originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/695244...
Good evening everyone! Tonight… we’re going to be checking out a supernatural samurai drama from the early 90s… (look, they’re threatening to take my weeb card, I can’t keep showing American stuff..!)
Why this? Well, it’s an animation landmark! It brought together many great animators of what would later become known as the ‘realist’ school, and gave them an opportunity to experiment with new styles and approaches… but more on that anon.
The Hakkenden is a story set during the bloody Sengoku period, when Japan collapsed into warring fiefs ruled by various samurai lords.
At the outset of the story, we encounter the Satomi and the Anzai clan, with the Satomi starving and losing a war against the demonically enhanced Anzai. The Satomi clan have a dog called Yatsufasa. One day, while petting Yatsufasa, the leader of the Satomi promises that if Yatsufasa could kill the leader of the Anzai, he would give the dog his daughter Fuse’s hand in marriage. Yatsufasa obliges, and carries the princess away. Satomi’s other children and Fuse’s original husband-to-be give chase, and kill Yatsufasa Fuse gives birth to eight special souls, each associated with a bead indicating one of the Confucian virtues which fly away.
This leads to the birth of the eight dog warriors, the central characters of the series! As the story goes on, we see them embroiled in various samurai shenanigans, many of them revolving around the cursed sword Murasame. Our dog boys are thrown together by fate and torn apart, suffering various schemes and misfortunes, but gradually the cast grows until the eight dog warriors can return and revive the Satomi clan…
So what of its significance in animation history? The Hakkenden represents a series of experiments: each episode was directed by a different animation director, who brought their own particular flavour to the design and animation.
In an excellent article on the history of the ‘realist’ movement, Matteo Watzky introduces it thus…
Just a year after Akira, Gosenzosama Banbanzai demonstrated that the potential of realism went beyond serious, high-budget movies: it was basically ready to take on any kind of animation and register, from mecha, to children’s shows, to absurd comedies. And, one more year after that, the realists took on yet another genre: action, with The Hakkenden. As many other OVAs from that period, The Hakkenden is very uneven, with sometimes minutes of just stills or awkward animation, and then just after that instances of amazing motion. But here the amazing animation was handled by some of the best; most notably, episode 1 had Shinji Hashimoto and Shin’ya Ohira as animation directors, and episode 4 had Takashi Nakamura in the position. Nakamura’s episode was truly unique, as he went so far as purely and simply changing the designs in order to fit his style better.
In terms of character design manipulation, The Hakkenden also set the stage for the new revolution of the 90s, which would be heralded by Norio Matsumoto, Atsushi Wakabayashi and Tetsuya Nishio. Indeed, in an impressive sequence that probably inspired all of them, Shinji Hashimoto followed in Iso’s footsteps and decided to prioritize the flow and motion above all else. But he went even further than Iso, in that he in turn decided to completely disregard the character designs and their consistency: the shapes of the bodies became exceedingly round, the movement of the characters was exaggerated and all over the screen, the hands and mouths were much larger than in the original designs and the layouts have an impressive sense of complexity. This was, in my view, one of the first major instances of “flow animation”, an offshoot of realism that went for fluidity first and consistency second.
This ‘flow animation’ current within the realist movement, would rise to become a dominant style as the 90s went on, paving the way for Mitsuo Iso’s ‘full limited’, the impactful animation of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the modern style of sakuga animation represented by people such as Yutapon. It combined the best features of the Kanada school and the realists.
As far as I know, the coinage is Watzky’s, so let me quote his explanation of it…
I already mentioned the concept in previous articles, notably when I talked about one of Shinji Hashimoto’s sequences on The Hakkenden, but now is the time to look at it in depth. It was, as the origins of some of its animators will show, the synthesis between the Kanada style and the realism of the late 80s, and it focused mostly on character animation. From the Kanada school, it took the playfulness and systematic use of framerate modulation, and from the realists, it borrowed a sense of weight, detail, and nuanced expression. What it added were three things: a priority put on fluidity, a disregard for rigid character designs in favor of motion, and a generalized use of the smear, which slowly overtook the impact frame as the queen of anime techniques. If I call it “flow” animation it is because, in contrast to the angularity of late Kanada-style animation and to the sculptural volume of Takashi Nakamura-inspired realism, its emphasis on motion creates an almost liquid impression, as if the characters were made not of flesh but rather of a shapeless, ceaselessly moving kind of matter.
