In times of chaos, unrest and revolution, it is said that a mysterious and powerful artefact known as the Lord’s Head is driving events from behind the scenes. It may sound like an absurd legend, but the Head and its power are very real, and now, as Japan’s Bakumatsu era comes to an end, it has surfaced again. One man, Akidzuki Youjiro, also known as the Eternal Assassin, has shouldered the duty of sealing away the Head’s power forever, but when his task sees him joining Yuuyama Kakunojo’s Theatre Troupe and meeting with enigmatic playwright Soutetsu Ibaragi, it becomes clear that he will have to navigate a web of complex agendas if he is to complete his quest.
Aside from its incredibly long name, Iroha (you won’t catch me typing out the full title more than once here) will be a series that will always be remembered for one thing- how its inconsistency just prevented it from becoming a pick of the year. This was a show that gave us hints of greatness one arc, only to snatch it away with unintentional hilarity and general pointlessness the next. In short, whilst it was generally entertaining, it wasn’t always for the right reasons.
Back in the beginning, Iroha cut a somewhat ambivalent pose among the Autumn 2006 line-up- in the wake of Chevalier, there was certainly something about the atmosphere and historical setting that made it compelling, but at the same time, it felt nigh impossible to understand what was actually going on. The fact that the plays written by Soutetsu for the troupe are intentionally meant to blur the line between fact and fiction initially make it difficult to figure out what is actually happening in the story and what is merely meant to be occurring onstage at the theatre. Worse yet, for those who are only familiar with the broad strokes of the Bakumatsu era, the information dump offered by long historical narrative sections only offers additional content to wade through even as the viewer tries to get to grips with the characters and their situation.
Fortunately, given enough episodes, it all began to drop into place, and for a time during its midsection, Iroha’s potential seemed limitless. Whilst the setting remained as atmospheric as ever, the machinations of the plot and characters continued to build on each other, culminating in a play scripted by Soutetsu that blended reality and fantasy in a compelling rather than a confusing way. Add in some well-directed action scenes, and this was one series that truly seemed worthy of being known as one of the highlights of 2006-7.
Sadly, it was to ultimately turn out that Iroha was not a series that could sustain its greatness, and that enjoyable as this middle arc was, it was only proof that the series had peaked too soon. For as it moved into its second half, the series chose to change tack, separating Akidzuki and Kakunojo from the troupe as they struck out on their own. From then, the tone of the series changed, becoming embroiled in endless historical cameo whoring, insipid one shot characters, and the distinct feeling that the plots that had once seemed complex were now rather laughably pointless. Indeed, by the time the closing episodes rolled around and almost everyone was either dead or effectively written out of the tale, the series took the questionable decision of having Soutetsu create a laughably theatrical final boss castle that rises up out of nowhere at the press of a few switches, offering the perfect location to stage a conclusion that effectively brings into question the point of the entire series. What were the villains trying to achieve, and why did they take so long to do it? Why did the plot never really evolve beyond “Akidzuki vs. the Lord’s Head”? What exactly was Sunrise smoking when they wrote the finale? These are questions that I cannot answer, but I can ridicule them in the upcoming parody version of the series.
Many a series has been saved from a questionable plot by a strong cast of characters, but sadly, this cannot be said to have been the case with Iroha, which only compounded its problems by trying to rely on too large a cast. As mentioned above, the series was drenched in largely pointless historical cameos, but even when it came to the core cast members, many were so underdeveloped that it took me most of the series and several visits to wikipedia to even remember their names. Potentially interesting personalities such as English anti-hero Kanna and a special ops team of his fellow countrymen never fulfilled their promise onscreen, whilst even Akidzuki, Kakunojo and Soutetsu each managed to disappoint in their own ways. Akidzuki proved to be a singularly personality and dialogue deficient lead who served as the perfect incarnation of plot necessity; Kakunojo was disappointingly weak and only worthy when she was acting under the influence of the sword that comes to possess her and Soutetsu, who initially looked set to evolve the status of final villain beyond a “gwakaka”-ing chair-bound egomaniac, threw everything away by becoming a typical final boss.
If it couldn’t quite make it with regards to the content, Iroha was at least able to remain consistent in one area, and that was with the animation. It has to be admitted that the superbly well directed opening captivated with both its music and animation sequence, so much so that one would want to watch the episode regardless of its content. Within the episode itself, the basic level of animation remained consistent, although character designs ranged from solid and aesthetically pleasing to dull and generic. Overall, the action scenes managed to be fast paced and fluid, although they were often sadly unbalanced, with one character easily dominating their opponent. The background music only contained one or two memorable tracks, but was nonetheless able to establish a period feel; in fact, the only real audio complaint is related to Kakunojo, whose drawn out theatrical and singing voices were all too grating on the ears.
Although I may have come down quite hard on Iroha, it is not so much because it was a truly awful, but because it was one that showed great potential before choosing to throw it away in favour of becoming more parody worthy than genuinely worthy. In the end, it cannot stand with the greats, but overall it was still enjoyable enough to recommend to anyone looking for a fresh dose of historical drama.