They don’t stay this happy for long…
I have been wanting to make this post for a very long time, and by a very long time I mean since I first watched the series in 2008. Since that point on, people have asked me what exactly I see in this series. Why do I like it so much? How can I interpret it from a feminist perspective? How can I enjoy a series this tragic when I am an eternal optimist? Why does this series stay with me even as I grow out of my “edgy” late teens?
Let me teach you…
The key to any good work is a good story, one that draws the reader right in and holds their attention in a vice grip. Basilisk is the tale of two lovers, Oboro and Gennosuke, whose families, the Iga and the Kouga ninja clans, respectfully, have been bitter enemies for many years. The only thing keeping the clans from slaughtering each other is a very fragile truce instated by Hattori Hanzo. However, this truce is broken by Tokugawa Ieysu, as a war between ninjas, each side supported by one of his successors, would decide who would take power once the sickly warlord died, without any noble blood needing to be spilled. Twenty ninjas are chosen in total, ten from Kouga, and ten from Iga. With both sides so equally matched, however, the outcome is indecisive. This is very unfortunate for Gennosuke and Oboro, whose families are more than eager to get back to fighting one another. Behind the scenes, Yakushiji Tenzen, the second in command of the Iga Clan, plots to twist the outcome of the war to his advantage so he can rule Japan from the shadows.
The way I describe Basilisk to people is “Romeo and Juliet with ninjas”, however, this is slightly inaccurate. While Oboro and Gennosuke are the main characters, the entire plot does not revolve around their love affair, but rather it hinges on the power of the political elite. It is because of the need for a “clean” succession that all of these characters must fight and die. In a sense, that makes this story an incredibly Marxist one, with the lower class, disposable ninjas sent to fight each other while elites watch. Class differences can even be seen between members of the clans themselves. For example, Oboro, being the granddaughter of the leader of the Iga, is fairly privileged and kept in an isolated, naive state, whereas many of the other ninjas of her clan are familiar with the ways of the world and have developed different ways of coping with it, from bitter hatred to gallows humor.
One of the most interesting things about this story is that, despite what some people will tell you, it is a very orange-and-blue moral tale, with all of the characters having virtues and vices, (with the exception of the Complete Monster of a villain Tenzen). No side is the “evil side” and no side is the “good side”, and both sides have sympathetic characters. Interestingly, both sides also have hideously ugly, bizarre, or bestial characters. Generally in anime, it tends to be that pretty people are good and ugly people are bad, but some of the best characters in the story are quite far from being bishounen, and some of the bishounen are terrible people, (once again, the not bad looking Tenzen is EVIL, whereas an ugly character like Kazamachi has a noble sense of honor about him.)
I absolutely LOVE the characters of this story, and they are what makes the story, drives the plot, and create emotion in the readers and viewers. No character is simply defined by what they do or what they look like, and they all do good and bad things. I find that other viewers tend to take out their anger on a character that killed a character that they liked, vilifying them and making them seem like monsters, but the truth is, with the exception of Tenzen, nobody is really like that. They have to fight and kill the opposing side. They have to defend themselves, Sometimes, they have to act underhandedly to survive. That doesn’t make them evil, it makes them resourceful.
This is one big question I have been asked a lot. How can I, a feminist, like an anime series where women are killed, exposed, and treated like dirt? Well, let me begin by offering a crash course. Feminism, by definition, does not refer to the superiority of women, nor does it mean that women should make it through a story completely unscathed, (that would be INCREDIBLY sexist). The women in this series are on equal footing with the men, and, with the exception of the rather weak Oboro, can hold their own in battle. It is not until just before the tragic end where Oboro gains the strength to kill someone off, (but it is AMAZING when she does). One of the strongest characters in the beginning of the series is a woman, who only is killed when one of the men she attacks defends himself in a rather horrific way. Still, women and men in this series fight, die, live, and express themselves equally. There are also many different types of women, from the shy and naive Oboro, to the tomboyish Okoi, to the elderly Ogen, and all of them are fantastic characters with their own motives and stories. My top favorite characters are men, but I do have to give credit where credit is due to these ladies of war.
