While it lags behind its contemporaries in visual quality, Masayuki Miyaji’s anime feature comes packed with enough character, story, and Japanese mythology to form an entertaining experience. It has taken a decade for it to fully hit English-speaking audiences; thanks to a long-awaited bluray release from UK outfit All the Anime it now has a chance for a whole new audience to find it.
Teenager Hamaji lives in the mountains as a hunter, having been trained in tracking down and killing her prey by her recently-deceased grandfather. She is invited to Edo by her older brother, and once there discovers the city is hunting down the final few ‘fusé’ – shapeshifting dog spirits who consume the souls of human beings. When she meets the white-haired stranger Shino she in entranced – only to discover he is one of the last of the fusé.
The film is pronounced ‘foo-say’, in case like me you mistakenly assume it’s titled with the word Fuse. Masayuki Miyaji brings with him an awful lot of prestige to his feature directorial debut. He trained under Hayao Miyazaki, and worked as assistant director on Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. You cannot tell a Studio Ghibli influence from the art, which we will get to, but the story and screenplay has a Miyazaki influence all over it. A strong female protagonist comes accompanied with a rich and likeable array of supporting characters, and what begins as a straight-forward hunter-versus-werewolves monster hunt rapidly becomes complex and emotionally ambivalent. The voice cast, which includes Mamoru Miyano (Death Note), Minako Kotobuki (K-On!), and Maaya Sakomoto (Vision of Escaflowne), is talented and effective.
An action-oriented and familiar story belies a somewhat metatextual layer hidden underneath. During her adventures Hamaji meets and befriends the aspiring writer Meido (Kanako Miyamoto), who desires a career like her renowned author grandfather Bakin. Both Hamaji and Meido are fictional; the writer Bakin is not. In fact the core inspiration for Fusé is Takizawa Bakin’s own Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (aka The Chronicles of the Eight Dog Heroes of the Satomi Clan of Nansō), here quietly inserted into the fringes of his own fiction. Bakin’s novel, which was serialised over 106 volumes between 1814 and 1842, has only recently been translated into English for the first time.
The character designs and background art are all very much of an anime tradition. Sadly the actual animation seems to struggle, with a somewhat grotesque nature that makes it less pleasing to view than the average anime feature. It is a rather slipshod look that would not look out of place on a less expensive or slightly rushed television series, but for a feature work it seems disappointing – it likely explains the 10-year delay in it coming out in the UK (the USA got it in 2014; as far as I am aware Australia never got it at all).
The visuals are a weak point, but they are a weak point to an otherwise effective and entertaining film. With any luck, its fresh release on home video will find it a broader and appreciative audience.