The world of feudal Japan was one of swords, sorcery, and legend. Although the same can be said of the medieval period of the western world, signs of this period are often evident in the Japan of today. The stories about that time period are more than just tales of lore...the spiritual undertones still ring true throughout the culture, and certainly the moral underpinnings of sacrifice, bravery, stoic resolve, and honor are seen in the arts and the people as a whole. The Hakkenden, which is set in the late 15th century in feudal Japan, is based on a 19th century work full of action, intrigue, and plots that could make your head spin. If you enjoy this rather unique show, you'll find that the first volume alone will only whet your appetite for more.
The first episode sets the dramatic stage for the rest of the series. The Satomi clan is facing its final stand versus the Anzai army. In a dramatic turn of events, the princess of the Satomi is married to her dog, who was jokingly promised her hand in marriage if he could stop the Anzai army from completely defeating them. With the head of the army's leader in tow, the dog takes its reward. This strange pairing ends in tragedy, and the legend of the Dog Warriors begins. In the second episode, we see a young man entrusted with a legendary sword, and the stage is set for the Dog Warriors to emerge from the shadows.
Now let's get one thing clear...this is not an easy series to follow. The first two episodes are loaded with narration about who is doing what for whom and where everybody is going to fight everybody else. This adds to the literary feel, but it can be confusing. Those who like action, though, shouldn't be disappointed--there is plenty of violence going on in the wings. However, the story is by far the main point--Ninja Scroll it's not. The animation itself is relatively clean, though the art style itself is a bit unusual, more like what was seen recently in the film Legend of Crystania. It services the story well enough, but it isn't particularly engaging. The characters themselves also aren't particularly developed within the first two episodes, which disappointed me a good deal, but this looks to change as the story progresses.
Personally, I found the story fascinating and exciting, and want to see more of the show. The dub, which is all I had available to review, is certainly worthwhile. Although the acting isn't universally good, it's not bad, and some of the voice actors actually did quite a good job. The translation seemed to be reasonable--I can't see how a story like this could make sense without being pretty accurate. I don't see this show being very popular among those who like typical ninja clan films, simply because there's too much plot to get in the way of the action. However, from the OP/ED sequences that take on a classical feel (with no J-Pop blasting in the background) to the uniquely different storyline, it's clear that The Hakkenden intends to take the high road and stay true to its literary roots. It's not perfect--it's still too hard to follow on the first viewing--but I look forward to seeing more.
The Hakkenden Vol. 1 -- graphic violence, mature themes -- B+