“But it’s anti-feminist because boobs and rape”. *sigh* I know that it’s a very sad thing to say, but rape is a real thing. It really happens to people, and there are really people out in the world that feel that “rape is love”. One also has to remember that this series takes place in the 1600s, where many men felt that they could make women love them by conquering them. This series has around four rapists/attempted rapists in it, and one of them, oddly enough, is a woman. The fact that this is brought up and actually a part of the twisted and broken character shows that the concept of sexual assault is not one-dimensional. The scenes of near rape are not sexy or arousing in the least and are in-fact high stress and terrifying scenes.
“But there’s female nudity in it”. Nudity is a part of life. We are all born naked. There is no shame in nudity, and in the cases where we are meant to be disgusted by nudity, my goodness we are. In fact, an interesting fact to point out, is, while the series is sometimes attacked for female nudity, the character who we see naked the most is a MAN, because he has to be naked to use his powers. Many anime series contain nudity, and honestly, it isn’t fair that this series is attacked so much for it when it is hardly gratuitous.
And here it is! The countdown of my favorite ninjas in Basilisk, starting with my least favorite, and moving on to my favorite character of all, and one of the most fantastic examples of his “type” in the anime/manga medium. So let’s begin, shall we? I will make a mini-commentary on each character and say what I like about them, and why they are fantastic, (yes, even the characters at the bottom are written FANTASTICALLY). No character in this series is poorly written, so the ranks are totally up for grabs!
20:Yakushiji Tenzen- Iga Clan
THIS is a villain I love to hate. He is so so so SO evil that he puts people like Frollo from Hunchback of Notre Dame to SHAME. Let’s recap all the evil, horrible things that Tenzen does: murder, attempted rape, murder political subterfuge, attempted rape, murder, torture, rape, murder. Yep. Not a nice fellow. It is because of this character and a couple others that people tend to consider the Iga Clan the “villains” of the series, but really, it’s only Tenzen that’s a TRUE villain. Still, as hateable as he is, that really can be chalked up to good writing. Many villains fall flat or are flanderized into being “misunderstood”. Tenzen is a well-written example of the “Complete Monster” trope, in that he is a good character because of how much the series makes you hate them in a story full of despicable acts from both sides. I can’t even say I hate him. I love to hate him. That is what makes him an excellent villain. Also the fact that it is incredibly hard for him to die helps too.
19: Amayo Jingoro- Iga Clan
This character is gross. Everything about him is gross, and he still manages to be fantastic and memorable because of his grossness. Firstly, he is described in the book as looking and sounding like a drowning victim, a trait reflected clearly in the anime. However, we are not judging characters by their looks here, as my top two are not exactly “stunners”. This character’s abilities are sheer paranoia fuel, even more than a higher entry that can mimic others’ appearances. Imagine you are relaxing in a lake and suddenly, SOMETHING slimy, like a slug but more liquefied, crawls into your throat and smothers you from the inside. That’s what this guy does. He utilizes salt and water to liquefy and re-invigorate himself, and holds a deathly fear of the ocean as it contains both. This guy is as slimy personality-wise, being only behind Tenzen in “monster-ness”. An attempted rapist and bitter person, he is not nice to work with or to face in battle. Still, he is an asset to the Iga Clan, being its most skilled and secretive assassin and even has a few scenes that paint him in a sympathetic light.
18:Kisaragi Saemon: Kouga Clan
Yikes. Just…yikes. You wouldn’t expect a character that looks this harmless to be a ruthless monster by the time his time is up. All it takes is the death of his little sister to cause this character to completely lose all reservation of killing anyone, and he murders two of the most interesting women of the series in horrifically brutal ways. He clearly shows the face of war, and what it can do to a person. Saemon’s ability is also horrifying, tying with Jingoro in terms of pure nightmare fuel. He can copy the appearance and the voice of anyone simply by using clay molds of the person he wants to copy’s face. Interestingly for the Kouga Clan, which is usually considered the “good guys”, Saemon is one manipulative little bastard. Other than this, he really doesn’t have much of a personality, sadly. He seems like the calm counterpart to his sister, but it would have been interesting to see more before he fell off the slippery slope that revenge causes.
