Kagome is a schoolgirl from present-day Japan, but also the reincarnation of a priestess called Kikyou who died 500 years ago. One day a snake demon pulls her down the Bone-Eating Well and into the 15th century, where she'll find herself up against samurai, demons and a lecherous monk with an all-consuming vortex trapped in his hand. None of those are her main problem, though. No, her chief bugbear is the title character, Inu-Yasha, who could roughly be described as her ex-boyfriend. Well, Kikyou's, anyway. They had a complicated relationship, as you might expect of a half-demon who wants to purge his humanity and become 100% monster.
As the story begins, Inu-Yasha has spent the last fifty years nailed to a tree. Bad news for Inu-Yasha, but good news for Japan. Unfortunately it turns out that Kagome's going to have to release him, whereupon he promptly starts killing things and going after a magical artefact called the Jewel of Four Souls.
Then we meet the really bad guys.
Inu-Yasha is an unusually serious blockbuster from Rumiko Takahashi, who's better known for comedies like Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2 and Maison Ikkoku. It's also good. It won the 2002 Shogakukan Manga Award for best shonen title of the year. It's also back-breakingly long, running at 558 chapters from 1996 to 2008. As it happens I've only read the first forty collected volumes (each normally containing usually ten chapters) and I'm waiting for the very last tankoubon to come out before I start catching up with the remainder. The TV series managed to squeeze 167 episodes and four movies from the first 36 volumes before ostensibly putting itself on hiatus to let Takahashi finish the series, although only time will tell whether it does come back or not. It's been quite a while by now since Inu-Yasha was a hot TV property.
What makes Inu-Yasha different is that it has a story. Furthermore it's a damn good one, with horror, tragedy and a genuinely badass ongoing villain. Unfortunately the downside of this is that you'll hurt the plot momentum if you keep treading water with filler episodes, as is the norm in Takahashi's comedies. When it's good, Inu-Yasha is bloody brilliant. However the manga is about twice as long as it should have been, whereas the anime is easily twice as padded again. It goes through stages. In the beginning, it's so faithful to the original that you'd think they were just pointing a camera at Takahashi's pages. At this point, the show's moving at such a healthy pace that episode 13 gets a case of the cramps through trying to squeeze one and a half episodes' worth of plot into a single instalment. The first 25 episodes don't have a single sequence or story point that's not straight from the manga, so as a result is the best run of episodes in the whole show.
In fairness though, that's a particularly strong run even in the manga. At this point Inu-Yasha's still unpredictable and almost scary. There's some fantastic material later on too, with the deeper relationship issues in particular taking a while to unfold, but those first ten tankoubon held me riveted in a way that wasn't quite true afterwards.
After that the anime starts spreading its wings. It starts padding things out with extra scenes, then eventually with filler episodes. The first of those is episode 59. Unfortunately soon the production team gets a taste for them and you can't move for the bloody things. Some are okay. Episode 63 is hilarious, while it's nice to have the filler episodes which turn the spotlight on minor characters like Jakken, Kouga or even Souta. However fundamentally they're all putting the plot on hold for the sake of runarounds in which nothing permanent happens and you don't really care. This reaches its nadir during the nineties, a run of episodes so bad that it killed the show for me. I stopped watching for months and only resumed because the discs were sitting beside my computer and I didn't want to leave the show half-finished for ever.
The only upside of this toxic run is that being filler episodes, they're skippable. Anyone watching Inu-Yasha will lose nothing and improve the show beyond measure by jumping straight from episode 90 to episode 100.
Things never got that bad again, thank goodness. The show's producers had realised their mistake and trying to be more faithful to the manga, but this raised the danger of chewing through all the available material. Thus the show went through a phase of flashbacks. If you ignore the opening and closing credits, there's a run where up to a quarter of any episode's running time might be flashbacks, recaps and "the story so far" introductions. I admire the brazenness of this approach, but as a long-term strategy it's even less workable than filler episodes.
In the end they cancelled the show, which ironically improved the quality of the remaining episodes. At last having a finishing line in sight, they could stop messing around and be as faithful as they'd always wanted to be. That closing stretch comes close to recapturing the old magic, including some hour-long specials. I particularly liked the prequel in episodes 147-148 retelling the tragedy of Inu-Yasha and Kikyou. Somehow the show managed to end on a high that had me making a note to watch out for any series two, which I'd have never believed possible in the dark days of filler episode hell.
The movies are okay, but they're more filler, really. You won't hate them, apart from the bad fanfic that passes for the first thirty minutes of the first film, but equally there's no reason to seek them out. Their main virtue is the fact that they're proper full-length films, as opposed to the extended episodes that got released as movies for the likes of Sailor Moon or Cutey Honey Flash. The roster is:
- Movie 1: Love that Transcends Time (2001) - after episode 55
- Movie 2: The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass (2002) - after episode 95
- Movie 3: The Sword of World Conquest (2003) - after episode 136
- Movie 4: Crimson Horai Island (2004) - after episode 167
The characters may not be the deepest I've ever seen, but that doesn't mean they're without potential. This isn't just another action anime. Kagome is the show's soul and sometimes heartbreakingly brave, while Inu-Yasha is an obnoxious psycho with almost no saving graces and thus often very funny. Bringing Inu-Yasha to the twentieth century and letting him loose on poor Kagome's domestic arrangements is always comedy gold.
Unsurprisingly there's a large supporting cast of freaks, murderers and whackos. The worst of these is Kouga. He's the Boastful Rival and every second of his existence is like bamboo splinters under my fingernails. I'd sell Tiny Tim for genetic experiments if this also meant a painful death for Kouga. When he appears, I start rooting for the bad guys. Infinitely more interesting is the ice-cold killer Sesshoumaru (Inu-Yasha's brother), whose relationship with Rin is one of the odder surprises I've seen in my life. He's apparently a fangirl favourite, despite the fact that he'd kill you as soon as look at you. He also has Sailor Moon's crescent on his forehead, though somehow I doubt they'd get along.
The manga is also a little harder-edged, by the way. Takahashi has also done horror manga and she'll occasionally draw things that a TV producer couldn't put in a family show. There's nudity and some brutal death. One doesn't normally miss this too much in the anime, but I did think its lack weakened both the death of Bankotsu and the cannibal with his tree of severed heads. The latter had clearly troubled the anime's producers, by the way, since the story should by rights have started in episode 24, but they held it back for nearly a year before doing a modified version as episodes 57-58.
At the end of the day, I kinda like Inu-Yasha... which is a pretty damning statement. I should adore it. At its best, it's breathtaking. It also has one of my all-time favourite death scenes, albeit fairly late in the day and so they didn't reach it in the anime. Unfortunately the series drags itself down with filler stories and unnecessary characters (Kouga) that make it run-of-the-mill. It should have been more than that. I have high hopes for season two, if they make it, since there's every chance that that would be more faithful to the original. This is a frustrating show if you start thinking about how far short it falls of what it should have been. It's fine.