Right from the very start, Shikabane Hime has been a difficult series to pin down - At times it's played to its horror roots perfectly or offered up otherwise compelling story lines, but at others it's been slow and ponderous, seemingly struggling to get any real momentum to propel it beyond the realms of mediocrity.
Well, let it be duly noted that the twenty-second episode of Shikabane Hime is the moment when the series gets all of its ducks in a row, and delivers what is quite simply an astonishingly accomplished episode. By the end of the last instalment everything had been set up nicely, with the truth about Ouri revealed to some extent, and the beginning of episode nine of Kuro finishes this off as we get the full low-down on Ouri, his Corpse mother, and also the cat that has been following his journey from the very start. All of this information is relayed, exhibited and built upon using the horrific potential of the scenario to the full, making for an intense display of gruesome imagery liable to give even the most hardened anime watcher nightmares.
In a similar vein, Makina also learns the origins of Hokuto, which in turn allows her to discover how her own family ties in to Hokuto's origins, and indeed why she was picked out to be killed an made into a Corpse, and then a Shikabane Hime herself.
These two revelations tie Makina and Ouri together as the episode progresses, leaving them to fight together properly at last while the rest of the Kougon cult track down and corner the surviving members of Shichisei. The battle isn't over yet however, as the episode ends with another moment of uncomfortably horrific imagery - Again, the stuff of nightmares (and worse, the kind of nightmare that we've all but seen unfold on our own television screens in real life), and another challenge for all involved to overcome.
While my feelings towards Shikabane Hime have largely been mild respect and a modicum of enjoyment throughout, I really can't praise this particular episode highly enough for blowing everything that has come before out of the water. Quite simply, it was close to perfection in every discipline - The animation was tight, focused and brought the horrors of the story to life, the pacing was spot on and filled every second of running time with moments of import, and the actual plot development itself was absolutely compelling, matching and complementing the action and violence expected of it.
I've often said that this series should work more on exploiting the horror genre which it naturally sits so close to, and this episode proves my point exactly, succeeding fantastically at being horrifyingly beautiful and nightmarishly engrossing. If it can keep this kind of quality up for its last handful of episodes, I'll be beyond impressed, and you can expect much more complimentary gushing from me.