17: Kagerou- Kouga Clan
The most despicable woman on this list, Kagerou is a woman cursed with poisonous breath that activates when she is aroused, basically meaning that any man that sleeps with her is doomed to die. The problem herein is that she is deeply in love with Gennosuke, but knows that if she sleeps with him, he will be unable to lead the Kouga clan, and also be unable to wed Oboro. As such, Kagerou is a very broken and spiteful woman who uses her good looks to lure men in to kill them. The only things on her mind are eventually being with Gennosuke so the two of them can die together, and killing Oboro so that Gennosuke will have no choice but to turn to her. Surprisingly, she tries to force herself on Gennosuke a couple of times in the series, making rape not simply a “male” crime in this story without inducing a double standard. She goes through utterly HORRIFIC treatment at the hands of Tenzen late in the series and actually makes the viewer manage to feel sympathy for her, even after what she had tried to do. Along with Saemon, Kagerou shows the progression of sanity and moral loss, being villainous, but sympathetic.
16:Azuki Rousai- Iga Clan
Old Man Rousai is pretty interestingly designed, looking very much like a moustachioed octopus. His abilities are nothing new, having the power to stretch his powerful limbs to inhuman proportions in a manner similar to Luffy from One Piece. His personality, however, is very much that of a grumpy old man. He is usually scowling or grumbling at something, but at some points it can be rather hilarious. Although some of the attempts he makes on people are very much not ok, Rousai is still humorous in his own way, as in a flashback he tries to scare away Oboro’s hiccups along with another character higher on this list. Though unsuccessful, it’s worth a good laugh. He also seems to be somewhat rational, albeit brutal, often having to calm down the hotheads of his group from doing something stupid all while trying to keep his own cool. Rousai, however, is nothing really new. He’s a rubbery man who wants you to get off his lawn, and I honestly wish he had more character development before his (frankly horrific) death.
15:Yashamaru: Iga Clan
OH horror of horrors the fangirls are going to kill me. Why is Yashamaru, the prettiest pretty boy of the series this low? Because he is boring. All we see of him is that he is a plucky handsome kid who is the betrothed of Hotarubi, a far more interesting and complex character. It is described that he wants a peaceful life with his sweetheart, but we only see moments of that and Yashamaru spends much of his very short time alive fighting. I know that he is aesthetically pleasing, even after he has to cut his hair to escape Kazamachi, but it would have been interesting to see more about him, particularly about his personality. His ability is also nothing unique, using garrotte wires made out of hair. It’s been done before. What Yashamaru does do, however, is provide a catalyst and motivator for Hotarubi.
14:Udono Jousuke- Kouga Clan
One of two sources of comic relief in this series, Jousuke is a walking Larry, Mo, and Curly show. A big fun in every sense of the word in a very similar manner to Budai, (the fat Buddha), Jousuke is a very jolly fellow, which makes his death incredibly jarring to the viewer. While many people would believe that Jousuke is just stupid humor personified, he is far from stupid, and in fact acts very stupid to throw his enemies off. He is by far the most trusted among the Kouga by Gennosuke, and with reason for that. This character takes Rousai’s rubber man tendencies and runs with them, figuratively of course. His entire body can conform to any shape and can bounce off of any surface. Also, he can’t be hit with sword blows, at all, because his thick blubbery skin either causes weapons to bounce off him, or get absorbed into his body. This guy is absolutely hilarious, and although he is a huge pervert, it is played for laughs rather than making him a dangerous monster, which would severely damage his hilarity.
