On the first day of anime, an anime studio sent to me…
…a stolen bead of Confucian virtue…
Going in roughly chronological order, the first anime of Anime Monographia’s “12 Days of Anime” will be Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East, which ran for two seasons, the first season airing in the winter line-up and the second airing in the summer.
[Warning: Heavy spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.]
Rewriting the Samurai Epic: Beyond the Bishōnen
The premise? For those of you who are not Japanese classic buffs, this anime is a supernatural reworking of a Japanese (100+) volume epic novel entitled Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (“The Chronicles of the Eight Dog Heroes of the Satomic Clan of Nansō”, or simply “The Eight Dog Chronicles.”) Written by late Tokugawa writer Kyokutei Bakin, and loosely inspired by the Chinese epic (The Water Margin, a fellow voluminous monster of over 100 chapters), Nansō Satomi Hakkenden follows the tale of eight samurai half-brothers and their adventures. Set during the Sengoku-jidai (Warring States Period), it’s an extravagantly sprawling tale of samurai honor (bushido), Japanese mythology (the samurai brothers’ spiritual father is a dog), and liberal sprinklings of Confucian didacticism and Buddhist philosophy. The brothers, though unrelated by blood, have several things in common. Each brother has the character “dog” in their family names, a peony birthmark, and a magical bead with labeled with a Confucian virtue.
Then came the adaptation from hardened samurai to supernaturally-touched pretty boys (bishōnen). Expect lots of yaoi subtext, not surprising since the manga from which the anime adapts from is written by Abe Miyuki, a famous yaoi mangaka.
There’s no denying that Hakkenden’s cast is full of pretty boys. The lush and smooth animation style panders to a younger (arguably female targeted) audience. The supernatural re-spinning shows that the 2013 anime draws minimally from its epic novel source and while the character names are kept essentially the same, none of the brothers are actually samurai (though five at least have been shown capably wielding swords). The setting itself is no longer Sengoku-jidai but what appears to be an alternate universe early Meiji Japan. It’s an interesting hodgepodge of Western technology and Japanese values, with a random, but ominously powerful Christian Church presence thrown in the mix. Two of the main protagonists are affiliated with mentioned Church, though they’re largely left out of the loop of the Church’s devious machinations. Japanese monsters and mythological creatures still exist, but they’re mostly feared (and sometimes rightly so) or else misunderstood.
He Stole My Bead! Confucian tenets in nifty packaging
Obvious sexual puns aside (it’s a running gag in the show and one that’s effectively used), the beads held by our eight not-samurai brothers represent eight of the core virtues of Confucianism (the anime’s thematic borrowing from the original source). In the anime, once the eight beads and their holders are gathered in one place, Fusehime, a legendary princess, will appear to grant any wish.
In order of appearance, we have filial piety/devotion for our resident man-child, Inuzuka Shino (no seriously, he’s literally a man-child as he’s actually an 18-year-old stuck in a child’s body)
Duty/Righteousness for our all-around brotherly nice guy, Inukawa Sousuke.
Faith/Integrity for our neighborhood policeman captain, Inukai Genpachi.
Brotherly/Fraternal Bonds for our local inn-owner, Inuta Kobungo.
Wisdom for our traveling kabuki dancer, Inusaka Keno.
Loyalty for our bumbling, “unlucky” doctor, Inuyama Dousetsu.
Etiquette for our taciturn, cat-loving doll-maker, Inumura Daikaku.
and finally Benevolence for our half-tengu-kid-next door, Inue Shinobu.
As a counterweight to our colorful team of virtue-endowed heroes, we have Ao. And the evil Tamazusa. Who may or may not be Shino’s mother. Who may or may not have been the cause of the Otsuka village massacre. Who may or may not have attempted to kill mentioned son.
While filicide (act of a parent killing one’s child) always makes for a decidedly nefarious villain, it’s really Ao that’s the more compelling of the antagonists.
Ao, The Shadow Without Duty and Virtue
Who’s Ao? Like a shadow, he flits about a few times in the first season, hovering about as this mysterious, vaguely malevolent character playing puppeteer/stalker. The fact that he is the spitting image of our favorite talking dog-boy (Inukawa Sousuke) is not particularly subtle but nevertheless unsettling.
We don’t really get on-screen confirmation that he’s really bad news until the Kohaku arc (one of my favorites, and definitely one of the stronger arcs in the first season), when he seals a Faustian contract with the beautiful local prostitute, Kohaku, who seeks to extend her life for another week in exchange for one of her eyes (and turning her into a demon, though it’s obvious he neglected to mention this condition as part of the deal), which he immediately puts to good use because he hears that a certain purple-haired, crow-demon wielding individual likes golden eyes.
Putting aside his creepy obsession with Shino, Ao is a fascinating character, even more so than his light counterpart, Sousuke. Ao represents the “dark side” of Sousuke, the bead holder of “duty.” While duty brings to mind selflessness—indeed this is the defining characteristic of Sousuke’s personality—Ao serves no one but himself. A maelstrom of human desire, he wants to take everything that Sousuke hold dear—his life, his appearance, Shino. His fascination with Shino is markedly perverse—yet it also parallels Sousuke’s devotion to Shino. It’s really this aspect of Ao that cements the fact that Ao is Sousuke in a sense.
Make no mistake. Ao is not a nice person. He has no qualms about hurting people (the Shinobu arc is particularly heart-breaking). Though he’ll never go so far as to directly hurt Shino, his idea of what’s best for our spunky purple-haired protagonist is not our idea of pleasant. Ultimately, he wants to replace Sousuke and claim Shino as his (the homoerotic tones are not at all subtle in the entire show). In what sense, I’ll leave that up to your imagination.
