Hamaji (voiced by Minako Kotobuki), a gun-toting mountain girl in Tokugawa-era (mid-nineteenth century) Japan, is a skilled huntress who survives by herself since her grandfather was killed by a bear. When word reaches Hamaji her brother Dousetsu (Kenji Hamada) wants her to join him in the city of Edo she makes the journey. Lost in the bustling metropolis the clueless country girl is aided by Shino (Mamoru Miyano), a handsome, silver-haired youth who is actually a Fusé: supernatural shape-shifters able to morph into human-dog hybrid forms. Although Shino is kind and helpful, Hamaji learns other Fusé terrorize the region, preying on human hearts. Now, on the orders of Lord Iesada Tokugawa (Hirofumi Nojima), they will be hunted mercilessly. It transpires Dousetsu aims to form a Fusé-slaying partnership with his super-skilled kid sister both to collect the reward money and as a stepping stone to become a government-employed samurai. However, Hamaji's exploits as a monster-hunter are complicated by her fascination and growing feelings for Shino.
Fusé: Memoirs of a Huntress has all the ingredients for a rip-roaring action-adventure romp yet interestingly opts for a more rewarding, thought-provoking, character-driven route. Despite a tangled girl meets dog-boy romance suspiciously similar to Rumiko Takahashi's mega-hit Inu Yasha (2000) the film establishes its own identity along with close ties to the Japanese classical novel The Hakkenden. Written as a serialized ninety-six volume novel between 1814 to 1841 The Hakkenden is an essential text in Japanese literature although conceived by author Kyokutei Bakin, a samurai fallen on hard times, as a spin on the earlier Chinese story The Water Margin. Like its Chinese predecessor the source novel became a staple of Japanese film and television with adaptations ranging from the faithful to pretty outlandish including two from celebrated filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku: sci-fi shoot 'em up Message from Space (1978) and period fantasy Legend of the Eight Samurai (1984). For anime fans the definitive screen adaptation remains Takeshi Anno's thirteen-part serial from 1990.
In Fusé the characters actually attend an early kabuki performance of the story, a condensed version focused on its initial chapter: a tragic love story between a human princess and a dog. Along with a significant cameo appearance from the author himself the anime also spotlights Bakin's feisty, bespectacled granddaughter Meido (Kanako Miyamoto), herself an aspiring author. Depicted amusingly like a modern teenage manga artist, Meido quickly becomes heroine Hamaji's close friend and confidante. She also serves as near-postmodern window for viewers, analyzing the significance of events. Towards the end of the film Bakin admits he conceived The Hakkenden in part as a means to combat prejudice directed at the Fusé by mainstream society. This theme runs throughout Fusé the movie which the filmmakers posit as something of a sequel to The Hakkenden. The story deals with class prejudice and the oppression of racial minorities as Hamaji's exploits slowly and uncomfortably open her eyes to the reality of injustice and exploitation in society. The Fusé stand in for every ethnic group abused, exploited and ultimately eliminated throughout the history of Japan. Meido surmises the theme of the story as "cause and effect" but the film also shows how our collective survival instinct often blinds us to what is right and wrong. Screenwriter Ichiro Okouchi, adapting a novel by Kazuki Sakuraba, deftly interweaves fantastical events with vivid historical detail. The climax hammers home a winning message that forgiveness and emotional growth are worth more than vengeance not just for the individual but society as a whole. Plus a clever twist ties the story directly to The Hakkenden.
The animators do an exquisite job recreating the Tokugawa period setting and convey country girl Hamaji's sense of wonder and dislocation amidst the hustle and bustle of city life. While the film does not want for fantastical set-pieces it uniquely sidesteps action to dwell on the minutiae of everyday life, such as the gourmet meals whipped up by Dousetsu's girlfriend Funamushi (Maya Sakamoto), and relationships. For some the plot may amble along too leisurely. The film is notably stronger on details than cohesive storytelling, yet the tale told proves consistently fascinating and the characters are charming. Michiru Oshima's lovely accordion-led score complements the pretty pastel colours that prove the icing on a richly rewarding cake.