Basilisk is a 2005 historical fiction ninja anime from Studio GONZO. It is the story of a devious war between two rival ninja clans, their short, brutal battles, and the tragedy of a meaningless war. Set in 1614, the early Edo period of Japan, Basilisk suggests a hidden ninja conflict took place, orchestrated by real historical figures. It is based upon the work of the same author whose work inspired the anime movie Ninja Scroll and Basilisk shares the same premise of ninja with inhuman abilities.
Warning: This review contains revelations about this series that might be considered spoilers. However, most of the revelations are focused on the early episodes and this contains nothing like a plot synopsis.
Basilisk is a single long story that has been cut into 24 half-hour episodes. The original story was written in a 1959 Japanese novel called The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada. Since the original novel has recently been translated into English, there is no doubt that the story that runs through Basilisk has come to us mostly unaltered from its original form.
Despite the similarities between the works, the original novel deserves to be totally eclipsed by the anime. Almost every deviation that the anime takes from the original has been an improvement. It is as if the creators of Basilisk have spent all these years working out how to tell the story in an even more exciting, powerful, and dramatic way.
Before Basilisk was produced there was a 2004 award-winning manga called Basilisk: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls. This manga sets the visual style for the anime and it takes a few primitive steps towards improving upon Futara Yamada's original work. The characters are deepened and certain parts of the story are expanded, but it is nothing more than a scaffolding on which the anime was built. Do not look to the manga for anything superior to the anime.
Basilisk starts with a bang. We are immediately given a gratuitous action sequence where two ninja use their strange abilities against each other for the amusement of the famous historical shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and the legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo. The battle serves no purpose in the story, but it lets the audience know what they can expect from this series: ninja with supernatural powers going head-to-head as two rival ninja clans tear each other to pieces. The novel began exactly the same way.
Do not expect this anime to be about action. The ninja battles are beautifully animated, but they are also very short. These fights are fast and deadly: one ninja uses a trick to catch the other by surprise and every mistake is fatal. Shortly after the opening ninja battle ends we see the other face of Basilisk: Ogen and Danjo, two ninja from opposite clans have fallen in love but the fighting between the clans has put distrust between them. When Tokugawa declares that the clans must fight to the death, the two old lovers realize that it is finally time to end their decades of separation and kill each other. They grew old waiting for a chance to settle their repressed feelings and they became very skilled and devious ninja, so there is little hope for either of them to survive that confrontation.
In that first episode we lose two characters we had grown to care about and in almost every episode after that we lose more. There is no taking prisoners in a fight between ninja; every time two enemy ninja meet someone is going to die. What makes Basilisk amazing is that it makes you care about these ninja despite how briefly you know them. It shows the horrors of war by making characters on both sides sympathetic even as they are killing each other. We see them grieving for the dead and regretting the pointlessness of the killing even as they are powerless to stop it. Even for the ones who want to make peace it is impossible to trust an enemy who is so lethal.
The adopted grandchildren of Ogen and Danjo have fallen in love and become the leaders of their clans, so it is up to them to find a way to end the war and live in peace. When Ogen's friends and family were killed by Danjo's clan, she rejected him and swore to kill him, but her granddaughter Oboro has decided that she and Gennosuke are a single soul split into two; even watching him rip out the eyes of a ninja who was like her brother cannot weaken her desire to reunite with Gennosuke.
Basilisk has something for everyone. It has beautifully animated ninja battles. It even has a sexy female ninja with large breasts who travels by jumping through the trees. It has a cute flashback episode where we get to see our heroes as children. It has touching drama that slows down in just the right places and lingers just when you want time to savor a moment with beautiful theme music.
Throughout the series there is a building sense of finality. Characters are dying; there is no going back and no possibility of the sort of endless rambling you would find in Inuyasha or Dragonball. You can feel it racing towards a final confrontation to end everything. When it finally ends, the story is truly finished; there is no possibility of another season and it is completely satisfying.
Of course, Basilisk also has weaknesses. It has an episode which is mostly a recap of previous episodes. That is the only episode that is almost boring and it has just enough new content to make it difficult to skip. That alone is a terrible mar on the face of such a flawless anime, but it also has one other failing: while most of the characters are beautifully developed, it feels like Gyoubu is begging for our sympathy rather than earning it. His story is less tragic than it should have been and you can see what the writers were trying to do, but in his case they do not quite succeed.
Despite its problems, Basilisk is some of the best television I have ever seen. It is a classic with the rare quality that you will want to watch it again and again because almost every episode has something that you want to come back to, and by the time you are done re-watching the early episodes you will be in the mood to experience the awesome climactic final episodes one more time.
The rival clans of Basilisk are based upon real historical Japanese ninja clans, the Iga and the Kouga. In this fantastic world the clans have used generations of selective breeding to give themselves inhuman abilities with the Kouga generally preferring subtle techniques while the Iga strive for combat power.
