With this adaptation’s rather limited animation, fights have been usually cut short (or cut altogether) in the anime, but I always expected that if there was ever to be a significant exception, this episode would be it. I just wondered whether they could do justice to Magatsu vs Shira with the show’s clearly modest budget. And well, it took a lot of cutting corners in other parts of the episode, like at the beginning when Manji, Magatsu and Shira were talking to each other and we only got long, static close-ups of their faces, but in the end it was worth it, because the fight itself looked pretty good, with some great environments and visuals that helped create a suitably tense and thrilling atmosphere.
In a way, Magatsu vs Shira reminds me of the classic pro wrestling build-up to a fight, where you build up one of the fighters to be likable and sympathetic and the other to be odious and despicable and you have them duke it out, making the audience root for the former and find satisfaction in the latter’s defeat and comeuppance. It might seem simplistic, but it’s a formula that can work well if the characters are interesting and charismatic enough, and I would say Magatsu and Shira certainly qualify. Another key component is, of course, the reason why they’re fighting, and Ren’s horrific murder certainly provides a suitable backdrop to this vicious battle fuelled by hatred and revenge, ever-present elements in the world of Mugen no Juunin.
Shira is an old-school villain (the manga started in 1993, after all), the kind of which you don’t see much anymore — unabashedly cruel and wicked, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and 100% self-aware. No attempt is ever made to explain why he turned out this way; he gets no tragic backstory or anything. And while I do tend to prefer villains with redeeming qualities (Askeladd from the currently airing Vinland Saga being a prime example of a fantastic one), I can still appreciate — from a storytelling perspective, of course — a classic nasty and irredeemable bastard, as long as they have adequate amounts of charisma and add something to the story, and I think Shira fits the bill. It’s interesting that Samura Hiroaki felt compelled to insert a character like him into a story otherwise marked by moral ambiguity. But exploring the heart of darkness is one of Blade of the Immortal’s prime directives, and Shira is a great vehicle for that. And like I said before, being a piece of shit, he’s great manure for the growth of other characters.
In this episode, that other character is Magatsu, who started out as an antagonist himself but ended up working together with Manji here, a development I’m certainly on board for, because not only is Magatsu a pretty likable fellow, he and Manji also have some great chemistry and banter together. The duo do a number on Shira, who laid out an ambush for them in order to get revenge on Manji, only to have the latter show no interest in him, handing over the battle to Magatsu instead. This infuriates the already unhinged Shira even more, which says a lot about his character. As he makes it clear throughout this episode, the man is a thoroughly miserable bastard who needs motivators like hatred for someone to simply get out of bed in the morning. Many people struggle with unrequited love, but for Shira it’s unrequited hate that really stings.
The extent of his deranged nature is made even clearer when we see how he responded to having his hand cut off by Manji: he sharpened his own bones into a weapon, a process so unbearably painful his hair turned white. I’m not sure we could count this as a redeeming quality, but it is rather impressive how tenacious the guy is, that he would be willing to endure so much agony in order to turn a handicap into another tool for battle. And what a battle he and Magatsu end up having. This may be a samurai series, but there’s no fancy, gracious swordplay at work here; this is attrition warfare at its most brutal, with each opponent chipping away at the other with increasingly ferocious strikes and cuts until they’re both left in a bloody mess and it looks like neither will be making it out alive.
Just like the fight is extreme, so is the dialogue that takes place in it, with Shira using everything he can to rile up the pesky brat that got in the way of his desired payback on Manji. It culminates in him recounting the incident that originated this whole feud, horrifying both Magatsu and the audience with the extremes to which he went in his torture and murder of poor O-Ren. Even for Magatsu, a member of the Itto-ryuu who’s witnessed and participated in some brutal events in his life, this feels like a loss of innocence of sorts, and his resulting rage ends up surmounting Shira’s vicious tenacity, although it certainly doesn’t humble him, as he goes down as unapologetically hateful and psychotic as ever, in a haunting and strangely beautiful scene by a waterfall.
Just like Magatsu, we the audience feel like we could use a breather after being so immersed in such a dark and brutal affair, and thankfully this comes in the form of a short-lived reunion with Manji, where Magatsu announces he’s going to rejoin Anotsu after learning from Shira he might be in trouble in Kaga, which means Magatsu and Manji could be enemies again the next time they meet. His loyalty to his former leader is yet another admirable trait of Magatsu, and I for one look forward to seeing him more of him and Anotsu together.
Speaking of the latter, though, an otherwise fantastic episode ended on a sour note for me, as Anotsu’s meeting with Rin made it clear that they’ve skipped a ton of his own solo journey before he finds her (and the preview for the next episode confirms this), which is especially regrettable since, out of all the major players in the story, Anotsu is the one that most desperately needs more screentime and development in this adaptation, as he’s sorely lacking in presence in it thus far. But I suppose I’ll wait until the next episode to see what they do before delving more deeply into this matter, because for now I’d just like to savor that one of my favorite manga fights ever is finally available in anime form.