What of the story? The Hakkenden is based on a sprawling serial epic novel Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (roughly, The Tale of Eight Dogs) written in the later Edo period (you may wanna jump back to Animation Night 24 for some history of the samurai!). You can read it in translation on this website. Compared to the animation, the novel procedes in a brief, almost summary style; its packed with names and lineages, which makes it a tricky subject to adapt to animation emphasising character and action. Even in adaptation, it’s pretty fast paced and there is quite a lot to absorb.
But it’s all tied together through moments of incredible animation, which means even if you’re confused, there’s generally something cool to look at.
The first episode - the ‘prequel’ segment in which we learn the background of the eight dog warriors and witness the fall of the Satomi clan - is especially notable, because it brought together a lot of especially talented animators with a wildly varied style. Here’s Watzky once more.
It’s where Hashimoto produced the seminal sequence of the flow animation style, but even Iso was going in the way of more spontaneous and liberated motion, while Okiura was putting out increasingly complex fight scenes with more and more characters moving simultaneously.
More generally, the fantastical setting and the atmospheric direction were the perfect fit for what Ohira and his team seem to have been trying to achieve: realistic and detailed movement, but also a feeling of uncanny, of something so natural it becomes strange and somewhat frightening. This is probably best achieved in Osamu Tanabe’s sequence, in which the ugly face of the crying child takes on an almost terrifying aspect, with its overly large tears and expressions.
But Ohira - one of two animation directors on this episode - was by no means done with that. When he came back for episode 10, he had something truly spectacular in mind.
I’ve talked about Ohira before, e.g. when we watched Junkers Come Here and of course The Animatrix, but maybe not in as much detail as I could have. Ohira is one of my animation heroes.
Ohira has been described as a ‘full animator in a country of limited animation’ by Pelleas, a ‘relentless pursuer of true movement’. His work went through a series of phases; early on he emphasised effects animation, with a crazy level of hard work - one time drawing an impossible-to-film 1000 drawings across 14 cel layers for a single cut on Project A-Ko. And he went for a new level of “I can’t believe it’s not rotoscoped” natural movement on his take on Junkers Come Here, spending six months to make just three months of animation - getting fired from the project for his trouble.
Over time, his style morphed, and he became renowned for more experimental animation such as Wanwa the Doggy in 4C’s Genius Party anthology, to his ‘expressionistic realism’ phase of rough, dynamic pencil-strokes and crazy perspectives as seen in the Animatrix segment Kid Story. His style is recognisable even under the pen of Hayao Miyazaki. And not just in flashy effects scenes either. Hell, here’s a sakuga MAD:
Watzky wrote about him in even more detail, and I encourage you to read that article! Hearing about his episode of The Hakkenden is the whole reason for this move night, if I’m honest. I want to see this famous episode for myself, but we need context first.
An OVA series, The Hakkenden is about a cour in length - albeit with 30 minute, not 22 minute episodes, so we probably won’t be able to manage the full thing tonight but will split this one into two parts. Such a mammoth project took, indeed, a good half a decade to complete, with the first part running 1990-91 and the second 93-95. (For historical context: Patlabor 2 came out in between these two parts! Ghost in the Shell and Junkers Come Here would follow it shortly after.) In terms of realist animation in a period setting, there is nothing really like Ohira’s episode - and unlikely to be anything like it again, either. (Though we can definitely see echoes of it in e.g. Heike Monogatari [AN 91]).So, should you fancy joining me, we’ll be embarking on this story of eight dogs of Awa province tonight - going live now, beginning in about half an hour (1400 PDT/1400 BST) at https://twitch.tv/canmom ! And then we’ll catch the second part on Monday! Hope to see you there~
So! It’s almost time to watch the second half of the Hakkenden, and check out that juicy Shinya Ohira animation! Sorry it’s essentially too late for UK people, I have not been able to find a chance to run it earlier on any of these days, but plan is now to do it tomorrow, early enough for UK people to watch!
In the meantime, to help people catch up, here’s a summary of the story so far…
A summary of episodes 1-6 of The Hakkenden
Episode 1 is the prologue, already summarised above. The meat of the story begins in episode 2.
Episode 2 - Dark Music of the Gods
This is Inuzuka Shino! He bears the bead of kō (孝), meaning filial piety.
His dad killed himself right in front of him to prove his dedication to bringing the special sword Murasame, said to have drops of water on it when drawn, to the Ashikaga Shogun. This leaves Shino with the unenviable task.
