[This post has no spoilers, pic somewhat related]
As I’ve said recently, one thing that interests me almost as much as mecha anime is samurai anime. If there are swordfights, I’m somehow interested. In this post I’m going to give short impressions, or rather what I took away from the anime I’ve seen with hand-to-hand weapons action. This is not by any means a comprehensive survey (I have not seen Bleach, Soul Eater, or Naruto). I’m an amateur appreciator in every way, but I will try to be clear in what I appreciate in each show.
Before I begin, let me state my bias for ‘real samurai’ anime (to draw an analogue between real robot anime). I mean this to describe shows that have an apparent dedication to plausibility in both the narrative elements, as well as the combat action, with emphasis on the latter. I think that a foundation on realistic elements allow for the fantastic elements in the show (or manga) to shine, or rise to the foreground like high relief. Given that most of these narratives are tall-tales and/or fantasies in themselves, this approach makes it very enjoyable for me.
Note that I won’t say much about characters, plot, or story; as it would take too many words to discuss them adequately. My impressions here will be limited to the combat elements. In no particular order, here is a sample of the shows I’ve seen:
Rurouni Kenshin/Samurai X
This was a big tease for me, especially the OP. Every episode I would hope a little more of the fearsome Batoussai would show up, but in general the whole thing is very tame. Also, I would classify this show as a ‘super samurai’ show, wherein there is a fetishization of power techniques that are animated with bright flashes and even explosions (at times the attacks are called out too). A lot of these attacks are physically improbable to a very very high degree. Nonetheless, it can be enjoyable up to the end of the Yokohama arc. Beyond that you’re on your own.
Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal
This is very, very enjoyable for me. Gone is the attention paid to special attacks. Gone is the fancy trick moves. What’s left is what seems to be practical swordsmanship, and it is much more lethal than anything from the TV series. This really satisfied my thirst for the Battousai within the Himura Kenshin character. The animation of the battles and duels is very fluid and slick, the colors are muted — even Battousai’s hair is darker, even if still improbably red. This show is very violent; blood flows freely and casualties casually pile up.
Shura no Toki
A very interesting premise: a secret line of weaponless martial arts masters who best even the most skilled swordsmen throughout Japanese history. I would say that the action is well choreographed, but ultimately this show suffers from low frame rate action scenes. It just doesn’t look as impressive after watching a few fights. It’s a shame, because it also provides a bird’s eye view of Japanese martial history, as well as giving cameos of famous swordsmen.
A whole lot of fun, and has very inventive swordfights and duels. The inventiveness comes from the character Mugen, whose style looks like breakdancing — flair sweeps, lots of jumps, all combined with slashes from unusual directions. This is balanced by the character Jin, whose style is very orthodox. Whether duels with other masters, bands of enemies, or each other, very fast passes of fluidly animated action is abundant. I recommend it.
A movie straight out of the ’90s, and one of the shows that broke my world and expectations of what anime can be. Jubei’s duel against the blind ninja in the bamboo thicket is still one of the best ever. This show is my introduction to the period swordfight genre. Violent, gory, and sexually graphic, I loved this as a teenager. Fantasy elements abound, since the conflict is mostly against demon ninjas. However, the conceptualization and direction of the fight scenes holds up and doesn’t age much. I would love to watch this remastered and in HD.
Covering similar material as that of Ninja Scroll, you’ll see a lot of weird ninja powers here. The fighting is less grounded in reality compared to Ninja Scroll, but what remains is still very interesting and entertaining. It is very violent and has a significant body count. Each death among the featured characters tries to be interesting and novel, and most of the time it succeeds.
Lots of mood and atmosphere, and adheres to the ideal of the ‘perfect strike.’ There is an economy in fencing, that is one strike should be clan and powerful enough to finish the job. While this should make for rather uneventful duels, the show compensates in part by going into the minds of the duelists, where they play out the exchanges as they imagine or anticipate them. This allows the show to indulge a lot of bloody violence. That said, the actual executed scenes are gratuitously bloody. However, this style tends to use fewer frames, and the animation is not fluid.
This show features elements of the ‘super samurai’ categorization in the least off-putting way. There are big explosions, tornados, lighting bolts, fireballs, all supposedly delivered by sword strikes. It makes up for it in my eyes through it’s very fast pace. Fights move very quickly, and are layered on top of each other (different fights are going on at the same time, and focus shifts from dramatic moment in one fight to cliffhanger instance in another). The overall feel is zany, which makes the nuttiness easier to take. Also, I actually argue that the action isn’t the big draw here, but rather the abundance of manly rhetoric that makes the otherwise caricatures of characters… awesome.
Seirei no Moribito
Warning, this is not an action show. However, the action it does have, in a few desperate fights, are some of the best in tv series fare. Very fluid animation, inventive choreography, and done in a very dignified air (I seriously think so) that contributes to an overall gem of a show. The fights involve spears, which aren’t that popular a weapon for duels, but the spear wielding here is other-worldly. I particularly enjoy how the animation shows the spear’s shaft bending before impact, adding another layer of fluidity beyond that of simple addition of frames. These fights look pretty.
Sword of the Stranger
The only other full length feature in this list, Sword of the Stranger is my favorite. The swordplay in this anime is excellent. It has a lot of things going for it: fluidity due to a generous amount of frames per second, excellent fighting choreography, superb use of environments to highlight the action as well as interact with the fighting, and speed — the fights happen very very fast. While I say that the fights happen very fast, it doesn’t mean that they resolve quickly. The best duels, in any case, can get protracted and desperate. This allows the show to highlight structural damage, wear and tear on the weapons (the nicks on the swords after all that blocking and parrying is excellent use of detail), lots of interesting attacks, and visceral cuts and bloody wounds. It’s one show where I really enjoy watching people get cut up.
Again, very little of what happens in this show is realistic. These fights are highly stylized and are choreographed for maximum entertainment value. That said, those fights that seem most realistic are what I find the most entertaining. As for the Gundam image at the top of the post, yes Amuro and Char did indulge in some fencing during the battle of A Baoa Qu. I don’t hesitate to indulge in mixing Gundam in this post because mobile suits are often armed with beam sabers and other melee weapons. Swordplay is a big deal in Gundam and some other mecha. The Vision of Escaflowne comes to mind.
I begin the conversation on ‘reals’ and ‘supers’ in discussing manga aesthetics in Vagabond and Shigurui [->]
Shigurui and atmosphere [->]
Why I really think you should watch Seirei no Moribito [->]
Breaking down final fights in Samurai Champloo (spoilers) [->]
Sengoku Basara and GAR [->]
Manly Rhetoric? What is this I don’t even [->]