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Intrigue In The Bakumatsu ~ Irohanihoheto Collection 1 Anime DVD Review

10 min read

The historical and the supernatural meet in this tale of revenge.

What They Say
It’s the Bakumatsu, the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and wandering mercenary Yojiro Akizuki travels the length and breadth of Japan. And while he employs his sword in the usual fashion, he also uses it to help him locate supernatural items which he pursues with single-minded determination, often with bloody results. In the course of his quest, he crosses paths with a traveling theater group whose members have their own dark agenda. Is it a chance meeting or the result of some, as yet, undiscovered conspiracy? Swords will swing and sorcery makes itself felt in Intrigue in the Bakumatsu – Ironahihoheto.

The Review:
Audio:
This dual-language DVD presents both the original Japanese language track and the English dub in 2.0 stereo sound encoded at 224kbps. Neither tracks feature any detectable sound errors, and the sound mixing is complimentary to both the dialog and soundtrack on both. Though this series tends to go large stretches with the soundtrack primarily comprised of dialog with subtle musical cues, many of the action-based scenes (especially a couple late in this set which contain action happening across a large area) could have been enhanced by the depth-of-field provided by a good 5.1 surround sound mix, so I was a bit disappointed that neither track got this treatment.

Video:
This 2006 series is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Overall the video quality is tolerable, though it has several nagging problems that show up during certain scenes and while pausing playback. In many scenes, especially those that take place in the dark, there’s a very noticeable grain and a subtle flickering that appears throughout the video frame. I tested the dvd on several different DVD players and television sets and confirmed that this is something peculiar to this encode, which is disappointing not only because the show is otherwise nice-looking and would be well-served by more vibrant colors and cleaner video, but also because this release has fewer episodes per disc than the current industry standard and could thus probably support a higher-quality encode. The series features a lot of natural, muted colors, though certain flashback sequences and scenes which involve more supernatural elements occasionally incorporate visual filters and stronger more saturated hues that help to enhance the nature of these scenes.

Packaging:
The three DVDs in this set are contained in a standard-sized three disc DVD case. Unlike many of Sentai’s other recent releases, however, the case is solid plastic rather than the more Earth-friendly (but flimsier) cases that have cutouts in the plastic to save on materials. This gives the packaging a more substantial feel that, while not as nice as a chipboard box, is better than it could be. The slipcover features an illustration of the series protagonist on the front, and one of the other characters and several screenshots on the back. The slipcover is, unfortunately, non-reversible, but since the case itself is opaque, this doesn’t turn out to be much of an issue (except for those of us who like to have options of what to display on the outside of our DVDs, of course).

Menu:
The DVD menus are simple, still-frame affairs with music from the series playing in the background. The main menu, which features artwork of the protagonist against a gray-and-red textured background with the series title in the upper-right corner, lists the episode numbers and titles which can be selected. Below that are links to the language-selection and special features menus. From the languages menu, either the English-language dub track or Japanese-with-English subtitles version can be selected (there is no option for raw Japanese without subtitles on this disc). The Special Features menu contains separate links for the clean opening animation, clean closing animation, Sentai Filmworks trailers and disc credits. The highlights and borders that appear around selected buttons are an easy-to-see bright red color which fits well with the overall visual theme of the disc. The buttons respond quickly to each selection and there’s very little loading time between menus.

Extras:
Unfortunately, the extras are limited to the standard clean opening and closing animation and selection of trailers. In some cases, the trailers are no more complicated than the opening theme animation from the series being advertised, with little-to-no extra editing or information. It would have been nice to have been given something like detailed historical notes about the Bakumatsu period as an extra bonus (much like the historical notes about French history that appeared on ADV’s discs for Le Chevalier D’Eon).

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
This series, a relatively unknown property from 2006, has all the hallmarks of an anime that would seem unlikely to ever be picked up for distribution in the West. Though it’s sprinkled with action and features some good-looking characters, its plot is so steeped in the minutiae of Japanese history that fans who are uninterested in cracking open a textbook might be put off the series before it begins. That would certainly be a shame, because for all its dense plotting and numerous characters (both historical and fabricated), this series does a good job of embellishing real events with fictional flair to come up with a final product that may ultimately appeal to underserved fans of more subdued, mature fare.

Akizuki Yojiro is a ronin (a masterless samurai) whose travels have brought him to the bustling port city of Yokohama. Tensions are high in Yokohama as the native Japanese population and foreign traders are forced to exist uncomfortably alongside one-another, and barely a short time passes before Akizuki finds himself witness to an unfolding street brawl between a group of angry locals and gun-wielding British merchants. He rescues two children from being injured in the fracas, and is taken to meet their “family” – a group of Kabuki performers known as the Yuyama theater troupe, led by a young woman by the name of Yuyama Kakunojo and her adopted, disfigured brother, Ebisu. Though Akizuki wants nothing to do with them it’s soon revealed that their goals are fated to intersect, as the artifact for which Akizuki is searching remains in the possession of a merchant with ties to the troupe’s tragic past.

After an unexpected (and thoroughly botched) encounter at a local auction house, during which an ancient artifact known as the “Head of the Conqueror” is revealed and subsequently lost, Akizuki joins with the members of the Yuyama troupe to aid them in their revenge on the swordsman who murdered Kakunojo’s merchant family a number of years prior. The group soon learns, however, that this swordsman and his compatriots are merely servants of Jubei Nakaiya, a powerful merchant thought to have been killed in a fire at his company headquarters several years ago. As they pursue Jubei, many other forces, both militaristic and supernatural, begin to make their moves, and the Head of the Conqueror remains at large.

