‘Basilisk’ opens in the grounds of Sunpu Castle in 1614 A.D.. It is cherry blossom time. In the presence of the retiring shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, and his chief retainers, a bizarre duel is about to take place between two ninjas, Shougen Kazamachi of the Kouga Manjidani Sect and Yashamaru of the Iga-Kigamure Sect. At first it seems as if the handsome Yashamaru has the advantage; the young ninja is a thread-master, binding his victim with women’s hair treated with special oil to make them lethally strong and sharp. But then the hideous and spider-like Kazamachi spits out thick, gluey phlegm which renders Yashamaru helpless…and the duel is far from over.
And the shogun’s purpose in setting up this duel? To break the peace treaty between the Iga and Kouga clans, ancient enemies, and set their ten top ninjas against each other in a death-match, the outcome of which will determine which of his two heirs will become shogun in his place. The surviving clan will rule for a thousand years.
Not long after the two scrolls detailing the shogun’s decree have been written and dispatched, the two elders of the rival clans, Ogen Iga and Danjou Kouga confront one another. Years ago they were lovers – but the bitter feuding between their families turned them into rivals. Episode one shows us glimpses of their tragic affair. Does the fate of their doomed relationship foreshadow events to come? For, blissfully unaware of the shogun’s cruel decree, the grandchildren of the two elders, Gennosuke of the Kouga and Oboro of the Iga, have fallen in love and are planning to marry.
Two star-crossed lovers, children of feuding families…sounds familiar? If ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had been written as a ninja tale, would it have ended any differently? Part of the fascination in watching ‘Basilisk’ comes from the ‘will they, won’t they?’ love story of Gennosuke and Oboro, although here it rapidly becomes ‘will they, won’t they survive?’ The other part is boggling at the increasingly weird and grotesque ways the warring ninja find to destroy each other. Each of the ten ninjas chosen to represent their clan has a lethal skill: for example, the voluptuous Akeginu of the Iga can use her own blood to emit a red mist that confuses her enemies, whereas the reptilian, limbless Juubei Jimushi of the Kouga carries a lethal concealed weapon in a rather surprising place.
To make matters worse, the scheming ninjas contrive to keep the news from Gennosuke and Oboro who innocently continue their plans for their wedding, blissfully unaware of the murderous feud that is about to engulf them.
‘Basilisk’ is based on the manga by Masaski Segawa, in turn based on the novel by Futaro Yamada, author of ‘Ninja Scrolls’ series. The animation matches Segawa’s bold artwork very faithfully; the characters could have stepped straight out of the pages of the tankoubons. The character designs are very striking; the younger ninjas are all stunningly good-looking, whereas the older ones are freakishly deformed by their unique special abilities. Enhanced by a dark and gorgeous colour palette, ’Basilisk’ is certainly good to look at – although not for the squeamish. This ninja tale is not ‘Naruto’! Yet I found myself longing for some of the underlying good humour, sympathetic characterization and sheer ‘heart’ that underpin ‘Naruto’. The only lighter moments are supplied by Gennosuke’s clansman, the fat and jolly Jousuke Udono, who can inflate his rubbery flesh to bounce about like a giant ball!
A technical issue: the English dub on the demo disc was muffled, making it hard to distinguish the dialogue above the music in places. Turning to the original version for clarification, I found the subtitles to be full of awkward archaic language alongside contemporary words like ‘kinda’. If only my Japanese were good enough to know whether the characters are actually using genuine seventeenth century turns of phrase, and this is therefore an honest attempt to give an accurate translation. But ‘tis’ and ‘twas’ read badly in English at the best of times.
‘Basilisk’ makes for compelling viewing, but I can’t help wondering whether the prospect of seeing the Kouga and Iga ninjas finding ever more gruesome and sinister ways to finish each other off may eventually pall.