If you’ve ever watched Naruto, you’ve probably wondered if it was really how ninja shows should be. Like isn’t a bright orange jumpsuit way too flashy for the supposedly stealthy ninja world? Is ninjutsu in Naruto really how ninjutsu works, it looks an awful lot like magic to me? Shouldn’t a show about shadowy assassins be a lot darker in both it’s art style and themes? You’ve probably answered such questions yourself a long time ago, but have you ever wondered what anime’s answer to these questions are? After all Ninja Scroll was a big hit about ninjas and it looked nothing like Naruto. So is there anything else that might vindicate your answers to these questions? There is and it’s called Basilisk.
Basilisk is set in early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, shortly after the third (I think) shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu has retired. There are two potential heirs who could become shogun. So rather than risk having the two start a civil war that might undo the shogunate, Ieyasu decides to let two rival bands of ninjas determine the outcome. The first heir will be backed by the Kouga ninjas. The second son will be backed by the Iga ninjas. The rules of the contest are simple, the leaders of each band are to select ten of their best ninjas and write their names on a scroll. When all ten ninjas from one side have been killed the contest is over and the winning side not only determines the next shogun but also will receive the shogun’s backing to gain power and influence over their rivals. During this contest both sides can take any actions they want and the peace that was forced on them by earlier shoguns will be temporarily lifted. The fights do not have to be fair or honorable, as long as all ten named foes die it matters not how they were killed. This is a good setup because it not only delivers brutal action but plays to the strengths of ninjas, their stealth, cunning and ruthlessness. The added political intrigue makes for some good additional flavor to the story as well. So how are the characters?
I don’t want the call the characters one note because they aren’t but almost all of them share one trait, absolute hatred for the other group. This isn’t your typical hatred for being different or competition that has taken a dark turn, this is that special bitter kind of hatred that gets nursed and carefully tended to before being passed on to the next generation. The Kouga and Iga ninjas have quite a bit of personality when they are among allies but when faced with other their hatred and contempt do severely limit their interactions. Normally I would say this is a bad thing, but in this case the bad blood between the two is central to the story and parallels the bad blood between the mothers of the potential shogunate heirs, so constantly reinforcing it isn’t a bad idea. It does make for some repetitive dialogue and if your tolerance for raging hate-boners is low then this will likely bother you. But it is a necessary part of the story so I don’t count it as a fault. It’s also important because of the two exceptions to this rule. Both of the upcoming heirs to each ninja band, Kouga Gennousuke and Iga Oboro, are in love with each with other, and they have put considerable time and effort trying to detoxify the bad blood between both clans. This not only creates tension when the contest is announced because it threatens undo what little good the two have managed to do, but also because their relationship creates a source of friction between the upcoming leaders and their subordinates. So now that we have a story dripping with tension, what else makes this a good choice for a ninja show.
The action is phenomenal for a number of reasons. The fight direction in general is just very good. But perhaps more importantly this is one of those rare shows that not only kills people faster than Game of Thrones but supports neither side. Each side tears into the other with reckless abandon and lots of people from both sides kick the bucket. I’m also very fond of the fact that no one bothers to try and make the fights fair or do duels, this is very efficient and spiteful murder, not honorable battle. Very few shows go this route so it’s refreshing and very appropriate given the premise and setting details. The show also looks the part. The art style is very similar to Ninja Scroll so it looks way old school, which in case you were wondering I count as a point in its favor not a flaw. But it has a much darker color palette than Ninja Scroll and takes place in darker environments most of the time. A quick glance at the character designs with the traditional clothing, a number of characters who are outright ugly and the widespread use of dark and muted colors not makes it clear what kind of show this is, it builds into the brutal and ruthless atmosphere which surrounds the series from the very first scenes.
In summary, if you’re looking for a darker action series, this show has you covered. If you want a darker action series featuring ninjas congratulations your prayers have been answered. It’s not for the squeamish, and if you can’t handle older art styles this may not be for you. But if it sounds interesting I recommend that you give it a shot because it’s hard to find a show like this one executed as well as Basilisk is. Hopefully you all enjoyed that and I’ll see you in the next one.