During the first several episodes of this series, there’s a repeated line that almost becomes a mantra – “there are two sides to everything.” This series is nothing if not built on the idea that most matters are not clear-cut nor divided into “good” and “evil.” The show takes place during a time period during which those loyal to the shogunate were at odds with those who would return ruling power over Japan to the Emperor, and this conflict serves as a backdrop for much of the action. There are several characters whose loyalties seem to lay in several camps and whose identities are presented differently in the presence of different people. Elements of the plot are often mimicked, warped or illuminated by the performances of the actors, whose plays are based on their own real-life experiences. And, most importantly, though Akizuki and Yuyama have very different goals and intentions, their two disparate storylines seem fated to intersect as different facets of a larger, more complicated situation. There’s a strong emphasis on the weaving-together of webs of disparate-seeming elements, and when the pieces begin to come together, the viewing experience becomes very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the sheer multitude of characters, plotlines and their semi-historical underpinnings make this show a very complicated one to watch. Though I’d argue that most really good anime series will demand the viewer’s attention simply by being compelling and fun to watch, this series almost requires that one also have a very good memory for names, faces and events as well as a strong attention to detail. There are, at all times, several things happening at once, some of which may not be immediately apparent as significant to the plot. This can make the show frustrating to watch, especially when one is otherwise prone to distraction. The upside to this is, as stated before, that this show’s different characters and plotlines have a strong tendency to intersect, and an important plot point may be repeated or re-explored in several different ways from varying perspectives when applicable.

One obvious way the series does this is by making very good use of the fact that a group of its characters are actors in a theater troupe. There are several climactic moments during which the Yuyama troupe’s performances are used as methods of revealing and disseminating information, camouflaging actual moments of armed conflict, or drawing out characters who would otherwise be unwilling to attend a more “traditional” meeting or duel. The final episode in this DVD set features a particularly intense conflict during which the troupe’s performance is actually taken outside their temporary seaside theater and used as a vehicle to confront a recurring villainous character (as well as an ally-gone-rogue). This method of presentation doesn’t always work as well as one might hope; there are a few times where the theatrical-style acting of the characters seems ill-fitting to the situation at hand, and I suspect that there are some viewers who might find themselves unable to tolerate it much at all. Overall, though, the blending of roles by allowing the characters to become actors in plays that blur the line between the stage and reality is an interesting and compelling way of telling the story.

All that said, the most obvious criticism that many people are likely to have is that the plot simply takes too long to kick into high gear. There are a few false-starts within the first several episodes, wherein the true nature of the central conflict isn’t apparent, and the show has an odd habit of choosing to introduce instances of character development during parts of episodes which would otherwise be more action-based. I personally enjoy seeing a lot of character development, but this show has enough pacing problems even without stopping mid-thought to feature a character flashback. There are similar issues as a result of the more informational historical tidbits that are presented from time-to-time, in that the story at hand will stop in order to present them to the audience. In some cases this becomes awkward and in others it can be confusing, since it’s often not entirely apparent whether the information is immediately and directly applicable to what’s happening.

Aside from that, most of my other criticisms are relatively minor and didn’t negatively affect my viewing experience. Some viewers may take issue with a few of the show’s more anachronistic qualities – some of the character designs look a bit more modern and off-beat than would likely have been common in that time period. I’m also fairly certain that women were not allowed as members of Kabuki troupes after some point in the mid 1600s, though in a way I’m pleasantly surprised that that particular reality has been ignored and Kakunojo’s character enhanced by this bit of rule-bending.

Both the Japanese and English dub tracks have their share of issues, though overall I personally preferred the Japanese track since it seemed more fitting to the material. Some of the more amusing problems arose when English-speaking characters had dialog. In the original Japanese track, these characters are clearly voiced by non-native speakers and some of their lines are written using very awkward grammar. The English dub corrects these issues, but introduces another – terrible accents. There’s one Irish or Scottish character in particular who speaks with such a cartoonish accent that it’s difficult to take his lines seriously. Most of the more prominent characters fare much better, with Greg Ayres’ performance as Ebisu being a particularly good match for the original. The two child characters suffer strongly from “adult woman straining to sound like a small child” syndrome, but otherwise the English dub is competently-acted if unremarkable. With a series like this, which relies so much on subtlety and subdued emotions, I would certainly take under-acted rather than over-acted any day.

In Summary
With its mouthful of a title and its inscrutable early episodes, I get the feeling that this series runs the risk of being overlooked by many anime fans. This is certainly not a series for everyone as it lacks much of the flash and humor that tend to have mass-appeal, but its combination of history, fantasy and theater are compelling and patient, attentive viewers will be well-rewarded. By the time I reached the thirteenth episode, I was wishing that the second half of the series was already available. The show may be a bit of a slow-burn, but its mature storytelling and intricate plot make this easy to recommend to fans who may feel disenchanted with the anime industry’s tendency to cater to a younger audience.

Features:
Japanese Language 2.0, English Language 2.0, Clean Opening Animation, Clean Closing Animation, Sentai Trailers

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B-
Video Grade: C
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: C+
Extras Grade: C-

Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: September 4th, 2012
MSRP: $59.98
Running Time: 325 minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Acer P235H 1080p LCD Monitor connected via DVI input, Logitech S220 2.1 Speakers, Samsung SH-B123L Blu-ray Drive, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560

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