Fuse: Memoirs of a Huntress

NIS America: $49.99 Blu-ray, plus booklet

Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East: Season 1

Sentai: Blu-ray $69.98, three discs  

"The Chronicles of the Eight Dog Heroes of the Satomi Clan of Nanso," a sprawling novel by Bakin Kyokutei (1767-1848), remains popular in Japan today (usually in abridged versions). It’s been adapted to live action films, TV programs, manga, video games and a Kabuki play; it’s also been animated several times. The story may strike Westerners as bizarre: During the civil wars of the 15th century, Lord Satomi offers the hand of his daughter Fuse to whomever brings him the head of a rival lord. His dog Yatsufusa appears with the head, and Princess Fuse insists on honoring the bargain. This weird union produces eight warrior-sons who embody the traditional Confucian virtues: Brotherly Affection, Filial Piety, Faith, Loyalty, Wisdom, Proper Form, Duty and Sympathy.

The bright colors, handsome designs and dynamic mix of historical figures and fantasy elements in the feature adaptation Fuse: Memoirs of a Huntress (2012) showcase Masayuki Miyaji's talent and promise as a director.

Fuse: Memoirs of a Huntress
Fuse: Memoirs of a Huntress

After the death of her grandfather, 14-year old Hamaji mopes around their remote woodland cabin, hunting animals with deadly skill. When she accepts the invitation from her brother Dousetsu to join in him Edo, she arrives in the metropolis as all hell is breaking loose. Shogun Iesada Tokugawa has put a huge bounty on the Fuse: In this version, they’re human-canine hybrids, who feed on human “essences” that they rip from the bodies of victims. Hamaji meets one of the last Fusé: Shino, an exquisite young man with superhuman agility and strength.

Hamaji quickly makes friends with the misfits who inhabit the slum where Dousetsu lives. She hunts the remaining Fuse to help her brother become solvent enough to marry his pregnant girlfriend, but she’s attracted to Shino, who treats her with courtesy and generosity.

Masayuki Miyaji worked at Studio Ghibli on Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors, the Yamadas and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and he clearly learned a lot from those great directors. Although his vision of Edo is largely a fantasy of colorful design, it feels like a real city where people go about their daily business, as the cities do in Miyazaki’s films.

For all its visual imagination, Fuse suffers from a sprawling story Miyaji can’t quite control: Hamaji and the audience both lose their way at times. A Kabuki reenactment of the backstory and the climactic battle between Shino and the Shogun, where they turn into the characters from the original novel, don’t really fit into the main narrative. But despite these flaws, Fuse: Memoirs of a Huntress  is a lively, interesting feature that leaves the viewer wondering what Miyaji’s next film will be.

Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East
Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East

The plot of the broadcast series Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East (2013) feels even more shapeless. Five years ago, the village of Ootsuka was struck by a mysterious plague that killed all but three young inhabitants: Shino, Sosuke and Hajime. Shino, a beautiful boy who was dressed as a girl as a child, keeps the demon sword Masume within his body. It manifests itself as a raven and as a blade. Despite the power the magical sword gives him, he retains the appearance of a 13-year-old. Sosuke, who can turn into a dog when he choses, accompanies and guards Shino. Sosuke and Shino possess gems that represent the virtues of Devotion and Duty.

Rio Satomi, who’s a high official in the Church and a member of the Four Houses of the Sacred Animals, summons the trio to the Imperial Capitol. Once there, Hajime immediately wins the heart of Kaname, another high Church officer. 

As they wander through an alternate world that suggests 19th century Japan, Shino and Sosuke meet an assortment of odd characters, including two additional warriors with gems: Genpachi and Kobungo. Genpachi is briefly smitten with Shino, not realizing he's a boy. Curious and portentious revelations keep popping up: Sosuke possesses only half of his soul: Shino’s desire to be with his friend is all that keeps him alive. Another character is protected by the Ice Princess, a character out of Japanese folklore.

The plot stumbles along even more aimlessly than the characters. Directors Osamu Yamasaki and Mitsue Yamazaki fail to generate a sense of the story progressing, let alone any feeling of urgency. Yet Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East proved popular enough to run for a second season.