An exuberant salutation to all internet users and media nerds! My name is Jared, and today we are returning with the second episode of Anime Corner! If you haven’t already heard, this will be a reviewing/countdown series hosted here at Rogue Shogunate posted at least biweekly every Friday or Saturday. Here I will take an insightful look into anime of all kinds in an attempt to determine if they are for you or not. Also to clarify, minor spoilers will be present as usual, but I will always throw out a large caution beforehand. Ready or not, I’m calling the shots!
To start our second episode off, if there exists one unanimously shared opinion held by the human race, I would imagine it is, in juvenile terms, that ninja are downright awesome. Whether it be the sheer agility they possess, their determination to succeed, the destructive apparatus frequently associated with them, potentially tragic backstories, or even simply their badass attire (seriously, where the hell do ninja shop for clothing?), I have yet to meet someone who would refer to them as lackadaisical or mundane. Pretend to play the devil’s advocate all you want, but we know what you’re thinking inside.
Onto today’s show of discussion, however, we are going to look at what has commonly been referred to as one of the bona fide ninja anime experiences. Produced by studio Gonzo (who’ve managed some of my absolute favorites, most notably Kaze No Stigma and Chrono Crusade), Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou was released over the course of 2005 with its fitting 24-episode runtime. A vast majority of people I have come across online seem to agree that Basilisk is an intense, action-packed show with little lacking in the story department. But why Basilisk? What is it that makes this spectacularly stellar Shōgun-centered story of sorrow so special to me and countless other people? How is it that Basilisk, a show seemingly chosen by aleatory means, quickly became my new favorite anime of all time? Fortunately for you guys and gals, that is precisely what I am about to explain.
We begin with another continuous story, though the interesting thing to note about Basilisk is that most of the episodes actually start with a fascinating little introduction segment that I feel does a damn efficient job at explaining the basic premise.
“Two tribes sworn to hate. Their bloodstained bodies left out in the open to rot. Their souls longing for a peace that they failed to find. As they sought to break the shackles of darkness and heal the wounds of the past, fate denied their quest, and thrust them into war. The bridges of hope some dared to build between them were torn asunder. Their dreams were ripped from their hearts with a sword, with a destiny revealed at last.”
Sweet dreams tonight, by the way.
The story commences near the last quarter of the 15th century in Japan. Mentioned in the introduction segment, two ninja clans (named the Kouga Manjidani and the Iga Tsubagakure) have held a warring grudge for as long as 400 years. Nothing like your own ancestors screwing everyone over in advance to remind you that your life sucks. Nevertheless, when the brave Hattori Hanzō the 1st suddenly creates a no hostilities pact between the two tribes, rejoice is (somewhat) spread as both clans are placed both under the jurisdiction of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first official Shōgun of Japan who created its first fully-fledged form of government. Note that if you’re a fan of anime which effectively utilize real historical figures, then suffice to say, your enjoyment of Basilisk will potentially skyrocket.
We then skip to the year 1614, in which the second Shōgun (Tokugawa Hidetada) takes power as Ieyasu retires from the position. Not all is fun and games for the new shogunate, however, as arguments begin to settle within the nation regarding who the next Shōgun will be once Hidetada logs out of the game. This results in deteriorating attitudes within the Tokugawa Shogunate, but for better or worse, Ieyasu is quick to act upon the issue. He demands that the no hostilities pact be nullified and have both clans, the aforementioned Kouga and Iga, place forth ten of their best fighters in a rather violent competition of survival. After the disturbingly precarious melee has a winning side declared, the clan to claim victory will procure dominance for the next thousand years while the grandson of said clan will become the next Shōgun.
Onto our protagonists at last, the current successors to the Kouga and Iga tribes (named Gennosuke Kouga and Oboro Iga respectively) fall deeply in love with one another just before the no hostilities pact dives into DEFCON 1. Don’t you just hate when that happens? So it’s a race against time as both of the tribes swiftly discover the eradication of the no hostilities pact, which forces our unfortunate heirs to the throne to decide between the slaughter of their lover or the obliteration of their entire tribe.
And you thought it was difficult getting up for school in the morning.
In all seriousness, this is absolutely the first aspect of Basilisk that I must commend rather auspiciously. Between the historical references, constantly rising tension, and depth of the story right off the bat (while still being surprisingly comfortable to jump into despite the mammoth-sized premise), all of the above strongly contribute to an engaging and original tale of tragedy and warfare from beginning to end. The story as a whole plays it surprisingly straight as well, seldom falling back on comedy since the main appeal lies in the serious conflicts and clashes that occur between the opposing factions.
