Hakkenden: Eight Dogs Of The East Season 1 (Cert 15)
3 Discs DVD/2 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 334 minutes approx.
When you are creating a manga and you take your inspiration from a legendary epic series that runs for 106 volumes, it is fair to say there is plenty of material to choose from to adapt. Or, if you are Miyuki Abe, you can just borrow the very basic elements of the central premise then make your own story up, as she did with Hakkenden: Eight Dogs Of The East.
A prologue set five years before the main story sees three young people, Shino Inuzuka, Sosuke Inukawa and Hamaji clinging onto life after a plague has wiped out their entire village. A mysterious figure appears and offers them refuge in his church, but only after he gives Shino, the sickest of the trio, a chance to make a pact which will save his life.
Fast forward to the present day and the three kids have grown to be a close family living at the church although the rest of the villagers view them as demons through surviving that deadly plague. Little do they know the truth behind their survival and Shino’s in particular, which is about to be exposed when representatives from the Imperial Church arrive looking for Shino.
It is probably a little spurious to call Abe’s work an adaptation of Kyokutei Bakin’s monstrous tome Nansō Satomi Hakkenden since the only real connecting features are the characters’ names and the dog motif, otherwise everything else is exclusive to Abe. With Bakin’s novel having been written in the early 19th century, one can infer Abe’s intention of introducing younger viewers to it via her updated meshing of styles.
And that is something which defines this anime series and not in a good way. To expand further on Shino’s situation, the pact he made was to take possession of a demon sword called Murasame which can kill anything. Murasame rests in Shino’s right arm but also manifests itself as a talking crow that flies about independently – quite why it needs to be embedded in Shino’s arm remains unanswered.
Shino is not alone as Sosuke was also suffused with the ability to shape shift as a dog. These powers are denoted by one of eight beads representing a human trait – duty, devotion, faith, wisdom, etc. but the holders have been scattered around the country having been brought back from the dead. Satome Rio wants Shino and Sosuke to locate the other Bead Holders, keeping Hamaji hostage in the meantime.
Noble quests such as this are part of Asian folklore so Abe hasn’t strayed too far from the mark in that respect, but the world building is very confused and haphazard, rife with incongruity and jarring style clashes. For instance, this is clearly an historical setting with no modern technology, traditional attire and swords for weapons, yet Shino and other characters wears modern casual clothes while Hamaji goes to an all girl’s school with the obligatory kawaii school uniform!
Similarly erratic is the narrative which is also not a new problem in anime. We’ve all seen shows that catch our attention with a stirring opening chapter revealing the fertile concept, only to then abandon it for the next ten episodes in favour of tired, uninspired clichéd and unrelated nonsense. This show is sadly no different but takes things a step further by waiting until episode three to introduce the central Bead Holder plot.
In the interim the time is spent clumsily introducing the characters and laying the foundations of the havoc the demon powers can cause, especially Murasame. Ordinarily this would be a boon but it makes for an inauspicious start to the show and without a properly defined purpose, leaving the hook so late is likely to deter some viewers from progressing with this show.
Given the nature of the Eight Bead Holders plot this is a character focused series, and while an eclectic bunch awaits our acquaintance, it seems everyone has some sort of tragic history to relate, a common trait among the Bead Holders as if this was by design. That inference is deliberate as this is one facet of the story which as yet remains unclear, although not the only one.
The Shino/Murasame relationship is an interesting one, apparently unique to just them as Bead Holders due to Murasame’s extreme powers. Shino was 13 when the pact was made and has stayed in this form despite now being 18, a side effect of this demonic possession. It is foretold that anyone possessed by Murasame will meet a tragic end but for the moment the pair get along fine, except for when the spirit goes rogue and Shino is the one who suffers.
It all sounds so promising which is why it is frustrating that we are forced trudge through many unrelated and uninspired episodes that flit between lame comedy and occasionally thoughtful and melancholic horror before resuming the main story. Only are we teased at the last minute with a cliffhanger to set up the second series does the initial promise of this show resurface, possibly a little too late for some.
Visually the presentation from Studio Deen is adequate with only the occasional glimpse of the potential inventive imagery a fantasy world such as this offers, but nothing is particularly memorable. Character designs are from the standard shonen catalogue, nobody really stands out, not even Shino, so it is a pyrrhic victory that the cast are just on the right side of likeable to hold our attention.
By lumbering itself with such a poor sense of direction, Hakkenden: Eight Dogs Of The East does more harm than good in trying to endear itself to the audience. It’s not essentially bad, just pedestrian and lacking in focus for a tale built around a multiple character quest, one which has yet to fully establish a purpose for.
Whether it has done enough to convince viewers to invest in the second volume we shall see, but confidence is unfortunately not high.
Japanese 2.0 w/ English Subtitles
Audio Commentary On Episodes 1 and 4
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Rating – ** ½
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