What They Say:
When their village was wiped out five years ago, there were only three young survivors: boys Shino Inuzuka and Sosuke Inukawa and the girl Hamaji. Through a quirk of fate, both boys share the same peony-shaped birthmark.
Genpachi Inukai and Kobungo Inuta were raised hundreds of miles away as foster brothers, but they too share the same birthmark. When they went north as part of the army three years ago, they went to confront demons and came back forever transformed. Now the Imperial Church has come for Shino and Sosuke and they must find eight mystical gems and their owners or face a fate worse than death at the hands of the Church.
In a rare move, Sentai released the series with two language tracks: English 2.0 and Japanese 2.0. There are no bells and whistles like directionality, but considering I hardly ever notice that, it wasn’t an issue for me. English subtitles are also provided for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Each episode is presented in 16:9 anamorphic aspect ratio. The transfer was crisp and clear with no issues.
The thirteen episodes in season one are spread out across three discs. The first two rest in a center inset and the third in the back cover. The front cover features the main characters Shino, Sōsuke, and Genpachi standing against a pink/white background with ivy vines growing behind them. The spine features the same picture of Shino, and the back cover follows the standard format with screenshots from the show, a summary, technical specifications, and cast and crew credits. It’s a solid, if plain, design.
The menu follows the typical Sentai formula. A static image of two of the characters appears on the left side. A stylized menu occupies the right side. There’s no “Play All” button but selecting the first episode does that anyway. The menu is easy to navigate even if it is a bit vanilla.
Not much to see here, just the standard clean op/ed and Sentai trailers. There are commentary tracks on some of the episodes, so that’s a nice change of pace.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
For an anime about a boy with a crow that lives in his arm that sometimes turns into a legendary sword, Hakkenden has a pretty solid literary background. The show is based on the manga by Miyuki Abe, which, in turn, is based on the epic novel series by Kyokutei Bakin, written in the 1800s.
The novel series (totaling 106 volumes) takes place in the Sengoku period and tells the story of eight half-brothers descended from a dog. The series follows their adventures and plays with themes of loyalty and family honor and was generally well-received.
The anime takes place in a more contemporary (if nebulous) setting and it follows the three survivors of a plague-ridden village, Shino Inuzuka, Sōsuke Inukawa, and the single-named Hamaji. Because people are generally terrible, the three find themselves looked upon with fear and suspicion despite the fact that the plague ended five years ago. The three live in a church near a different village, and other than the whole being looked upon with suspicion thing, their lives go pretty well. That is, until the Imperial Church summons them for a friendly “chat.”
The Church elders believe that Shino possesses the demon blade “Murasame” and, well, what they actually want with the sword is unclear, other than some vague promise of power. They’re right in that Shino does have it. The sword bonded with the boy when he was dying, and Shino used the power to save Sōsuke and Hamaji. The sword switches between two forms when it’s not resting in Shino’s arm: a crow with an incredibly annoying voice, and a katana. Sōsuke also possesses a secret: he can transform into a dog and back. Hamaji appears to be normal, except that she is quite physically strong.
To its credit, the Church did ask politely, but Shino refused. The Church then kidnaps Hamaji and forces Shino and Sōsuke to travel to the capital city. There they come under the protection of Rio Satomi, one of the members of the “Four Sacred Beast Houses” and already I think you can see that there is way too much plot getting in the way of the story here.
Essentially, except for the first episode, Shino, Sōsuke, and Hamaji live and operate out of the capital city, trying to stay under the Church’s radar, while at the same time searching for the eight holders of sacred beads. Each bead bearer also possesses a peony birthmark, has died and come back to life, and has either a guardian or ability that is keeping them alive. Shino and Sōsuke possess two of the beads, and they reluctantly search for the other six, often getting sidetracked in the process.
A great deal of the season involves Shino, Sōsuke, and the ever-increasing cast meeting new people and getting into trouble. The beads come into play fairly often, but the story gets lost in its mythology and plot twists. Murasame apparently keeps Shino at the age he was when he died. Sōsuke is missing half of his soul, and we later learn that it’s running around, making deals like he’s the Devil, and trading favors for body parts. And, well, it just goes on from there. Nothing anchors the show, and summarizing it is difficult because it goes off in a million different directions.
Perhaps because of that, tone and character suffer throughout the thirteen episodes, Murasame acting as the prime example. The animation of the bird exiting Shino’s arm is quite gross and disturbing, but when it arrives, it acts like a silly talking crow with the mentality of a five-year-old. The other characters constantly refer to it as a monster, but we don’t see it until pretty late in the season, and by that time, it feels completely out of character.
The show oscillates between typical anime goofiness, drama, and horror, and while it does all three well enough, it never comes together. The best, most affective storyline for me dealt with a woman named Kohaku who worked in a brothel. Dying of some unnamed disease, she visits a church where Sōsuke happens to be handing out the benedictions. Shino watches from the audience and ends up striking a conversation with Kohaku, who says she doesn’t believe she deserves God’s blessing. Shino takes it upon himself to bless her and gives her a pendant.
Later, Sōsuke’s Shadow (aka the other half of his soul) makes a deal with Kohaku to extend her life by a week in exchange for one of her golden eyes. She accepts and then just kind of wanders around, interacting with Shino at times, but generally lamenting the awful particulars of her life. When summarized, it doesn’t sound like much, but the pathos of the character and the way she’s drawn and acted were genuinely moving and tragic. It’s just a pity that the rest of the season didn’t live up to that high point.
Again, the show jumps all over the place, and perhaps the best way I can illustrate that is by following up my summary of Kohaku’s story with a bit about my favorite part of the entire season: the five fox spirits controlled by Kaname Osaki. The spirits work as his defenders, his surrogate family, and his servants, and my favorite parts were just watching them going about their chores, standing on their hind legs, and wearing adorable kimonos. If the entire series had just been about them, I would have enjoyed this quite a bit more.
So, there you have it: adorable, kimono-wearing fox spirits and depressing tales of women sold into sexual bondage when they were children. One could say that this anime has everything, but one would be wrong.
Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East has so much plot that I have no idea what the story’s actually about. While individual parts shine, they never come together to form a cohesive tale. The tone and the characters shift wildly, and there’s no real consistency or center to give it form or meaning. Frankly, I’d be happy if in season two they ditched the rest of the characters and just gave us the day-to-day adventures of the fox spirits. A kind of slice-of-life Azumangah Daioh series. That’s probably not going to happen, but a man can dream. Dr. J gives this a…
Content Grade: D+
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: C
Menu Grade: C
Extras Grade: C
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: May 20th, 2014
Running Time: 325 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Panasonic Viera TH42PX50U 42” Plasma HDTV, Sony BPD-S3050 BluRay Player w/HDMI Connection