Another aspect that I find Basilisk to particularly excel in is the pacing department. For instance, virtually every one of the main characters is given just enough screen time to genuinely feel like a real character with their own personalities and motivations. I don’t say a real human because honestly, I would question if some of the tribes’ best fighters are even humans to begin with, but the development is strong and abundant here nonetheless. Perhaps the shining example of this statement lies within our protagonists, Gennosuke and Oboro. These two solemnly believe in a future where their factions can live in harmony, but as a result of the world they live in, they don’t get much of a say in the matter as they cannot change a 400-year long grudge overnight. Because of this, whether they like it or not, the former lovers must grow further apart from each other in a desperate attempt to control the war. Without the solid pacing, this conflict would feel far more trivial and/or less important than it actually is to the story.
The independent elements of the narrative are also quite strong. To begin with, the main suspense of the story primarily comes from which characters are going to brawl next, and who out of them is going to remain alive. Here, it is predominantly thanks to the enticing scripting, well-established characters, and stunningly thrilling action that the suspense in Basilisk remains as strong as it is.
But what makes the action in Basilisk work so well? While the fight scenes can border on the short side, whenever they occur, the cinematography thrashes out at the viewer with gory, fast-paced mayhem as the opposing ninja tribes lash out their many attacks and cunning surprises in the process. In that sense, I honestly find Basilisk as the damn poster boy for bloodbaths such as Castlevania, Drifters, and Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. Another point of interest is that it can actually be quite difficult to tell which characters are going to survive in the numerous battles, similar to Akame ga Kill. Furthermore, building upon the compelling cast and noteworthy action is that each of the 10 Kouga and Iga ninja have their own special ninja arts, with each characters’ being distinct, memorable, and most certainly destructive.
To illustrate this point, take Koshiro Chikuma’s ability. While it is true that he is fantastic at dual-wielding kama (essentially weaponized sickles), Koshiro can also summon what I can only describe as miniature black-hole projectiles simply by softly blowing the air toward his targets. He must have grown up in Black Lagoon’s Roanapur to learn that shit, and here I was hoping he’d be giving out free concussions. At any rate, seeing and learning about each ninja’s signature technique is honestly one of the most fun parts of the show, but for now I shall digress.
Additionally, the animation and art direction of Basilisk is as tight as 2005 could possibly muster. For starters, the artwork is surprisingly realistic overall, even for some of the tribe members that aren’t meant to be. The backgrounds are also very distinct, as each highly detailed backdrop of the series is carefully crafted around this ancient Japanese flair that I simply cannot get enough of. Moreover, the surroundings are constructed around Japan’s Sengoku period, which end up fitting the theme of Basilisk’s earlier, vicious world incredibly well. That is also to speak nothing of the creative, fitting character designs and fluid consistency all across the board, which provokes me to say with my utmost certainty that the animation in Basilisk spared no expense whatsoever. In fact, if you had told me the show had aired five or so years later, I probably would have believed you.
To add upon the excellent animation and artwork aspects, cinematography is something I always consider quite heavily when it comes to anime, and Basilisk doesn’t slouch here either. Countless scenes in the series are presented with such visual flair and effort (probably a result of the phenomenal animation), showcasing quickly moving artwork alongside everchanging environments. From forests to dojos, oceans to towns, there exists plenty of variety within the world of Basilisk. These hold particularly true when you get to the copious amounts of fight scenes, which blitz through frames of animation like a cheetah on roller blades.
The fact that Basilisk gets the sound department as its own talking point really illustrates how strong this aspect of the series is. Starting with the music here, while taste in composition is obviously subjective, I’d imagine it difficult to speak ill against the soundtrack of Basilisk. Above is the opening to the series, which features seamlessly transitioned shots on top of solid choreography all throughout. Good examples of this are Tenzen’s chilling moment in the spotlight around forty seconds in, or Gennosuke playing his recorder with Oboro’s hair blowing against the wind around a minute and twenty seconds in. The song itself is also fantastic, with a nice pace to it that really kicks in around two-thirds into the opening.
Another stellar example of Basilisk’s soundtrack is the ending theme, of which there are actually two of. I’ve always personally preferred the song above, as I think the instrumentation and tone better match the theme of the show. The other is called Wild Eyes, which sounds surprisingly optimistic for a series such as Basilisk, though it is still a good tune nevertheless.
Of further notice is the spectacular background music which lies within Basilisk. I mentioned earlier the ancient Japanese flair I enjoyed from the backgrounds, and the music aims for the same dartboard in that sense. Take a moment to skim through a few of the excellent tunes below and you will see precisely what I mean.
Finally, the voice acting I found pretty impressive as a whole. I watched the English Dub to be precise, and despite what some others may tell you, I strongly enjoyed the dub’s voicing of Basilisk’s colorful cast. Each actor matches their respective character role conspicuously well and range from decent to outstanding performances, with my favorite being Mark Stoddard’s take on the mendacious, cruel Tenzen. I have also heard many positive words regarding the Japanese voices, even though I obviously cannot speak for that myself.
