The climax of this historical fantasy raises the stakes while also adding more confusion to the plot.
What They Say
As wandering mercenary Yojiro Akizuki and the Yuyama Troupe continue their search for vengeance, the flames of war engulf the Shogunate, moving ever further north. In search of the Head of the Conqueror, Akizuki and the troupe follow, but when Kakunojo stumbles upon a cursed sword the hunters may become the hunted. The fate of a nation hangs in the balance but it’s the destiny of the individual lives that will determine the outcome as adversaries become allies, friends become enemies and the blood continues to flow in the conclusion of Intrigue in the Bakumatsu – Irohanihoheto!
This set, like volume one, has both a Japanese 2.0 and English 2.0 stereo track. Because of the higher concentration of action in this part of the series, the fact that there’s no surround-sound option is more obvious and disappointing. There are many scenes which could have benefitted from that sort of enhancement, especially during the large-scale battles that occur near the end of the series. Aside from that criticism, though, both audio tracks themselves seem to be mastered well and don’t contain any audio errors or inconsistencies in volume.
The video quality of this set of episodes has many of the same problems as the first, including grainy filtering that does no favors to many of the low-light scenes, and some noticeable flickering at some points. Certain portions of the first disc also featured some minor video artifacting during the opening theme, which may have been a disc error rather than a problem with the video itself.
As with the first collection, the 3 DVDs come in a standard-sized DVD case which lacks any major bells or whistles, but isn’t constructed in the flimsy way that many Sentai releases (and, nowadays, many releases from other companies) are. The slipcover contains another nice character image (though the character on my copy is different than what is shown on the Amazon.com product listing, for some reason that I cannot fathom). Because of this, I thought at first that the cover might be reversible, but no dice. The package doesn’t include any sort of insert, which makes it feel a little bit insubstantial, but this doesn’t constitute a major strike against it.
Almost identical to those in the first DVD set, the DVD menus are simple and functional. They feature some nice-looking character artwork from the series in front of a textured background, and each sub-menu plays a portion of either the opening or ending themes on loop. They’re nothing special, but they load quickly and they’re simple to navigate. One issue with the episode selection menu is that the episode titles are written in a tiny font beneath the episode numbers, and in some cases this may make them difficult to read for some viewers.
The extras in this set are similar to those in the previous, meaning that they’re limited to clean opening and closing animation, plus a few Sentai Filmworks trailers thrown in for good measure. If memory serves, many of the trailers are identical to those included in the first set, a fact I find a little amusing considering how many series Sentai has licensed recently and how frequent their releases are. All-in-all, the extras aren’t where this DVD set shines.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Like the ocean, war never ends.
The previous half of Intrigue in the Bakumatsu left off on a dramatic note – the sought-after Head of the Conqueror took up residence in famed Admiral Enomoto, while the Yuyama theater troupe was faced with the tragic loss of one of its members. The second half, despite being even more densely-constructed (and some might say, inscrutable) than the first, manages to give most of the storylines thoughtful and satisfactory conclusions. Unfortunately, though, there’s a tendency for this part of the story to sacrifice satisfying character development in service of upholding its overall commitment to interweaving the history of the era into the plot.
After the Yuyama Theater Troupe pays its final respects to Ebisu, the actors go their separate ways in search of their individual fortunes. Akizuki, his quest to seal the Head of the Conqueror still incomplete, sets off in pursuit of the artifact. Kakunojo, drawn to accompany him on his mission, tags along and does her best to chip away at the Eternal Assassin’s stony exterior. It’s only after an encounter at a shrine that Kakunojo’s role in the whole ordeal becomes more clear; they discover another Moontear sword, one to which she seems inextricably drawn. The White Moontear Sword also seems to point the way to the Head of the Conqueror, but it’s only after the two engage in a face-to-face encounter with Enomoto aboard his ship that the truth is revealed – the white sword is one with the inherent purpose of unsealing the Head of the Conqueror, and when in its presence Kakunojo becomes Enomoto’s thrall, turning against the Eternal Assassin and sending him falling into the icy ocean below.
