The time is the late Edo period, the place, Nagasaki. After being tricked by his lord into killing his own father-in-law as part of a cover-up surrounding a massive shipment of opium, the samurai Kurima Raizo is forced into hiding. At the peak of his desperation, he is approached by the enigmatic lacquer artist Usui Yuen to join his crew of Revengers: An order of mercenaries tied to a heretical Christian church, the grudges they settle signified through bite marks left in gold coins. Seeing no other option, Raizo agrees, joining the Revengers—Yuen, the alcoholic gambler Soji, the bearlike doctor and archer Teppa, and the androgynous kite-wielding child-assassin Nio—and they gradually form a strange sort of found family.
The ubiquity and relentless misuse of the word “mid” has really done a disservice to the word that it was, initially, short for: “Middling.” Say you ask me what I think of Revenger, a show which I found uneven and ponderous enough that, despite its better points and solid enough construction, I felt wound up quality-wise somewhere around the middle of the pack. “Revenger is mid.” Uninformative. “Revenger is…” (Pause for emphasis, intake of breath, slightly impatient facial expression.) “…middling.” Now you have an idea, at least emotionally.
And you wouldn’t think we’d be here from the first few episodes, a stylish and tautly directed blur of filmic violence, fun little character moments and intriguing period detail. As a hook, the weird little twist of an extremely prim and proper samurai violently betrayed by his master coming to work for a mystery man with a massive tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his back who suffocates the unjust with sheets of gold is, if nothing else, incredibly striking—particularly if one is familiar at least in passing with the peculiar phenomenon of the Kakure Kirishitan, the Japanese Christian community which persisted during the oppression of the Shogunate and went in some decidedly unconventional directions. Maybe, I thought to myself, this series will do something interesting with this obscure bit of Japanese history. Fanciful, certainly, given the rather gonzo presentation, but interesting. But while we are teased with such details around the edges of the story… well, you can guess given what I’ve said thus far.
This is indicative of a more holistic problem with the series which actually makes it fairly difficult to talk about coherently: An aimlessness which begins to set in after relatively few episodes wherein the story swirls around a number of partially developed themes, concepts, motifs and plot threads, yet even as the central narrative goal of the story comes into focus, many of these never really coalesce into anything more meaningful than an interesting aside—a single episode playing with a few provocative notions, a recurring set of references to past events never explored, a monologue from a supporting character which feels less as if we are seeing something about that character revealed than listening to the author wax philosophical. Never was the tedium so aggressive as to have me checking my proverbial watch, but all too often I found myself lost within what were reasonably straightforward events simply because their actual point felt obscure.
Which is perhaps a strange thing to say about an action show whose main attraction is seeing a secret vengeance organisation consisting of a bunch of guys who feel like the cast of a pretty decent BL visual novel—there is much which is decidedly homoerotic here, which I am generally speaking delighted by but feels strangely insufficient, as we'll get to later—go out and absolutely destroy dozens of sword-wielding goons and evil combat nuns! I should not be having this particular problem with this particular show! I would chalk this up in no small part to the core writing duo, or more specifically with the bigger name of the two. I will state first and foremost that I think it somewhat unfair to blame Gen Urobuchi for the faults of many of the series his name has been attached to since Puella Magi Madoka Magica; quite often it seems that the man contributes a set of broad-strokes plot outlines and the project is sold on his name despite minimal involvement. But even in Urobuchi’s best writing, some of which I absolutely adore, it seems that there is a tendency to write from an idea and allow a story and characters to come together around that core idea. Depending on the strength and novelty of that idea and what and how much he and his particular collaborators (in this case the light novelist and gensakusha Renji Ooki) have to say about it, the substance of this can vary wildly. Here, the themes are only sometimes clear: Revenge, obviously, and how it kind of sucks and goes nowhere and hurts the people that one seeks to protect, but also assorted ideas of found family and loyalty, the value of human lives, art as an expression of the true self, confusing justice with power, bodies as sites of commerce, the injustice of capitalism in general—all solid enough ideas, none entirely disconnected, yet never does it feel like the story properly pulls these threads together. There is ultimately a climax to the central plot thread which, in theory, does hold the entire story together, that being the missing opium shipment and the vast conspiracy surrounding its disappearance, and the resultant series of fights and revelations in the final episodes of the series are a delight to watch. Still, it all feels strangely incomplete. The final scene is a poignant ellipsis, thematically winding together the last threads of the story as it began, but in the context of how many of those dangling threads were simply cut, in a greater sense, I am left frustrated. My comparison of Revenger's cast to that of a visual novel earlier was half-joking, but the parallels run deeper, not only in light of the production committee and the showrunners' prior affiliations but in the structure of the show itself: Where in a non-linear narrative medium defined by branching paths and the reader's individual pace such a panoply of thematic digressions may lend a work intrigue and even depth, in a fairly concise anime project such as this the effect is flattened, resulting not so much in a garden of forking paths as an unkempt tangle.