As if Basilisk didn’t have enough going for it already, the series has to be up there with shows like B: The Beginning, Black Cat, and Future Diary as one of my personal favorite casts in the anime world. While the number of supporting characters in Basilisk almost rivals the amount of terrible jokes in 2002’s The Master of Disguise, they are actually rather nicely balanced in terms of screen time and development. I have touched upon Basilisk’s pacing and its impact on the characters earlier, but also worth noting is how unique, relatable, and important most are to the story. C. Jarrett, an Amazon user, has to say about the cast as follows:
“They’re all characters you can buy into. Not one-dimensional heroes who would never exist in the world we live in, they’re characters that have very human flaws, something that’s sorely needed in animated shows in general, and deal with very serious issues in a human and believable way. Gennosuke of the Kouga has a very mature yet zen energy. His unknown ability is revealed in the most shocking and dazzling of ways, frightening the Iga clan into helplessness in one of the most badass anime scenes of all time. Oboro is the perfect compliment, though not to imply she exists to compliment Gennosuke. She’s an incredible, fully-fledged character. Sweet, naive, and gives the story a warmth and innocence the other characters continually take away from the world around her. Her presence is like a personification of their world being torn apart and seeing her lashing out at the inevitability of it all is truly sorrowful. This is how main characters should be. They show insecurities, strengths, weaknesses, and a perseverance at the notion of getting to overcome their situation and see each other again as friends instead of enemies. I bought into them wholeheartedly. You will root for them the whole way which is what makes this a tragic anime through-and-through.”
If I had to pick a favorite character, I would go with Koshiro Chikuma. I won’t regurgitate his already explained fighting capabilities, but in terms of development, Koshiro is way up there out of the supporting cast. He puts his life on the line to protect Oboro, the Iga heir, but is commonly being pushed around by Tenzen (also of the Iga clan), who we quickly find out to be the primary antagonist in this show. I really sympathize with Koshiro because he is among the most humane members of the Iga tribe when you get down to it (albeit for spoilerific reasons presented further below), but pitted against the Kouga, it’s like his only purpose in life is to kill or be killed. And despite Koshiro’s status as a veteran fighter, the mental pain he is forced to endure as the story progresses really makes the viewer feel for the lad.
*MINOR SPOILERS HERE!*
However, it’s when the story picks up after the first third that Koshiro really starts to shine in my eyes. The poor man is utterly blinded after Gennosuke of the Kouga uses his ninja technique on him, and from this point onward his character changes rather conspicuously from a threatening warrior to a thoughtful, emotionally destroyed soul with cognitive dissonance. Koshiro also begins to question Tenzen’s malevolent actions, and whenever Oboro is threatened or put in harm’s way, he practically falls to the ground in a state of melancholic defeat. There is also an incredibly cheerless scene with Koshiro shortly after he’s blinded where someone is approaching him near a river, completely unable to identify who it is. In a state of panic, he attempts to assault the unknown figure, only to figure out that it was only Akeginu of his fellow Iga clan. This emotionally demolishes Koshiro, as losing his vision had almost made him harm one of his own tribe members. Because of these moments and more to come, I feel that he is among the most strongly developed characters in the show and I always enjoy seeing him on screen.
*MINOR SPOILERS END*
One tangent to note that holds true for both sides, however, is that the more comrades they lose in battle, the tribes don’t just lose offensive support, but legitimate friends as well, with a dedicated flashback episode later in the show exemplifying this perfectly. And while Basilisk makes this incredibly evident for many of the lives lost, further contributing to the tragic aspect of the series, the clans still choose pursue this violent path of chaos that neither side truly benefits from. This is, however, entirely justified within the context of the show.
To quote ThatAnimeSnob on Reddit, “You aren’t supposed to take the conflict at face value, but rather consider the following: The two factions were training all their lives for fighting. (Jared’s Note: This is illustrated very well regarding one scene in particular, with a discernibly young boy training outside with his mother, albeit against a mere fly.) Due to the 400-year long grudge, they hated each other and wanted to kill every member of the opposing clan. What with the next Shōgun being decided based on who would win, it was important to fight to the death. The ninja weren’t just following these orders, but were happy with them too…Honor was more important than life for them.”
How About Its Problems?
Despite the notable strengths of Basilisk, no piece of fiction on this planet is what I would consider flawless, and even this series is unfortunately not an exception to that rule. Despite this, the drawbacks to Basilisk are thankfully not too severe in the grand scheme of things, I state while desperately attempting not to use the word “however” for the novemdecillionth time.