This girl, Hamaji, is in love with Shino. Her parents Hikiroku and Kamezasa, however, have other plans, to marry her off to the Jindai [a vassal in charge of military affairs] and want to be rid of Shino, and also get their hands on the Murasame as a dowry. For that reason, they concoct a cunning plan involving this foxy guy…
…one Samojirō Aboshi, who just seems to exist to cause trouble. He intercepts Shino and briefly fights him, and during the fight, steals the Murasame and replaces it with a fake. (This happens slightly differently than in the novel; here Samojirō uses his magic powers to do the substitution).
Not knowing that he’s carrying a fake sword, Shino procedes to attempt to catch the ferry. On the ferry is our second dog warrior, Inukawa Sōsuke.
Episode 3 - The Futility Dance
Sōsuke carries the bead of gi (義) - duty and obligation, or righteousness. He was an orphan, adopted at age 7 by Hikiroku and Kamezasa after his father was ordered to commit suicide by the shogun and his mother perished on a pilgrimage. Sōsuke has been ordered to kill Shino. They fight, but when each sees the other’s bead and birthmark, put aside their differences. Sōsuke decides to ignore Hikiroku and Kamezasa’s orders, but does not travel with Shino.
Meanwhile, Samojirō goes back to the couple, and presents a sword which he claims is the Murasame. In fact it’s another fake, having presumed a three way sword switch.
We also introduce this guy…
This guy is a hermit monk called Kenryu, said to be magical. In fact he’s Inuyama Dōsetsu, bearing the bead of chū (忠) - loyalty. He’s Hamaji’s half brother A group of soldiers come to kill him, but he escapes in a pillar of fire.
Hamaji, facing an impending forced marriage to the Jindai, attempts suicide, but is interrupted by the arrival of Samojirō. In the novel, Samojirō was promised her hand in return for stealing the sword, and realising he was deceived, he kidnaps her. Here he just seems to be evil I guess? He threatens Hamaji after stealing her, showing off his skeleton powers.
But abruptly Dōsetsu attacks! This is what he looks like without the face paint.
He manages to get the Murasame out of Samojirō’s hands. However, Samojirō uses his sorcerous powers to deceive Dōsetsu into attacking Hamaji instead, killing her. (This is not a good show to be a woman in!) Before she dies, Hamaji explains to Dōsetsu that Shino is travelling with a fake Murasame, and is likely to be killed by the shogun. She begs Dōsetsu to chase after Shiro and give him the real sword.
Meanwhile, the Jindai shows up to accept his wedding and the gift of the Murasame. However, Hamji is not present.
At this point, Sōsuke shows up, and seeing him standing over Hamji’s body, attacks Dōsetsu. During the fight, their two dog warrior beads are exchanged, so now Dōsetesu has gi (義), duty and obligation, and Sōsuke has chū (忠), loyalty.
Dōsetsu escapes, and Sōsuke returns home with Hamaji’s body.
Episode 4 - Horyu Tower
This is the episode with Takashi Nakamura’s animation direction, and it has a slightly simplified, expressive style, with some crazy impressive sequences of animation later.
The Jindai, presented with a cheap sword in lieu of the Murasame (since Samojirō stole it), flips out and summons a bunch of demons.
Sōsuke gets home, only to find his adoptive parents dead and the house full of demons. He is losing his battle against the demons, but then he reveals the bead of chū, and this dispels them, effectively killing the Jindai. However, it now seems that Sōsuke has murdered his adoptive family.
Meanwhile, Shino arrives at the Ashikaga Shogun’s palace and promises he has the real, genuine Murasame. As he waits for the Shogun to see him, he is visited by two strangers who seem to recognise his bead and birthmark. They appear to be dressed as monks, and we don’t know what their agenda is…
When the sword is drawn and doesn’t have the characteristic shine or drops of dew, the Shogun does indeed order him killed.
Shino fights his way out onto the roof of the castle, so Shogun sends the crazy guy from his dungeons…
…who is of course the fourth dog warrior, Inukai Genpachi, who bears the bead of shin (信) - faith. Genpachi attacks Shino, but a sudden storm interrupts their fight, collapsing the tower they’re fighting on and sending them tumbling into the ocean.
Episode 5 - Demon’s Melody
Shino and Genpachi tumble into the water, but they’re recovered by a fisherman, and innkeeper Inuta Konaya, who is a friend of Genpachi…
Konaya is of course a dog warrior, and bears the bead of tei (悌) - brotherhood. He is a former sumo wrestler who has renounced violence, and his father is an ex-samurai.