This is, of course, exacerbated by the portions of the show which flat out don’t work. Much as I love the character of Nio, a twisted little scamp as unfettered from the conventional standards of right and wrong as they are from the gender binary and the source of many of Revenger’s best quips and visual gags, the episode which focuses on their backstory as an escapee from a human zoo run by a Pagliacci-like fellow with an unsettling, sexually charged obsession with them hits a strange, sour note, simultaneously intentionally and unintentionally uncomfortable. Likewise the episode focusing on the aforementioned nun cult, engaged in the trafficking of beautiful young men kept perpetually addicted to opium so as to service corrupt Buddhist priests. Indeed, Revenger frequently finds itself in strange, rocky territory when either sexuality or religion are involved, which given the aforementioned homoerotic subtext (however much of a damp squib it generally turns out to be) and the centrality of the conceit of the organisation being tied to a heretical Christian sect in Edo-period Japan respectively has a decidedly odd effect on the story’s overall tone. There is furthermore a certain disconnect between the show’s often deadly serious tone and the sheer level of camp on display, whether in the form of the gleeful absurdity of Teppa exploding through his clothes when firing his massive longbow or the more grisly black humour of basically everything about the series’ ultimate villain—too much a classic demon bishounen to have a moustache to twirl, but would he ever if he did. The clash between the serious and the ridiculous feels aimed in the general direction of the rule of cool, but as with the gumbo of ideas and themes which constitute the plot, the tone never quite feels unified enough to make that leap. What moments of import do carry through do so on the strength of the acting performances, the character writing and the admittedly exceptional storyboarding and animation; as story beats, they feel lost amid the melodrama. The closest parallel which comes to mind within the series' own medium is Sword of the Stranger, another often lurid piece of historical quasi-fantasy with entertaining characters and a riveting final act which is otherwise only brilliant in spitting sparks and all but collapses under its own dead weight.
Now, all this being said, I have perhaps given you the misapprehension that I disliked Revenger or found it incompetent. This would be inaccurate; I like it more than I don’t. The problem is not that Revenger is bad or that it is badly made. Rather, it feels as if its particular ambitions extend far beyond its actual reach, but where other series manage to become charming in this gap between intent and success—the whole conceit of gap moe is predicated on this effect on a character level—the series seems to desire to paper the issue over as if it “meant to do that,” and the results, while generally enjoyable on a moment-to-moment basis, wind up falling short in terms of greater satisfaction in the same way. A certain cheap shot springs to mind: That, like revenge itself, for all of its promises to the contrary, Revenger’s finality is without closure. And maybe the fact that, even as I do like this series more than I don’t, I am compelled to say such things says enough in its own right. One could do far worse, but one could also do far better.
Add a star if the tonal issues and diffuse theming are less of a problem for you. And you know what? Godspeed. May your time with this series be a better one than mine. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: As expected given the premise, this one has a hell of a lot of fairly gruesome murder in it, including several instances of people being quite literally bisected. Additionally, the show portrays opium abuse in fairly graphic terms; there is also the aforementioned sexual material, which while never particularly explicit is decidedly blunt and often discomfiting nonetheless. Combine this with the somewhat headier themes which might miss a younger audience and this is strictly an older-teens-and-up affair.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Revenger © 2023 Shochiku, Ajiado.
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