Admittedly, some of the scenes look absolutely spectacular (such as the tiger gripping a katana in the last episode.) Beyond the detailed stills, though, just about everything is absolutely dead in motion - the majority of dialogue takes place with the speaker off screen, so you don't even get to see lips move.
None of that really matters, since it seems the enter purpose behind Shigurui is just some fantastical desire to show a lot of senseless gore; to put things in perspective, the opening sequence shows a man ripping out his intestines. Tack on an abhorrent amount of unnecessary breast shots and the assortment of rape scenes, and I think I make my point in scoring the animation low even though it does have some superficial merits. Shigurui emphasizes grotesqueness in a manner that bleeds out much of its ordinarily stunning qualities, and as such I don't find the fabulous detail to be a redeeming virtue.
Also, as a disclaimer, after the first couple events I realized where the anime was headed, so I made a point while watching to fast forward through these parts when I saw them coming; anything that tries to glorify rape or torture through good scenery does not deserve my respect, much less my attention. For proper context, I did sit through a few of them when important (such as the ending) but they only reaffirmed and justified my decision.
Aside from random cicada chirping and the occasional ominous drumbeats, there is no musical score in Shigurui. In fact, about half the time the series excludes all forms of background noise, leaving a still screen with (hopefully) some dialogue to accompany a largely inanimate landscape. Even when dialogue is present, it's horribly orchestrated; when not comprised of an overuse of honorifics, it usually has some sick or twisted meaning behind it. As a prime example, in one of the earlier episodes the head of the Kogan-ryuu dojo spends about a minute trying to incoherently mumble the order for one of his students to rape his daughter. That's about as intelligent as it gets.
I'm so sick and disgusted getting this far with the review that I really don't have a desire to talk much about the characters. In simple terms, all the men do little but scar and disfigure one another through various sadistic means, and the entirety of the Kogan-ryuu clan hero worships their sick bastard of a leader. He basically spends the entire series wallowing around in a stupefied daze, but randomly wakes up to kill people and torture and rape women. Likewise, the women serve no purpose in the film but to be abused, tormented, and disfigured, as every chance one tries to fight back she's usually killed in some grotesque fashion. To be fair, it's really not much different than the men, only they usually choose to cut off (or out) things like jaws and eyes instead of actually killing one another.
Both the main characters, for that matter, are really no different than the side cast. For instance, Fujiki, the supposed "good" guy, incorporates bludgeoning deaths with large rocks in addition to his standard dismemberment fare. Save for their hyper sadistic personalities, none of the characters have any semblance of depth, as their only purpose is to glorify the bloodshed as some twisted form of honor or sacrifice or whatever the hell the writers want to say about the subject matter.
If you can watch Shigurui and derive even an ounce of pleasure out of the experience, I highly recommend seeking mental help. To be blunt, and I don't think any other terminology fits, the series is utterly fucked up, and I don't see anybody but sadistic sycophants enjoying its presentation in the slightest. The only, and I repeat only, reason I chose to watch this through in its entirety was to spare others the mistake of even considering it, and even then I employed very liberal scene skipping through its gory parts. By all means, if you brand yourself a remotely dignified or respectable person, steer as far clear from this filth as possible.
Author's Response to Years of Comments:It amazes me that after all these years this review still gets comments, and that people still continually miss the point. I will grant people that, as has been said, this is probably the "least objective" review I've ever done (God, must we continue to have this discussion?), but the point of reviews is not to be objective.
You can play sophist or semantic games and call things "works of art" to dismiss any and all rational critique of them, but when push comes to shove Shigurui's faults have nothing to do with the fact that it's an anime. I'm well aware that there's plenty of sick shit out there when it comes to gore (as a fifteen year veteran of the internet, I've seen a-plenty), but this show isn't just about gore: it tries to sell absolutely terrible animation with a few random good stills, a bludgeoning use of music and voice acting as "poetic license", a completely unintelligible story, and zero character development entirely on shock value. The thing is, Shigurui isn't dark or shocking, it's just plain idiotic, trying to sell garbage like rape scenes with senile old men as cool, innovative, and/or historical takes on the anime scene.
Take out the fact that I personally find artistically glorified rape and pointlessly excessive gore reprehensible (hint: in other reviews I've said I don't mind gore *as long as it's cogently applicable to a story*) and Shigurui is still a bottom-of-the-barrel production. While if I had to redo this review in current times I'd probably use slightly less inflammatory language, I think the point largely still stands: dig your head out of the sand long enough to read into the full array of critiques the review makes and the score is rightfully justified.
Lastly, keep in mind I wrote this review shortly after Shigurui came out when I found a great many sites selling it as a "realistic samurai anime". My review was largely to debunk the false pretense that it had anything to do with samurai realism and was, instead, just a sick, mind-numbing piece of pseudo-historical bunk. Write rape scenes and gore into a story, by all means, but attach it to substance if you want any form of respect from a critic. The actual samurai period was no doubt bloody and unpleasant, as is most of human history in many parts of the world, but if you're only meaningful contribution is "INTESTINES AND SEX! TEENAGE SELLING POINTS!" then take your business elsewhere.
In the 6th year of the Kan'ei era, people enjoy a time of peace; skilled swordsmen are revered and respected, and their lives are their own. Amidst the tranquility, Lord Tokugawa Tadanaka decides, for his own amusement, to hold a fighting tournament in which real swords are used - though laws forbid their use. In a match to the death two highly-skilled swordsmen face off: the one-armed Fujiki Gennosuke, and the blind Iraki Seigen. As they take their respective stances, flashbacks paint a picture of the duo’s past and battle wounds; and thus, the real story begins...
Though I'm a big fan of slice of life and romance, I'll watch just about anything that catches my interest. My opinions tend to be pretty level-headed, but I have been known to be controversial from time to time! Feel free to lay into me if you so desire, as I always appreciate feedback - positive or negative. I hope you enjoy reading!