The real beauty of Fusé: Memoirs of a Huntress is not just that it looks great, because skin-deep beauty is a commodity these days in anime. It's that the movie begins with a premise that could have been explored in the most by-rote and predictable way, and then digs into that premise until a real and beating heart is exposed. It also adds further confirmation to a theory I've been brewing as of late that the biggest reason anime works the way it does is because it connects with the emotions first — and does so in a way that's not just for the sake of wringing loose a few tears no matter what the cost. It is, in short, a wonder.
Little huntress in the big city
Fusé is set in some analogue of Japan's past, where the Tokugawa dynasty still keeps the country closed up to the outside world and close under its thumb. Out in the countryside somewhere is young Hamaji, a girl somewhere in her teens who ekes out a living as a hunter and pays dutiful respect to her dead grandfather. Her brother Dousetsu has long since absconded for the big city to fulfill his ambitions to become a samurai, and one day she receives a missive to join him there. Longing to reconnect with him, she packs up her blunderbuss-like rifle and wanders agog into the glittering maze of Edo.
Her brother has fared both better and worse than he's let on. The bad news: he isn't a samurai. He lives in a run-down section of row houses near the water, where the neighbors are all bottom-dwellers on the order of the supporting cast from Akira Kurosawa's The Lower Depths. But they're not bad folks, and neither is Dousetsu: he just needs the kind of discipline and direction in his life that his firecracker of a little sister can provide for him.
There is, actually, some good news about Dousetsu's job prospects — he's angling to hunt fusé for the Shogunate. Fusé are doglike monsters that survive by feasting on the soul energy of humans, and not long ago a gang of eight of them came to Edo and began terrorizing the populace. All but two have been hunted down, and Dousetsu's keen on scooping up some of that reward money before someone else beats him to it. Fusé are distinctive enough that Hamaji's finely honted senses shouldn't have any trouble picking them out — after all, they smell like beasts, and the distinctive peony mark somewhere on their bodies ought to give them away in no time flat.
No plan of attack ever survives first contact with the enemy, though, and one of the first folks Hamaji runs into when she first arrives in Edo is a fusé: Shino, a handsome, languid Kabuki actor with a penchant for rogue justice and a good heart under his aloof exterior. (Aren't the prickly ones all like that? In the movies, anyway.) Hamaji's quite taken with him, not realizing at first that he is her quarry, and she in turn his would-be prey.
Star-crossed lovers abound
Hamaji and Shino are, as it turns out, not the only star-crossed lovers of this story, and the added layers of story texture and complexity created by that fact is one of the many ways Fusé goes from good to great in a few swift bounds. Dousetsu also has a soft spot for Funamushi, the lady who runs the meal boat that comes upriver once a day, but she's as attached to her independence as Dousetsu is determined to liberate her from it. This kind of humanization and deepening of the background characters is a constant presence through the film: consider Itezuru, the high-ranking courtesan who is actually a Fusé in disguise, and whose connections to Shino and ultimately Hamaji end up changing both of their lives in unexpected ways.
Then again, Hamaji's life is ripe for transformation in a whole battery of ways when she comes to Edo. Among the other friends she makes is Meido, a would-be author whose career thus far is limited to whomping together scandal sheets and selling them for a few coins. When Meido plasters the town with one such broadside celebrating Hamaji's career as a fusé hunter (hence the "memoirs" of the title), Hamaji tracks down the girl and demands an apology for being so grossly misrepresented. But once the shamefully illiterate Hamaji sees what Meido can do, they become fast friends.
Yet another thematic twist comes in here: Meido's father is the author Bakin Takizawa — the real-world creator of Hakkenden, from which both this and a slew of other Japanese pop-culture projects have been drawn. It's through the two of them that Hamaji's notions of communication and connection across hearts becomes validated all the more — that the ways we see ourselves and express ourselves to others can, in turn, shape our lives. Such thoughts are set in motion when Itezuru makes a deal to entrust Hamaji with a letter, the contents of which convince her that Shino doesn't have to be a slave to his nature.
The movie is not shy about confronting the fact that Hamaji is attracted to a literal monster, and that Shino knows what he is and is ultimately ashamed of it. But whether all that translates into him into being a changed man is up to him, not her and in fact becomes part of what drives the action set-piece climax of the story. That was one of the few times I felt the movie becoming a little too familiar for comfort — oh, wait, they just solve everything with a big fight? — only to have it veer off and find its own, genuine path once more.
Bigger on the inside
I've come to hate taking about any one thing by making direct references to other things, because too often it's the reference that ends up assuming more of an importance than the actual thing itself. That said, two references do come to mind that might aid in communicating the appeal and flavor of the film. The first is, and forgive me for bringing it up, Hayao Miyazaki — specifically, his gallery of scrappy young heroines, from whom Hamaji has been very clearly drawn. But she's not a clone of any of those characters, even while she's in their mold: she's got a personality of her own, alternately feisty and wistful, that carries a striking amount of the movie's emotional load.
The second is Samurai Champloo, since how things have been visualized and assembled in this film hearken back to that series. There, and here, a left-hand injection of unmistakably modern style was present in everything. I think the reason I am not inclined to call Fusé a clone but rather a separate embodiment of the same visual ideas is because Fusé does not rely on our memories of the previous show to work; it stands wholly on its own. Come to think of it, I'm also reminded a good deal of the delightful Oh! Edo Rocket, another show that injected its own left-hand twists into Edo-era Japan without distancing us from the material.
Fusé also shares the goony sense of humor of both of those other shows, and looking back over what I have written here, I realized I haven't made it clear how much bounce and zip there is in the movie's delivery and tone. A lot of that is in the way the main characters are written and realized, but it also comes from the way the movie populates the background and periphery of most every scene with walk-ons, goings-on, and the cheery messiness of Edo life. That only makes it all the more meaningful when the movie does pause to accrue emotion; there's real feeling driving such moments, not just an obligatory character beat.
It's this extra step taken by the film to build these emotional connections, both inside itself and to its audience, that make Fusé really sing instead of merely hum. My feeling is that anime excels at doing this, in big part because audiences tend to connect with a character's emotional circumstances first and foremost — what they feel and why. Most anime are designed to start operating on that level and branch out to other things later on, and while a good deal of the time results can be maudlin or just plain contrived (too many moé titles don't seem to know the difference between evoking an emotion and invoking it), it's nothing short of electric when it does work, as it does here.
In some ways I have saved the most obvious praise for last, in part because it is obvious, but also because it runs the risk of being misleading. Fusé is straight-up gorgeous in just about every shot, albeit with character designs dialed down just enough to keep their luster from being distracting. I admit, I get a little worried when an anime looks spectacular, because too often it means most of the energy creating the work has been spent on its surfaces, and not enough on its depths — the Makoto Shinkai Problem, I guess you could call it. The end result is something that doesn't hold up to more than one viewing: at that rate, you might as well just buy the wallscroll and be done with it. The idea is always second to the execution, and an execution that is only interested in the mechanics of an idea is always second to an execution about the emotions and human experience under the idea. This movie is ample proof of that, because it's about people who strive to be as beautiful underneath as this production is on the outside.