Shigurui: Zen and Carnage

September 14, 2010

In zen (禅) practice, one searches for “true nature”‘ and “see what’s not there”. An example of would be meditating in Japanese rock garden (also known as zen garden). When meditating in zen garden, you don’t simply see rocks and gravels. You feel the heaviness of rocks, hear the propagating ripples of gravels, and grasp the spatial intimacy or distance between them. Detaching further from worldly concerns and falling deeper into meditative state, one starts envisioning islands floating in ocean out of this simple garden. It’s to sense the true nature rather than see ‘what is merely there’.

Of course, I didn’t visualise any of this when I visited Ryoan-ji myself. I suppose one requires an immense concentration and imaginative mind. And lack of tourists whispering behind you.

Shigurui is a lot like zen garden in that its contemplative and meditative approach to visual and musical direction seeks to portray “true nature” of things, not simply moving pictures of samurais fighting.

Take the above scene for example. You don’t just see a punch on the floor. You sense the quake of a punch, feeling the rippling magnitude of its power deforming the floor, so powerful the poor guy visualises himself sinking into the dent like quicksand. Stark lighting effects and low colour saturation scheme as you can see above are just few of many excellent visual directions used to illustrate the bizarre non-material world of zen in Shigurui.

Just as rocks can become islands, crawling hands might as well be creepy spider legs.

I also loved the ‘stillness’ of visuals, where very few movements are animated unless necessary, which helps our perception to fall deeper and deeper into Shigurui’s deadly meditative mood, while making something like a sword swing appear lightning fast in contrast. Production-wise, this less-animation approach meant more time and efforts could be put into enhancing the detailing and refining the quality of art, making Shigurui so visually striking and well-composed piece of work.

Does one see a samurai? Or the fortifying stance of demigod?

One can not leave out the impeccable sound design of Shigurui when talking about its atmosphere. I found ‘didgeridoo’ to be by far the most interesting instrument to be used in BGMs because it’s a traditional Aboriginal instrument originating from Australia, not Japan. And yet, it was the perfect instrument. Like Japanese music for zen meditation, music of didgeridoo uses breath control to reach another state (known as Dreaming by Aborigines).

Below is an example of a chilling BGM used whenever someone is about to DESTROY another, where we are then granted x-ray vision of their tearing muscles and shattering bones at work.

There are plenty of immersive soundtracks to be found in Shigurui, utilising thundering taiko drums, sweeping shakuhachi flutes, rhythmic Buddhist chants, and melancholic cicada cries. Once you start listening, relentlessly rhythmic sounds slowly breaks you down, detaching you further and further away. Without realising your mind drifts away into that cold, brooding abyss– that grim psychics of the samurais who walk the bloody path of perfecting their mind and body to kill and destroy. Shigurui is more than just a story, or entertainment for that matter. It is meditation on carnage.

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5 Responses to “Shigurui: Zen and Carnage”

  1. chaostangent Says:

    I came to much the same conclusion as you with regards the series although without the (in retrospect) obvious connection with Zen philosophies.

    Spot on about the sound design though, I hadn’t twigged to the didgeridoo, assumed it was one of the multitude of Japanese instruments I wasn’t aware of.

    Are you familiar with the manga at all? I have it ready to read but Madhouse’s visuals are too fresh in my mind to jump straight into the differing, monochrome style.

  2. bateszi Says:

    Honestly, the spider/hands thing still creeps me out even now. This a great show, and watching that video really gave me the urge to go back and rewatch it. Shigurui just kinda came out of nowhere in 2007, amidst the likes of Gurren Lagann and Baccano, but today I realise just how rare a gem it is.

  3. gaguri Says:

    @chaostangent

    I haven’t read the manga yet but from what I remember of ghostlightning’s post on it (+blade of immortal manga), I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. However, I doubt the manga will be any better than anime (perhaps just different experience). It just feels like that the manga was meant to be made for anime you know.

    @bateszi

    that spider certainly sends a chill down your spine, which I believe would be the kind of sensation a woman would get if she finds a lecherous old creep trying to do you…

    Shigurui is a gem alright, I don’t think we’ll get to see anything like it for a while.

  4. vendredi Says:

    You know, I passed on Shigurui a while back because most of the impressions I did get were just of a simple carnage exhibition – grim and dark simple for it’s own sake. Thanks for this post, it’s gone a long way in changing how to approach it.

  5. gaguri Says:

    well it’s an AWESOME carnage exhibition =D, glad you’re giving it another go!


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