13:Akeginu- Iga Clan
Akeginu is the prettiest of the female ninjas in the series, and she certainly uses this to her advantage, luring in victims easily. However, her beauty is severely affected by her ability, which is to use her own blood as a mist or target marking. Although this would seem like a very weak ability compared to the ability to force someone to kill themselves with a look, manipulating ones hair like hundreds of limbs, or using a whirlwind to tear faces off, it is in fact very useful, particularly in high stress situations or when fighting in the fog. She is also notable for being a much kinder and gentler mentor and caretaker of Oboro than her Oboro’s grandmother Ogen, and in fact serves as a sort of mother figure for the naive and innocent girl. She is very sympathetic because of this, and when she dies, it is known that Oboro is lost and alone in the world with no one to guide her. The writers could have chosen to just make her a generic “sexy ninja” but they chose to give her such honorable traits as well. I really like this character, but there are many more to come.
12:Chikuma Koshirou- Iga Clan
Koshirou is an interesting character in the story as he becomes severely handicapped about halfway through as his own whirlwind attack is turned against him and hits him in the eyes, blinding him. Because of this, he must learn to fight blind, using Ogen’s hawk as a guide. He is also a surprisingly emotionally complex character for a bishounen, being jealous of Gennosuke for his relationship with Oboro, and torn between his loyalty to his evil mentor Tenzen and his beloved leader. His death is also one of the most anger-inducing moments in the series and it shows that even the “good” Kouga can do something malicious and twisted if they wish to. His ability is to create vortexes out of thin air to shred the faces of his enemies. It is absolutely horrific and nightmarish, and rather gross to witness. But with all the tragedy, high-intensity emotions, and horror surrounding Koshirou, what sadly many people prefer to remember him by is his looks. That is a damned shame, if you ask me.
11:Kouga Gennosuke- Kouga Clan
The main character everybody! Kouga Gennosuke is very much the archetypical shounen protagonist, being an incredibly fierce fighter while being honorable and kind to his people. In this series, he struggles to maintain devotion to his clan while also remaining with his lover, Oboro, even as war breaks out. He is very defiant about killing Iga ninja, and it isn’t until the end when he and Oboro joint kill one using their powers and Gennosuke’s swordsmanship. He is a very pleasant individual and is clearly broken by the events going on around him. So why isn’t the main character any higher on this list? Well, simply put, while Gennosuke is a great protagonist, he isn’t anything unique or groundbreaking and there are characters more well-developed and unique than he is. Still, he is a great and relatable character to base the events of the story around.
10:Iga Oboro- Iga Clan
Oboro is a fantastic character. Through the series, she undergoes much more development than any other character, and although people are more than willing to classify her as weak and boring, she is far from that. It takes a certain strength to remain devoted to one’s lover when they are forced to be your enemy by the political elites. She is resistant to the battle to the bitter and tragic end. Some of the things that this woman witnesses and experiences are beyond horrific, from murder, to rape, to being betrayed by her own second in command for political gain. However, Oboro grows from these horrors and by the end of the story is a very strong and determined woman in her own right. She is an example that shows that not every woman in an action series has to be a fighter to be badass in that her ability allows her to nullify any ninja’s power, rendering them defenseless, JUST BY LOOKING AT THEM. If that isn’t badass, I apparently don’t know what is.
9: Kouga Danjo- Kouga Clan
The leader of the Kouga Clan and badass grandpa to Gennosuke, this old man edges out his grandson and his betrothed by a longshot. Although we do not see much of him after he and his former lover Ogen kill each other in the first episode, (in a VERY tearful and heartwrenching scene that sets the mood for the entire piece), it is clear that he was a very capable leader. Danjou is a very skilled ninja, utilizing poisoned needles that he blows with his mouth rather than using his hands, allowing him to utilize the element of surprise, and it is clear that it is because of him that the Kouga are so strong.
8:Iga Ogen- Iga Clan
Never mess with granny, indeed! In fact, it was quite hard to place her and Danjo on this list as they are so equally matched in the category of “I am old and awesome”. However, it is Ogen that continues to help the most even after her sudden and unexpected murder at the hands of her former lover. Ogen, you see, is a master of animals, and her hawk proves to be a valuable asset to the Iga Clan, carrying messages and serving as a distraction during battles. As for Ogen herself, she is one of two brutally honest ninjas of her clan, saying exactly what she wants to say and not what would be appropriate for the time or “ladylike” to say. She is a very powerful old woman and it is clear that she not only earned her status as Iga’s leader, but she DESERVED it. Also, her story with Danjo is one of the saddest and most emotionally moving subplots of the entire series.