To preface this series of points, easily the most heinous of Basilisk’s crimes (in my opinion) is that the tenth episode is a rather ridiculously redundant recap of the show thus far, with some of the elder characters not in the Kouga or Iga reminiscing the current situation in the show. Not only is it presented far too early to leave much impact, but a distinctly minimal portion of the episode is actually dedicated to new information. Toss in the fact that many of the shots are reused animation, and you have bar none the worst episode in the entire series. It’s not abhorrent or anything, and seeing Lord Ieyasu or Masahiro (son of Hanzō the 1st) interpreting prior events is actually quite entertaining, not to mention the brand new parts not being half bad. But countless scenes from prior episodes here are replayed and rehashed pretty shamelessly. Therefore, I must question, the hell was the point of this?
Another problem I experienced with Basilisk is that I feel some of the characters could have benefited from additional screen time and/or development, such as the blind and commonly silent bodyguard of Gennosuke, Hyouma Muroga. For a vast majority of the early story, he’s just sort of there with the Kouga, which acts as quite the juxtaposition compared to the rest of the clan at that point in the narrative.
In addition, it’s interesting I bring that up because I have heard a complaint by one person online that Basilisk shouldn’t have focused on story to begin with, but rather the action. This reminds me of a time when I discussed Black Cat with one of my friends, with him stating that if it had focused more on thrilling fight segments rather than dreadfully discombobulating attempts at story, then it would have possessed far more merit. However, while I can agree with the argument a reasonable amount for a show like Black Cat (where the middle can drag on and the ending being somewhat confusing and unneeded), in Basilisk, the entire driving point and area of audience interest comes from the story itself, so I cannot agree with that sentiment for this particular series. Removing the plot in Basilisk would be like reading the text of a Shakespeare play as opposed to watching a live performance of one.
I’ve even heard one person online argue that certain development is “wasted” on certain characters, Gyoubu’s relationship with his father being the example used. And I’m sorry, but I fail to see a world where developing a character and their backstory is a bad thing. Plus, learning more about the ninja and their motivations against each other is one of the biggest aspects of Basilisk storywise, which is why I consider this an especially weak argument.
The final areas where Basilisk slips on a banana peel, however, enter from a few words of wisdom from MyAnimeList user PoeticJustice. He states as follows: “…with all of Basilisk’s strong points there are undoubtedly a few weaknesses. I felt the world building wasn’t adequate, as the setting of feudal Japan needed to be fleshed out a bit more because there was a political subplot which was reintroduced several times in the story but not sufficiently expanded upon. This is a big issue considering politics played a pivotal role in the story. I would’ve liked two stories occurring at the same time, one dealing with politics and the other dealing with the ninja. There is a lot of room for potential and it disappointed me to see it not taken advantage of. Another issue I had with the story deals with a particular character named Tenzen. The show tried to establish a backstory for him but it was done in such a muddled way that it was basically incomprehensible. When you consider that his motivation, backstory, and origin of his unique ability were one of the major mysteries of the show, you would assume it would be handled more competently.”
When all is said and done, despite a few shortcomings with the development of some plot points and characters alongside a near pointless recap episode, Basilisk still manages to break through those chains on virtually every other front. The melancholic, action-packed story references history now and again to create an interesting, fictitious twist on a time period that actually occurred in our world. The presentational aspects are phenomenal, with fluid, creative, and consistent animation, artwork, cinematography, and sound design far ahead of its time. Basilisk is also paced very nicely, going quicker than most but remaining engaging in spite of this. And while the characters hold some flaws, their discernible personalities, inherent uniqueness, fantastic designs, and relatability make for one of my favorite casts in all of fiction.
From rewatch value to impact, or memorability to sheer enjoyment, Basilisk is a show that I enjoyed on a near unparalleled level as of writing this. Top that off with one of the most bittersweet, heartfelt, and well-written endings that I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience, and you have one hell of a fulfilling great time, with no alcohol required.
Basilisk (2005) can easily be watched for free on Funimation and Crackle’s official websites, the latter being where I watched it, for reference. It is also viewable on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, though you do have to pay for those. Also be sure not to confuse Basilisk with its supposedly god-awful follow-up made in 2018, Basilisk: The Ouka Ninja Scrolls. For some reason, the ratings all across the board for that one are downright laughable, so avoid running into that mess if you can help it, but I’ll digress there. For now though, thanks for tuning in! This has been FantasyJared, and the shots have been called.
“We are all the same in birth and in death. All of us are human. We need to break these bindings of hatred and revenge which hold us. We need to open our eyes to the other side. To the Iga, even if it is only one of them. Then that one we’ll try to know and better understand.”-Gennosuke Kouga, from Basilisk