In case you’re stuck, this scene might help jog a few ideas:
I would even go further to argue that Ao, as a harbinger of chaos, is the antithesis of the Confucian virtues championed throughout the story. The virtues that define the eight bead-holders are the qualities he either lacks or perverts in some way. How so? Let’s do a quick run-through of all mentioned virtues to see where Ao stands on them:
1) Filial piety/Devotion. While parents don’t play a role in either Sousuke or Ao’s lives, Ao has a pretty blatant disregard for authority of any kind. His only source of devotion, which is his feelings for Shino, is not what one would call a healthy relationship.
2) Duty/righteousness. Where Sousuke sacrifices, Ao takes. Ao’s hardly the pinnacle of justice, though he’s not completely immoral. He’ll do what’s right…when it’s convenient for him.
3) Faith. It’s every man for himself and as far as Ao’s concerned, faith in someone other than himself is only weakness.
4) Brotherly Affection. A little ambiguous considering Sousuke and Ao aren’t exactly brothers but two halves of one person. That aside, Ao’s a perfectly evil twin and is not conducive to sharing.
5) Wisdom. While Ao has cynicism in spades, cynicism is merely a masquerade of wisdom. Mentioned cynicism didn’t seem to help him foresee the consequences Tamazusa’s dastardly plans for world destruction would have for a certain man-child…
6) Loyalty. Supernatural dark soul half for hire. Price upon request (but expect it to be higher than you think). Note to estranged princess employers: mess with Shino…expect your plans to be royally screwed by yours truly.
7) Etiquette. He routinely captures children, steals human eyes, and trespasses on private property before burning it down. In other words, a regular gentleman. Etiquette (often translated as “rituals” or “rites”) in Confucianism is more than just good behavior–it refers to the secular rituals of everyday life and how they contribute to building a harmonious community. Unsurprisingly, Ao, though obviously having knowledge of said rituals, has no interest in following them.
8) Benevolence. Considered the highest of all Confucian virtues, besides duty, it is the lack of this quality that defines Ao the most. The Shinobu arc in Season 2 is a particularly brutal one and shows Ao at his worst (you can’t get much worse than cruelly tearing an orphaned boy from his adoptive tengu brother and killing said brother right before his eyes. Tack on the collateral damage of burning down a sacred forest and you’ve got one destructive antagonist.)
Yet for all his villainy, Ao is an oddly seductive character, not just for Shino but for the audience as well. The fact that Ao not only looks like Sousuke but also holds his missing childhood memories remains the focal sticking point for the problematic nature of his existence. He’s not merely your run-of-the-mill bad guy—he is Inukawa Sousuke, unbridled, fierce and free from any duties and obligations. You can sense his desperation when Shino wavers between him and Sousuke—Sousuke is clearly the wholesome and “right” choice but the choice becomes less obvious when Sousuke himself isn’t whole. Satomi Rio (later revealed to be Shino’s older brother) remarks early in Season 1 that the present Sousuke is a different person from the Sousuke in the past—which really makes you wonder what Sousuke was like prior to his memory loss.
While his memories and his steadily growing powers serve to enhance his OP status throughout the series, there’s something weirdly innocent about his motives. Yes, he’s killing people and in general, making the world a less happy place, but he genuinely thinks his actions are consequence free—at least in terms of not harming Shino. Even when the Princess is clearly malevolent, Ao naively believes that her plans will not harm Shino, provided that Shino stays out of the way.
Which, of course, is an absurd thought. Though the writer probably didn’t intend it, I found it incredibly amusing when Ao reacted in horror (along with the bead-holders) to Tamazusa’s announcement of her nefarious plans to resurrect her dead son by using Shino’s body as a vessel.
Though it’s certainly not his only moment of vulnerability, it is the moment of vulnerability, of epiphany, that Ao understands the devastating consequences of his actions. This moment only arrives after he steals the peony mark from Sousuke, thereby usurping his place as the bead holder of “Duty/Righteousness.” Ironically, it is only when Ao has the bead and is confronted with the reality of his actions that he “accepts” Duty and betrays Tamazusa by saving Shino from the ritual.
While the open-ended ending of Hakkenden offers room for a third season (Ao still has Sousuke’s bead), I would like to think that Ao’s continued freedom suggests a necessity to the two halves of Sousuke existing separately and that both halves (though originally one) are becoming two complete individuals. It might also have something to do with the vague phrasing of Shino’s wish (“Let Sousuke live!”). Given that this wish was granted without killing Ao, on some level, this might suggest that Ao, as part of Sousuke, is also allowed to exist.
In any case, Ao’s existence as an entity separate from Sousuke only tightens the tension between the Confucian virtues binding the narrative (the virtuous and those of moral excellence triumphing over the depraved and destructive) and the pressing desire to develop Ao as a character in his own right, rather than simply a half shaped by lack of virtues. Sousuke–thanks to Shino’s wish for “Sousuke” to live–reclaims ownership of the bead by retrieving his stolen senses and peony mark from Ao, but Ao claims the bead and gets off virtually scot-free.
While the anime has proven that the beads are not the exclusive source of their owners’ virtuous natures, the beads are suggested to have some mystical autonomy in the hands they end up in, and that they “leave” their owners once their task is complete (whatever task magical beads are assigned to). Sousuke, having attained full mastery of his “virtue,” no longer needs the bead (perhaps he never really even needed it in the first place.) Ao’s reclamation of the bead (found by a tanuki friend) symbolically suggests that through his act of righteousness, Ao has gained (as opposed to steal) some semblance of humanity and has begun the road to truly becoming “whole.” Not necessarily a whole “Sousuke” but a whole “Ao” in his own right.
Of course, I could be reading too much into this and the ending was tossed in to make room for a season 3.