In the ensuing weeks and months, Kakunojo’s acting ability is used by Enomoto to disseminate propaganda amongst those who make up the ranks of his followers, while Akizuki undergoes a journey to both regain his health and hone his focus on his primary mission. His resolve, as well as that of the rest of the country, is tested to its limit as the Head of the Conqueror, now housed inside a painfully familiar visage, constructs a fortress around itself and unleashes a “cleansing” attack on the surrounding land.
In one of the earlier episodes in this set, a character comments that it can be difficult to distinguish a poisonous mushroom from the edible ones that grow in its midst, and if anything this statement serves as a good framework for appreciating some of the major events which happen during this half of the series. Kakunojo in particular is blessed with power, only to become poisoned by its insidious nature as a conduit for the Head of the Conqueror’s whims, and there are several other characters whose roles as “good guys” are muddied as they complete actions that become obstacles to the goals of main cast.
As it is with almost any conflict in history, the various opposing forces whose ongoing war serves as a backdrop of the series each hold some meritorious viewpoints – even Enomoto/The Head of the Conqueror, who is ostensibly portrayed as the villain as the show reaches its endgame. His goal of conquering Japan with the purpose of uniting its many fragmented factions, thus allowing the country to present its best face to the rest of the world, is in itself a positive step for a country only beginning to come to terms with having been forced to open its borders to trade. It’s his malevolent methodology, one which values destruction, manipulation and ultimately complete cleansing through violence over more constructive means of unification, that becomes the poison in the mushroom. Some early episodes in this set also deal more directly with the toll of war on the general populace; Kakunojo and Akizuki encounter a town burned completely to the ground during their travels, coming face-to-face with the bitter pill often glossed-over in history textbooks – the civilian toll of war.
This is of course all fascinating to think about, but one of the weaknesses of this set of episodes (and to some extent, those in the previous set) is that they tend to focus almost too much on these “big picture” parts of the primary conflict while paying less attention to the elements that have more potential to attract and keep an audience – the characters. Though the series manages to juggle its large cast fairly effectively, blending its manufactured heroes together with several embellished versions of actual historical figures, I found myself unable to connect with many of the characters on an emotional level, which then made it more difficult to feel invested in the story itself. The relationship between Akizuki and Kakunojo is stretched especially thin over these episodes; they seem as if they should be lovers, because that’s would be the obvious way for the story to play out. Unfortunately, the relationship is so lacking in sexual tension that whatever payoff occurs feels obligatory rather than organic. There are also multiple deaths that feel as though they ought to have more weight, and yet they often end up feeling inconsequential.
On the brighter side, it’s possible to gloss over many of the side stories and secondary relationships to enjoy the more fantastical elements of the story on their own, and I believe that’s where many people are bound to find the most enjoyment. Forgetting for a moment that the tale involves real life leaders of the Shinsengumi and famous military leaders, the core of the plot involving the Head of the Conqueror and the Eternal Assassin (with his magic sword, naturally) is still strong enough to carry the series through. To this end, the various scenes during which the animation studio really pulls out all the stops are incredibly fun to watch on their own; during the last few episodes, these moments occur with some frequency, and fans of the art of animation itself should enjoy the chance to see some talented artists at work.
Again, the language options for this series are a strangely mixed bag of decent performances and very obvious missteps. Because of the clash of cultures in the series, both the Japanese and English dub tracks are riddled with some occasionally amusing problems. There’s a tendency towards “engrish” in the Japanese language track whenever English-speaking characters have dialog, providing some episodes with elements that are unintentionally humorous. Along those same lines, the English dub suffers from some hammy accents that prove to be incredibly distracting and can affect the tone at times. In both cases, though, the main characters are well-acted and both language options offer a decent interpretation of the story.
At times, Intrigue in the Bakumatsu is simply too ambitious. It bites off much more than it can chew as far as plot is concerned, and all but the most meticulous viewers will probably find themselves stymied by the sheer number of events taking place at any one time. There are also so many characters that it would be almost impossible to give them all the screen time and development that they deserve. However, viewers who stick with the story to the end (and who can piece together enough to make sense of it) will likely find some aspect worth appreciating, whether that be the moments of strong animation, the blending of history and fantasy, or the deeper musings about war and human nature that spring to the surface from time-to-time.
Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: C+
Video Grade: C+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: C+
Extras Grade: C-
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: November 27, 2012
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