7:Okoi- Kouga Clan
The tomboy of the series and the biggest source of fanservice as well, Okoi is still a very powerful young lady, not only in physical form but also in powers. Unlike the previous mentioned female ninjas, she dresses in a rather masculine manner and is a hand to hand combatant with the muscles to show for it. However, where Okoi shines is with her absolutely horrifying powers. Unlike Akeginu who manipulates her own blood, Okoi is a very pretty looking leech with the ability to suck the blood of her enemies from skin to skin contact. This makes her skimpy attire very justified as her powers hinge on her being able to touch someone with as much of herself as she can. She is also more brash, boisterous, and loud than other women and enjoys going boar hunting. As such, she is the perfect foil to her brother, the manipulative Saemon. Okoi is a very fun character in the series, and it’s easy to see why so many people like her, even to the point of out and out vilifying the person who killed her, (who coincidentally appears higher on this list). It was sad to see her go, but what she brought to the series was unique and well-needed.
6:Kazamachi Shougen- Kouga Clan
Oh Kazamachi, how I wish I knew more about you. However, what we do know about this ninja is that, despite his absolutely hideous appearance being one of the ugliest characters in the entire show, (only out-uglied by Jingoro),the spider ninja is actually remarkably honorable and a very good person. He is shown to enjoy fishing and friendly competition amongst his fellow Kouga, having a bit of a rivalry with Jubei as he dismisses the sage’s predictions. He is in every sense of the word a spider, possessing saliva that can be used as an incredibly sticky web, long dextrous limbs, and a bulbous hunchback. He even has decorated his forehead with red brow studs to make it look like he has multiple eyes and tends to get around on all fours. If ever there was a ninja committed to a theme, it’s this guy. He is also committed to his people and defending the honor of the Kouga clan at all costs. I admire this monster’s bravery, as he spits in the face of his murderer rather than jeopardize the safety of his people by giving her any information. Due to his uniqueness as well as his personality, Kazamachi more than deserves this spot.
5:Hotarubi- Iga Clan
If you looked up the definition of “woman scorned” in a phrasebook, you would find a picture of this character. However, she is so much more than just an angry woman out for vengeance after her lover is murdered. Hotarubi is described as “strange” even by her own people and even by ninjas that are far stranger than her. She is capable of being both a lovely maiden and a dangerous warrior, making her not solely confined by one identity unlike the solely tomboyish Okoi or the lovely Akeginu. That all being said, Hotarubi is a very interesting character in part because of her volatile and unpredictable temper. One moment she may be waxing poetic over Yashamaru, and another time she might be repeatedly stabbing someone in the chest while screaming like a banshee. Her powers are also very unique in that she has an animal companion in the form of a poisonous snake, but she can also summon insects with hand seals to do her bidding such as serving as camouflage or chewing through a net. She is a very multi-dimensional woman, which is unusual in an anime that doesn’t focus on women. She’s not just a wallflower or there to look pretty. She can kick some serious ass and as such is my favorite lady in the series.
4:Jimushi Jubei- Kouga Clan
Here is a character that I wish I could have gotten to know more, but what we do know about him is that he is an undisputed badass. I mean, where else have you heard of a quadriplegic SWORDSMAN? How does he fight without arms or legs, you ask? He keeps swords in his throat and uses his flexible tongue to strike out at enemies. This guy is also faster than most other ninjas on foot, without having any limbs at all, slithering around on the ground like a serpent. Jubei is shown to be a fortune teller and a reader of the stars, as well, with the Kouga clan basing their movements around his predictions. He is a very thoughtful individual because of this, and even has a rather odd sense of humor, laughing instead of cowering when threatened by Tenzen. Many of the ninjas in the story are rather brash and act on their instincts, so Jubei is in the minority as a planner and schemer. It is unfortunate that he died so early on, as it would have been cool to see more of him. However, what we did see was a fantastic and interesting ninja who was a force to be reckoned with, even without arms or legs.
