It’s been a long while now since I stared Basilisk, which was back when it started. I watched three new anime that day, and of them, Basilisk was my favourite: ‘the only one I’m particularly interested in following is Basilisk, a beautifully drawn (if rather 80s in character design) new series about a war between two ninja clans. Like Naruto taking itself seriously, this pseudo-historical drama has lots of blood, testosterone and refreshingly ugly characters, which I’m not a particular fan of but can accept if there’s good reason. The thing is, I’m not sure if it might take itself TOO seriously, and thus become a bit farcical and charmless. Still, I’m interested enough to find out the answer to this question, so I’ll keep watching.’
That was back on
6 May 2005, over
seven years ago. I have indeed kept watching, but fantastically slowly. The
more I watched Basilisk, the more I realised there was nothing bringing
me back to it.
Basilisk is a historical fantasy based on the real-life Kouga and Iga ninja clans, who established much of the lore in Japanese culture regarding ninjutsu and played a significant role in the much-romanticised shougunate period. In a crisis of succession for the shouguns, it is decided that the two ninja clans will each represent one heir, breaking their uneasy truce to have their ten strongest fighters battle to the death in order to decide who will be the next shougun. Added to this is the Romeo and Juliet story of the two young ninja who are to be their future clan leaders – engaged in a romance that was meant to bring peace after generations of battle, but now doomed to fight.
Though there are still images that are beautiful, some impressive action and poetic stillness, and though the intro theme is one of the better ones Gonzo have used, the fact is that Basilisk is dull. It manages to avoid having a stereotypical shounen tournament in the MÄR vein, with one ninja clan getting a distinct advantage and making the most of it from the shadows rather than having fair fights, but that is only a slim veneer of complexity, and it soon becomes very tired stuff. The ninja are all basically given superpowers, but some of them are incredibly silly, like the big fat man made of rubber, a woman who has the natural ability to emit poisonous gas when close to orgasm and one whose super-strength is in his hair. There are cooler powers – slipping into walls, controlling minds with the eyes, the big bad having some sort of parasite that brings him back to life – but it’s all still very puerile and goofy.
And the 80s aesthetic brings with it other qualities, so that like Hundred Stories, I found it to represent some of the worst clichés of anime in the Western mind, which largely came from 80s fetishised titles marketed in the Occident as ‘adult’. There’s blood and gore by the bucketload, and whole episodes dedicated to quasi-erotic torture. There are hypersexualised women and rape scenes. And the story ends up irritatingly predictable, with a deathly slow pace that made me wish the season had only been 13 episodes. Sure, the series is based on an old novel from the 50s, but I bet the more juvenile themes are either added or exaggerated here.
Stylish and memorable, certainly, but in execution dull and turgid.