Originally published on The Fandom Post
What They Say:
Part 1: One year has passed since the great battle against the Orochi. Tenka Kumou had been paralyzed from the final battle and the government experiment he had participated in. Tenka withdrew himself from society afterward, but his younger brothers Soramaru and Chutaro find out his secret past in their efforts to reach out to him
Part 2: The Fuuma clan is a secret ninja tribe that has been waiting for the Orochi to resurrect for generations. This is the tragedy of Isuke and his twin brother Isami who grow up in this vicious environment and how they become the leaders of the clan.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Laughing Under the Clouds: Gaiden is an interesting beast. Created as a follow-up to the 2014 anime, the first two films tell two unrelated backstories that help flesh out characters from the TV series. Even though it’s technically a sequel, Gaiden gives enough context that you don’t need to have seen the TV anime to appreciate it, although having more background with the characters would certainly help. Even without having seen the TV anime, the emotional core of Gaiden was more than strong enough to carry both films for me.
The first film alternates between showing Tenka struggling to adapt to living without being able to walk and showing his history with the Yamainu. There isn’t much of a plot to it-even his flashbacks come off as more of a biopic than a structured story-but the film doesn’t really need one. What holds it all together is how it shows the bonds between its characters, from the loyalty holding the various members of the Yamainu together to Tenka’s willingness to sacrifice everything for his family. Even though everyone in the Yamainu knows they all have the potential to be the vessel for the monstrous Orochi, they turn that curse into a way to tighten their bonds by promising to kill whoever it happens to in order to save them. For all their differences, the Yamainu are bound by a shared sense of purpose, which contrasts perfectly with Tenka’s feeling of purposelessness in the present. The ultimate conclusion to Tenka’s story might come off as a little sappy, but it’s still emotionally and thematically satisfying overall. Other players from the TV series make appearances throughout the film, but only as supporting players and cameos; this is Tenka’s story above all else, and the movie knows to focus on him for the most part. The one time that it doesn’t, when Tenka’s father is training Mutsuki, comes off as a bit extraneous in comparison to the rest of the film since Mutsuki doesn’t have much of a role in it afterward. Still, it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise compelling film.
The second movie is structured in a similar manner, following the childhoods of two young ninja named Isuke and Isame, known in the TV series as Shirasu Kinjō and Fuuma Kotarou. The two were born as twins in a clan where one twin always has to die, forcing their parents to hide Isame away while Isuke trains as a ninja. Like the first film, this one centers around the bonds between characters, this time Isuke, Isame, and their parents. The plot this time is a little more standard, with a clear villain in the clan leader who forces trainees to undergo a ceremony where they have to kill a family member. The big twists here are fairly predictable since the basic storyline is one commonly seen in YA fiction, but Isuke’s relationships with his family more than make up for that. Nothing is simple here, especially regarding Isame. Isuke and Isame obviously care for each other, but Isame also carries a lot of resentment and bitterness about being stuck hiding all his life. This sometimes leads him to lash out, similar to Tenka in the first movie. Both feel useless and wish they could do more to help their family, and both are helped in turn by their family. Unlike the first film’s more meditative nature, this one feels more like a tragedy. The clan leader’s tradition and the foreshadowing from the very beginning hint that this isn’t exactly going to be a happy story. Sure enough, it gets darker than the first film, but always retains the core bonds between Isuke’s family to anchor itself.
While I wouldn’t classify either film as an action movie, both have some good fight scenes to keep things exciting. The first film’s big setpiece is a mission where the Yamainu work together to save a child being held hostage. It’s nothing too flashy, but entertaining none the less. The fight choreography is pretty impressive, as is seeing the Yamainu combine their various skillsets to infiltrate the house and save the hostage without getting him killed. The second film has a few shorter and bloodier fights scattered throughout, although none of them stand out too much. The films’ animation is solid across the board, although, again, nothing too impressive. There’s a good balance of character acting and smooth fights, but none of it is particularly impressive compared to other recent anime films; it’s about on par with some of the higher end TV productions out there.
What’s far more noteworthy is the soundtrack, which is made up of a lot of soft instrumentals and insert songs that do a wonderful job of establishing a strong atmosphere for both films. With both being short character pieces, maintaining a consistently contemplative atmosphere does wonders for Gaiden. One scene in particular, a torture scene from the second film, stood out for having excellent sound design. Rather than using any music, the scene is completely quiet except for the sounds of torture. It gives the sequence an unsettling vibe that does wonders for the second film’s slightly darker tone.
I went into Gaiden not knowing much about it or what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised when both films turned out to be excellent character dramas. Even without any background from the show, the nuanced relationships between all the characters give Gaiden enough heart that it can easily stand on its own. Add in a beautiful soundtrack and a memorable atmosphere, and you get two films that I’d recommend both to established fans of the franchise and newcomers who are curious to check it out.