23 April 2002 | BrianDanaCamp
Beautifully animated adaptation of Japanese literary tale
THE HAKKENDEN is a 13-part made-for-video animated adaptation of the famed19th century Japanese literary work, "Nanso Satomi Hakkenden," by Bakin Takizawa (aka Kyokutei Bakin). It tells the tale of the accursed Satomi clan in 15th century pre-Shogunate Japan and the mystical gathering of eight "dog warriors," reincarnations of the clan princess' offspring, fathered by Lord Satomi's pet dog, who join together with the intent to save the Satomi clan and lift the curse. The series was produced over a period of six years, 1990-95, and it shows significant variance in character design and overall artistic quality, reflecting changes in personnel and dips in budget during the course of production. As it stands, the most accomplished chapters are 1-3 and 11-13, although the middle chapters are still worthy experiments in animation technique and impressionistic storytelling.
The first episode tells the whole story of how the clan got into its unusual position. At a low ebb during a battle with the Anzai clan, Lord Satomi rhetorically offers his daughter in marriage to his pet dog if the dog can bring back the head of his enemy, Lord Anzai. When the dog actually does so, the lord balks, but Princess Fuse feels obligated to uphold the clan's honor and goes off with the dog, later becoming pregnant. When Fuse's human fiancé kills her and the dog, eight beads fly out of the princess' body, each adorned with the symbol for a particular samurai virtue (e.g. duty, sympathy, filial devotion, brotherly affection, etc.), and go on to be reincarnated as the souls of eight future warriors. The next several episodes introduce the young men, all marked with identical peony birthmarks, as they gradually meet, realize their destiny, and come to know what their mission is.
There are all sorts of subplots and side stories, some with demon/ghost story themes, most of which are interesting on their own, but tend to slow down the overall narrative arc. There are well over two dozen important characters and it's hard to keep track of them all. Two of the eight warriors are never adequately introduced to viewers. Some of the characters are called by different names from one episode to the next. Not helping matters is the fact that the character design gets simpler in episode 4 and we have to get used to a whole new look for each of the characters from that point on. Episode 10 offers a radically different design as all the characters are drawn to look unmistakably Japanese--in contrast to the more western looking facial features evident in all the other episodes. Episode 10 is also filmed and animated differently, with the camerawork designed to look handheld in many shots. In episode 11, the design returns to the detailed look that distinguished the first three episodes.
The overall style of the series is a lot more experimental in tone than most Japanese anime. There's a subjective feel to each of the stories with frequent forays into characters' dreams and flashbacks; the stories often shift back and forth between several different points in time in the course of one 30-minute episode. There is frequent use of abstract images, many of which are derived from traditional Japanese motifs. Style often overwhelms story, making the sequence of events difficult to follow without close attention. The artwork, however, is never less than spellbinding, with great attention paid to details of costumes, settings and interior décor, but with special focus on the natural landscapes, mountains, forests, and flowing rivers of pre-industrial Japan as the characters undertake their long and circuitous journey.
While there is plenty of well-executed swordfighting and bloodletting, THE HAKKENDEN is not an action piece in the strict sense of the word. It is probably of most value to admirers of Japanese art, culture and history, as well as students of animation technique. For such viewers the series is a veritable treasure trove. It also has a marvelous background score--by Takashi Kudo--that makes expert use of traditional Japanese melodies and instruments. (The closing songs-which change every few episodes-are not as effective.) The DVD box set includes a 30-minute digest supplement that offers a detailed summary of the first half of the series, which should prove useful before a second viewing. The DVD also offers both English and Japanese dialogue tracks, with optional English subtitles; the Japanese track is recommended for serious viewers.
The story basis for this film also served as the basis for two live-action movies by acclaimed director Kinji Fukasaku: the space opera MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) and the more straightforward adaptation, LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1983). Echoes of the story are also found in the popular children's animated series, DRAGON BALL, and its follow-up, DRAGON BALL Z. The original book was a multi-volume work written in installments from 1814 to 1841 and based in part on the 14th century Chinese classic, "Water Margin" (aka "Outlaws of the Marsh" and "All Men Are Brothers"), which has been filmed many times as well.