Shino has fever-dreams as he recovers, while Genpachi is surprised to discover Shino’s bead.
Konaya is visited by his sister Nui, and her husband Fusahachi, along with their infant son Daihachi. Fusahachi works out that Konaya’s guests are the fugitives from the palace, and thinks they might be rewarded with promotion to samurai if they turn them in.
Konaya refuses, but Fusahachi won’t take no for an answer, believing the Inuta family would be ruined by hiding a criminal, so he and sneaks off to turn them in. The vigilantes sent by the Shogun approach and surround the inn, threatening to burn it down unless Konaya turns the pair over. Fusahachi comes to negotiate, telling Genpachi that he is under orders to kill Shino immediately, but Genpachi will be spared if he surrenders.
A fight starts, with Genpachi getting on the roof to fight the vigilantes while Konaya and Fusahachi have it out inside. As Shino has visions of a demonic parade, Konaya has a flashback to his childhood, when he was known as Kobungo, and caused his own father to be killed. (Also not a good show to be a dad!) Despite his father’s wish for him to not fight, he draws his sword and prepares to fight Fusahachi.
At this point, the imagery gets very unclear, rapidly cutting between fights and demonic visions. But I believe what happens is, Fusahachi’s son Daihachi, witnessing the fight, is also blighted by the same visions of a demonic festival as Shino and and Kobungo [aka Konaya, who seems to go back to using this name from this point]. During the fight, Fusahachi stumbles into the same room as his Nui and his son, and his son runs over, followed by Nui… but then he pulls his sword out of the ground and accidentally cuts down Nui. Kobungo bursts in and beheads Fusahachi, causing his head to bounce outside.
At this point, the vigilantes outside see Fusahachi’s head, and mistake it for Shino’s head, since the two look very similar. Meanwhile in the carnage, it seems Kobungo’s two dogs have also been killed. Genpachi steps outside, and sees Samojirō watching the carnage with his usual foxy little smile before flying away.
With both Nui and Fusahachi dead, custody of their son goes to Kobugno. At this point, Shino, Genpachi and Kobungo are all aware of the beads, and each holds onto their own. Two strange monks arrive at the gathering.
Episode 6 - The Cicada Spirit Cry
Following all this carnage, we return to Sōsuke, who’s been arrested as an accomplice to murdering his adoptive family. He’s being tortured by Shahei, the Jindai’s younger brother, but continues to profess his innocence. Shahei orders his execution. In prison, Sōsuke figures out he accidentally exchanged beads with Dōsetsu, and wonders if Dōsetesu did the other murders.
Shino, Kobungo and Genpachi have meanwhile returned to Shino’s home village of Otsuka, taking Daihachi (the baby) with them. They learn that the new Jindai (Shahei) is planning to execute Sōsuke, and start to hatch a plan to infiltrate the execution ground and rescue him. They continue to see the two mysterious monks. Kobungo wants to find the source of the strange beads.
Abruptly, while looking at Daihachi and considering leaving him by the road for adoption by a stranger, Kobungo gets a vision of the child holding the bead of jin (仁) - sympathy and benevolence. A strange woman riding a dog appears, who we recognise as the parents of the dog warrior souls: Fuse riding the dog-god Yatsufusa. Fuse takes Daihachi and disappears in a flash of lightning, but tells Kobungo he cannot yet cross the river to join her while the other dog warriors still need his help.
Shino and Genpachi infiltrate the execution ground by hiding in the pile of dead bodies overnight. In the morning, they burst in and interrupt the execution, fighting their way out with Shahei’s soldiers in pursuit. Just when it seems they’re trapped and going to get shot, Kobungo bursts in and tears up the whole fence to save them.
But as they escape, who should appear but Samojirō, surrounded by floating red flames. Laughing, he tells them there are four more, or rather two more to go, and he’ll make them regret the birthmarks and spirit beads - their suffering is the ‘wellspring of his life’, whatever that means. They are then washed away by the river, but wash up on shore downstream, united at last…
So who are these other four? We can get a glimpse of them from the opening! We have…
…an effeminate one (your classic ‘boy raised as a girl’ type character)…
…and one other, who doesn’t seem to get an individual spot as far as I can tell.
At some point I'd like to write a summary of the remaining episodes to act as a viewing guide to people who watch this admittedly quite confusing series. Not tonight, though.