Shino Inuzuka, Sosuke Inukawa and Hamaji are the only three survivors of Otsuka village, a settlement ravaged by plague and cleansed in fire. Five years after the event, their families live under the scrutiny of the Imperial Church – a thinly veiled Vatican – and come to claim the demonic sword Murasame who resides inside Shino’s body. Though the backstory bears plenty of promise, Hakkenden suffers from first-episode syndrome in the exposition ridden dialogue and interactions. It’s a problem that’s never fully resolved as the series weaves its tapestry of character, spirit and setting, leaving the overbearing world-building clashing with the intricacies of inheritance and maturity.
Shino is the wellspring for the coming-of-age themes, as Murasame keeps his body fixed in perpetual childhood. He might be 18 in age, but physically he’s still a boy of only 13; it’s the price for brandishing the demon sword, who’s rumoured a god, a curse and the embodiment of disaster all at once.
Like its Studio DEEN twin Fruits Basket, Hakkenden is manifest by its still-life setting, ethereal music and supernatural hotties. Each pull heavily from Japanese folklore and myriad religions, but where Hakkenden departs from its sister show is in its source material. Miyuki Abe’s shojo manga is based, albeit loosely, on Kyokutei Bakin’s sprawling 106-volume novel Nanso Satomi Hakkenden, and puts a contemporary twist to the 1800s setting. It retains much of the period, but the picky approach leaves the environment looking at odds with the historically mixed-bag bishonen character designs, and the light adventure story slant to the legend of a princess and her guardians – the titular Eight Dogs. The story goes that they are bound to return to her in their next lives by the eight gems of duty, and Satomi Rio, the Dean of the Church, tasks Shino with finding the remaining six gem holders, besides himself and his brother.
Though this central story winds up anticlimactic, it’s the getting there that bears the most intriguing tales. A complex interplay connects all the characters, whether they’re in the foreground or mentioned first only in whispers. Its development is complemented by the voice acting, particularly in Shino’s contrasting wise and childlike nature portrayed by Tetsuya Kakihara (Fairy Tail’s Natsu). His character is also central to an intriguing, if one-sided, exploration of gender. With the guys, it’s never to be taken at face value, feeding the subversion that the manga played with. There’s also an interesting approach to the well-versed tragic prostitute character, a by-way that happily hijacks the main storyline. In her fall from grace and then redemption, the fates of all characters are mirrored, united in tragedy.
The fact that the series is indirectly inspired by an epic novel thirty years in the writing can be gleaned in its frantic vastness, and how it scrambles to tell all aspects of its expansive story. The pace is constantly in flux, whether in stories within stories or taking a tangential turn, detracting from the central conflict which feels squashed into the 13-episode run. At least, whatever pleasant distraction Hakkenden frames, it’s done in the implicit sense of style you’d expect from director Mitsue Yamazaki, who’s clocked up credits writing for Bleach and episode directing for Durarara!!.
For our review of season two, click here.
English dub; commentary for episodes 1 & 4; disk credits; clean opening/closing animation; also available from Sentai Filmworks.