3:Muroga Hyoma- Kouga Clan
Hyoma is more than just a handsome face, although he is that too. He served as a mentor to his nephew Gennosuke when the latter was a child, teaching him the Dojutsu art. He is a very insightful, calm, and level-headed individual, rarely losing his cool. Also, he is one of the handicapped warriors of the Kouga Clan, along with Jubei, being unable to use his eyes. However, what is remarkable is why he is blind: Hyoma’s dojutsu is so powerful that he must keep his eyes shut at all times or risk forcing EVERYONE around him into suicide with the closest thing they can find. I seem to have a thing for the “master” type in anime as Hiko Seijuurou is one of my favorite characters in Rurouni Kenshin. Hyoma, however, is much more mellow than Hiko, and in an anime full of very strong and bold personalities, it oddly makes him stand out. Another thing to note about Hyoma is just how incredibly strong he is in body and spirit. The man dies standing up for one thing, and he still is a great swordsman despite not being able to use his eyes to see with. He is also a brilliant adviser and tactician, keeping the more boisterous members of the Kouga Clan from acting out of instinct or rage. In a sense, he is sort of like a father figure to them all, not just Gennosuke. His control over himself, his abilities, and everything that he does is remarkable and many other anime featuring noble swordsmen should do well to learn from his example.
2: Kasumi Gyobu- Kouga Clan
If it weren’t for one member of the Iga Clan that is at number one, this character would be my favorite, and he still holds a place in my heart. A reckless man, Gyobu is very much shaped by his past, in which his father was murdered before his eyes when he was very young. Since then, he has been continuously training and has shaped his body into a literal mountain of muscle. In spite of not really looking like a ninja as such, Gyobu is without a doubt the best “ninja” out of the entire series. His ability allows him to meld with any surface undetected and then surprise his enemy with a quick break of the neck. The ability to hide in plain sight is very valuable to any ninja, and Gyobu could hide literally ANYWHERE. One drawback to this ability is that Gyobu must remove all of his clothing in order to blend in, creating 90% of the nude scenes in the series, (though you won’t hear me complaining). Along with being incredibly strong, he is also incredibly smart, if impulsive, making him highly relatable. But the reason why this character is so high is that this character was the first character in a LONG time in any series to make me ugly cry with his demise. It hadn’t been since I finished the final Harry Potter book that I bawled that hard and was depressed that long. That is the mark of a remarkable character, if their departure makes you that upset to see them go.
And my favorite character in the series is…
1: Mino Nenki- Iga Clan
Oh my goodness, this guy is an AMAZING character. In any other series, he would have been relegated to “creepy background guy #100”, but here he stands out as one of the few sources of comedy in this bleak series. Nenki is a brash, blunt, and brutally honest ninja, and one of the most relatable of the Iga clan. He is the only member of his clan to acknowledge that Oboro is still a young girl and doesn’t quite understand the ways of the world yet, and in one of the flashback episodes, he attempts to cure her hiccups and is said to have turned his ridiculously disheveled mane of hair into a playground for her. About that hair…Nenki has one of the most unusual abilities of any anime character I have ever seen. His entire hair, (head, body, even NOSE) is prehensile and alive. He can grip clubs in his mane and swing from trees by his nose hair. Most devastatingly, he can also make his hair into sharpened spikes for a nasty impalement. It is clear that the writers had an existing character in mind when they created Nenki: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and, until SMITE came along, he was the BEST interpretation of the character in another medium. Before reaching enlightenment through his journey, Sun Wukong can be described as a jerkass, but as he moves along, his heart of gold starts to shine through. Nenki is the same way: a jerk with a heart of gold. The series equivalent of Wolverine, Nenki is truly a unique character and my favorite in the entire series.
Wow, That was a big post. Up next will be a much smaller one, I promise!