Getting over the world-building hump which gave rise to the scattershot plot that hamstringed its predecessor, this second series of Hakkenden has a more streamlined sense of its own narrative and the sprawling mythological pool it draws from. The story is stitched together from a collection of sketches of Japanese folklore, moving from one to the other and tied together with modern storytelling tropes and motifs. Its thematic jumpiness is reflected in the breakneck pace and the mismatched, yet simultaneously copy-pasted feel of its character designs.
And yet it is a most stylish series, conjuring the MMORPG-cum-anime Blade & Soul, a kindred series that’s its visual equal and shares in some of the same flaws. Many of the lines are fuzzy, weakening the animation quality, but the bishie guys are easy on the eyes, and trying to pick a favourite is like playing a dating sim and trying to decide on best boy. Many of them share the same character model, albeit with a varying hairstyle, yet the wardrobes detached from time and drawing as much from modern garb as traditional styles play to the show’s ethereal standing, affording it the same patchwork folkloric grace as Kamisama Kiss.
In the ongoing quest to gather together the eight bearers of the gems of duty and reawaken Fuse, the wish-bearing princess of legend, the nature of the story invariably means conflict on lots of little points along the way. Coming across other people’s problems can lead to a cluttered plot, detracting from the main story rather than enriching it. Some of these tangents, though, are a welcome and emotional distraction from the main arc which is often incidental. The living god Princess Yana, stuck in her spiritual rut as the spawn point of a regional deity’s killer curse, feeds deep into the series’ themes of liberation, oneness and maturity. Beside it, the introduction of the blind child Kaho and her uncanny powers should be given just as much attention, but she’s left by the wayside, contributing to the wider clutter problem.
As before, there are tangents that survive only a few episodes, skirting around the central story and leave you feeling peeved or outright confused. The characters themselves aren’t strong enough without the central drive of the story to carry their offshoots, and in this case it’s the English dub that embellishes them with camp humour and some great dirty jokes – it is all a search for balls, after all. The snarky twin-tailed cat Kaede, voiced by David Wald, often steals the scene, not unlike Salem in Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Even the spirit hunter, Sosuke’s shadow, is more of a distraction considering his theft of his twin’s sight and senses is crucial to the endgame. When the eight dogs discover the priestess princess who killed them, she threatens to pollute Fusehime’s awakening, the shadow usurping Sosuke’s place as her guardian. This story of duality – childhood and adulthood, folklore and normality – even when stilted, is smoothed over by its superior sound design. The wind moves through the sakura branches, and an ancient song touches a subtlety in the subtext that hold its themes up to the light.
For our review of season 1, click here.
English dub; clean opening/closing animation; disc credits; also available from Sentai Filmworks.