If you like spirits, ghosts, gods and demons, well this show is certainly a treat for you. I happen to be a nearly fanatical lover of myth, legend and all forms of spiritual lore. I adore the supernatural, the surreal and the bizarre. And with that in mind I recommend this show to everyone who feels remotely the same.
Hakkenden – Touhou Hakken Ibun focuses mainly on a thirteen year old boy named Shino and his family/associates. The show opens with a flashback and we see a village covered in flames as the two male leads of the show lay on the ground dying, filleted by the sword of persons unknown. As Shino’s conscious fades a stranger asks him if he wants to live and offers him a sword… and then we cut back to the present where Shino’s playing in a river with some spirits, very much alive and missing any kind of wound or scar where the cut from the flashback ought to be. It’s quickly established that five years have passed in since the flashback, a time during which Shino has not aged at all. This is because of the sword given to him as he lay dying, Murasame, which as an aside is one of the more famous mythical blades in Japanese folklore. It is explained in no uncertain terms that Murasame is monstrously powerful and many factions in the world want to control it’s power. The story really begins when Shino’s adopted sister is kidnapped by one member of the major factions vying for Murasame’s power, and Shino and company are forced to abandon their quiet life in a backwater village and travel to the capital, though it’s unclear whether they mean Edo or Kyoto. Which is as good a segue into the setting as I can provide.
The setting appears to be a historical replication of Japan, presumably during the industrial revolution and prior to WWII, albeit with plenty of fantasy elements in play. It’s annoyingly unclear as to exactly when and where everything takes place. Certain elements also make it harder to tell if this is a fictional retelling of the setting or a reasonable recreation of history with spirits tacked on. For example the Catholic church plays a major role in the story and is the single largest faction involved, but as far as I can remember Catholicism never attained power resembling the kind they show in the anime (though it’s been a few years since I’ve learned about Japanese history in any real depth). Anyway the setting is not overly important, the fact that the Church plays a big role is more important than any period accurate details or lack thereof. Which brings us to the story.
The story blurs the line between episodic adventure and linear narrative. Each arc is mostly handled as it’s own story, though characters from previous arcs do periodically get involved in new arcs. And it’s not until much much later the various stories are threaded together into a more cohesive narrative. This works out beautifully I feel, because each new arc has the fresh sense of adventure that good episodic shows often have and combines that with a story that does feel like it’s advancing, like it will reach a good conclusion. Sadly after 26 episodes no final conclusion has appeared, though the main antagonists have been revealed and all the good guys have been assembled by season 2’s end. If it ever gets a third season it would likely wrap up then, but that’s besides the point. In each arc Shino and some of his companions have to solve some kind of spiritual problem, like demons rampaging in cities, local gods going berserk, freak occurrences, disappearances, and the like. While Shino deals with these various issues his ultimate goal is to find these eight glowing beads which belong to the reincarnations of the Eight Dog Warriors, of which Shino is one. This overarching task comes from the guy who gave Shino Murasame during that flashback scene the show opens with. He so happens to come from a clan that protects a prophecy about the Eight Dog Warriors and he has issued Shino the task to find the other Eight Dog Warriors while his savior remains an important Church fixture. Let’s move onto characters.
The characters are an interesting patchwork to say the least. A bunch of the guys look like they jumped straight out of an otome-game and walked into an anime, though that may just be a side effect of the fantastic visuals of the show overall. Some of the characters are powerless mortals, while the others have connections to the supernatural and have a wide array of abilities. Hell some of the recurring characters are gods themselves, though these characters interact mostly with Shino who is by far the most deeply immersed in the supernatural out of the main cast. Shino himself is kind of fascinating because he spends a lot of time acting like a bratty thirteen year old, some times he acts more the like eighteen year old he actually he is, and he occasionally acts with wisdom and grace far beyond his years, especially when he’s talking to major spirits or gods. In fact one of my favorite pairings in the show is Shino and a white snake goddess, who’s the most powerful deity shown in the show. The two have an odd chemistry because they are both monstrously powerful and the two of them experience the flow of time differently. That’s actually one of the recurring if underlying concerns of the other characters, what will happen to Shino when he outlives all his friends and is left alone. On the whole the characters have stupid anime quirks and they can appear shallow and archetypal, but they usually have more to them and end up being more interesting if you stick with the show. Let’s wrap this up.
Overall Hakkenden – Touhou Hakken Ibun is an enjoyable show. I should warn potential viewers that it is light on action, but action is hardly a focal point of the series. The supernatural, character struggles and relations, and the mystery of the prophecy and who exactly killed Shino in the very beginning are far more important. As a result many of the characters are quite interesting, especially when their connections to the supernatural come into play. The episodic-esque arcs are interesting and varied, obviously some are better than others but overall I can say the show rarely left me bored. Visually the show is gorgeous with high quality animation, vibrant colors and detailed character designs. The soundtrack will not hype anyone up like many famous anime OSTs do, but it’s full of melodic atmospheric tracks that do a great job conveying the emotion and tone of a scene and the series overall. It is a shame that the show has not concluded, and won’t until we get a third season, if we get a third season, but what we have so far is good. If I had to describe the show in one word it would be enchanting, between the atmospheric music, good visuals and cool spirits and folklore, this is a show I can just lose myself in. I think this is a great show, and a must-watch if you’re a fan of spirits, folklore and the like. I hope you enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.