Anime Review: HAKKENDEN: EIGHT DOGS OF THE EAST, Episodes 1-4

Run for your lives! It's another reboot on the loose! Someone's taken one of the best animated shows of the nineties and turned it from a stunningly drawn, bloodsoaked chanbara fantasy into a goddamn airbrushed period sitcom with Beautiful Men waving their swords everywhere! Is nothing sacred? Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East is the latest attempt to tweak the venerable epic novel Nansō Satomi Hakkenden into something with a newer, sexier brand identity today's fangirls will find easier to cuddle up to, and oh God oh God oh God why can't they just leave my favourite things alone?

The original Hakkenden is a monumental set of 108 volumes (yes, you read that right) written in the early nineteenth century, telling the story of eight half-brothers born of the, ah, unusual marriage between their mother, the princess of a samurai clan, and a dog. (No, not like that. It's weird, but not that weird.) They run around feudal Japan, having adventures, learning important lessons about bushido and family bonds, the usual. It's been adapted for film and TV numerous times, and the terrific animated version from the mid-90s - plain old The Hakkenden - is probably one of the best known versions in the West.

To be serious, then, the novel itself has been reimagined over and over already. And reboots aren't inherently evil, natch. If we set every work of fiction in stone the moment X number of people agreed they were happy with it we'd still be watching Shakespeare at the original Globe Theater. (Although we sort of are. Darn.) Still, Eight Dogs of the East looks none too promising, even if you've never heard of the original. Perfect hair, deadpan wisecracks and smouldering glances; they've turned what was essentially Kurosawa's Ran with extra demons into Rurouni Kenshin. There's no way this could possibly be any good, right?

But it is. Four episodes in and Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East is arguably the best show airing in the current anime season. It's no masterpiece, but it's a solid piece of popcorn fantasy elevated by a sharp script, a proper sense of mystery (not simply "What the hell is going on?") and some excellent voice acting. You can tell the whole thing was driven by marketing demands as much as the urge to tell a good story, but there's actual natural, believable characterisation, a dry sense of humour and the Big Reveals turn up when they're good and ready, not when the viewer pushes a button.

Eight Dogs of the East is really a very loose take on the original novel, or even the earlier OVA. While it's still a feudal setting the first of the titular warriors is a young boy, Shino, who's one of only three survivors after his village is overwhelmed by a terrible plague and subsequently razed to the ground. A mysterious stranger offers him a choice; give up and die, or take up the demon blade Murasame and live, at the cost of outwardly remaining a thirteen-year-old and potentially meeting a terrible end in the future. Shino picks door B, dragging the two friends who almost perished along with him, but five years on it emerges that some very nasty people are searching for anyone in whom the stranger invested sorcerous power.

Some elements are the same; Shino and everyone else he meets with similar magical powers still have the same birthmark; they carry, or once carried a bead marked with one of eight Confucian virtues (mostly indicating their primary personality trait), and Shino does get to hear the story of the princess and her four-legged groom. But he's clearly not that interested. Hey, he's got other things on his mind, with at least three different sides squabbling over the sword he's carrying and the way it slowly becomes apparent the boy hasn't actually told his fellow survivors everything about the stranger and the magical bargain he offered.

Hence that element of real mystery. Compared to the standard pandering fluff this season (Amnesia, for example) the new Hakkenden, while hardly perfect, is still a joy so far. Very little of all this background is just doled out as is. People have different takes on what's going on, and none of them are above keeping secrets. Loyalties shift, even just a little. Not only is the hero occasionally childish and petulant - and neither is presented as a particularly heroic quality - these things actually affect how people behave towards him, and the decisions they go on to make.

Eight Dogs of the East does still pander, of course, and the Beautiful Men do get in the way of the story when it's a little too obvious a character's hair fell just so or his clothes came off primarily to get otaku all hot and bothered. There's at least one minor story development towards the first arc that hints at yet more goofing off where it's really not needed. And while the art is consistent, and reasonably strong, it's notable that action scenes really aren't this show's forte - still frames and flat, awkward poses abound.

It's popcorn, but tasty, satisfying popcorn for the most part, where so many other shows come off as constantly offering you stale refills, desperate to get the viewer to keep watching. ("Here, how about some swimsuits? I could blow some stuff up, would that help? Or someone could catch a terminal illness?") There's a sense of purpose even when things get a little too silly, enough the show feels like a good time even if you're just in it for supernatural shenanigans and a Bakumatsu-era fashion parade. I'm crossing my fingers things don't veer completely off course but for the moment, at least Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East feels like an adventure, not just taking me for a ride. That's more than enough to keep me tuning in.

Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East is currently screening - region permitting - on the video streaming website Crunchyroll.
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