Be aware that some of these ninja techniques are hidden and are not revealed until later in the series. This character guide may be considered a spoiler.
Ogen: Ogen is an old and experienced ninja with control over a trained hawk. She was the leader of the Iga and was called to the capital to hear the announcement of renewed war between Kouga and Iga.
Oboro: The adopted granddaughter of Ogen has no ninja skills but she has the extraordinary ability to disable ninja skills in anyone who looks into her eyes.
Tenzen: The heartless and ambitious Yakushiji Tenzen takes over the clan after Ogen's death when Oboro refuses to lead them into battle against the Kouga. He fights with an ordinary katana but he has the secret ability to easily recover from any injury.
Akeginu: Oboro's loving servant and mother-figure is a pale woman with the ability to spray her blood through her skin to form a red mist. She is close friends with Koshirou.
Koshirou: Tenzen's naive young servant carries two sickles which he can throw like boomerangs. By whistling he can create a swirling vacuum in the air that instantly destroys anything it touches. He cares about his duty to Oboro more than anything.
Jingoro: Amayo Jingoro is a weak and cowardly ninja who can use salt to turn his body into a blob like a large slug. He can use this ability to squirm into small places and silently sneak up on his enemies or wiggle out of their clutches.
Nenki: The Iga's monkey ninja, Mino Nenki is covered in thick hair that he can extend and manipulate like limbs. He can move very quickly by swinging from tree to tree on his hair. He can even stiffen his hairs like blades and skewer his enemies.
Hotarubi: Hotarubi is the innocent female ninja who uses snakes as weapons and can summon clouds of glowing butterflies to confuse her enemies. She is in love with the handsome Yashamaru and would do anything for him.
Yashamaru: The Iga have a young and charismatic ninja who wields a uniquely powerful weapon. Ogen brought him to the capital to display the way he flings razor sharp wires at his enemies. These wires are made from the hair of young women, coated in animal oil, and so sharp that they can cut through stone and steel.
Rousai: The old man of the ten Iga ninja is Azuki Rousai. He is filled with cold hate for the Kouga and he can extend his arms and legs to enormous lengths to crush or whip the life from his enemies.
Danjo: Danjo is the elder ninja and leader of the Kouga clan. He is able to spit needles from his mouth with enough power and accuracy to kill with one shot. He has been in love with the leader of the Iga for decades but could never act upon his feelings because of the rivalry between the clans.
Gennosuke: Danjo's adopted grandson is by far the most powerful ninja because he has the power to drive anyone who looks into his eyes to immediate suicide. Still hoping to bring peace to the clans, Danjo has taught Gennosuke to try to understand his enemies and Danjo and Ogen arranged for Gennosuke and Oboro to marry.
Hyouma: Gennosuke's teacher is a clichéd blind ninja who moves and fights as if he could see. He has given Gennosuke the skill to sense the world with his eyes closed and because they are family, Muroga Hyouma also has the fantastic ability to kill just by opening his eyes.
Kagerou: One of Kouga's female assassins has the curse of killing any man she sleeps with. She is in love with Gennosuke but is deeply bitter because she can never act upon her feelings; even kissing him turns her breath to poison. The wedding plans of Gennosuke and Oboro have filled Kagerou with jealous hatred of the Iga. Like Tenzen of the Iga, she is one of the main supporters of the war.
Saemon: Kisaragi Saemon is Kouga's most devious spy because he has the ability to perfectly mimic any face and voice. He lures his enemies to their death by making them trust him and reveal their secrets.
Gyoubu: Like Rousai of the Iga, Kasumi Gyoubu is filled with hate and is always looking for a fight. He has the ability to flatten his huge, muscular body and merge invisibly with any surface. He can carry no weapons while using his ability but he can easily strangle his enemies to death with his powerful hands.
Okoi: Saemon's younger sister is one of the most sexy characters. She jumps through the trees with bare legs and large breasts. The amount of skin she shows is useful for seducing her enemies, but her skin is also one of her most powerful weapons. Whenever she has skin contact with an enemy she creates a suction so he cannot pull away and then draws his blood into her body through her touch.
Udono: The comic relief of the series, Udono Jousuke is lovable and round. He is always looking for a good time with a beautiful woman and cannot keep his hands off of Okoi and Akeginu. Fortunately, he has the ability to give his flesh the springy consistency of rubber so that he cannot be injured when his advances are rejected.
Jubei: The strangest ninja by far, Jimushi Jubei has no arms or legs. He is able to wiggle along the ground at incredible speed and his enormously long tongue can hold a sword when he needs to attack.
Kazamachi: One family of ninja in the Kouga clan has developed features that resemble a spider. Kazamachi Shogen has very long arms and legs and walks on his hands and feet. His phlegm is strong and sticky so that it acts like a spider web and he can easily immobilize other ninja by spitting on them. This is the powerful technique that Danjo chose to display to Ieyasu.