While the use of animation as a visual medium is practically limitless in its applications, restricted largely only by the imaginations of those using it, there are certain areas where Japanese animation in particular tends to steer well clear. Perhaps the most obvious genre not to have seen any extensive coverage in anime is the documentary, and understandably so - although we've been treated to pseudo-documentaries like Gainax's Otaku no Video (and even that relied heavily on live-action segments), the usually expectations upon a modern documentary maker is for plenty of real-life footage and interviews with experts in the subject in question.
However, enter Production I.G. and a certain Mamoru Oshii (as the film's screenplay writer) to create perhaps the world's first anime documentary - Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai, a documentary film delving into the life of renowned and legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai largely splits itself into two narrative styles, the first of which concerns itself with depicting famous battles and incidents from Musashi's life, while the second introduces us to an animated expert on the subject and his assistant as they discuss some of the myths and realities surrounding the swordsman's life together with the broader facets of the time in which he lived. This in itself makes for an interesting contrast in visuals, with those aforementioned battles lovingly animated in a very typical anime style, albeit rendered in black and white aside from splashes of red in the midst of the bloody battlefield, while the more "traditional" documentary aspects use a largely CG-based delivery which adds a fun and quirky tinge to proceedings rather than simply delivering explanations and facts in a straightforward fashion.
Despite the unique delivery of the main documentary-esque portion of the film, there's certainly plenty to chew on if you're interested in either Miyamoto Musashi himself or the period in which he lives, as the narration goes to great lengths to debunk some widely held myths as well as explaining the facts behind Musashi's life, his writings and the military strategies and customs of the time, exploring all the way through to the rise in Musashi's popularity as he became a household name in Japan in the 1900s. The documentary's approach is admittedly a little scattershot as it goes about its business, from Musashi's sword-fighting style through to touches of more general Japanese history, but there's certainly no shortage of interesting information to be found here even if this film perhaps isn't the place for anyone new to this period of Japanese history to use as a starting point as it does tend to assume a certain level of knowledge to start with.
Another unique aspect of this release of The Dream of the Last Samurai is that it features an English dub created in the UK by Manga Entertainment specifically for their release - a much simpler task than dubbing your typical anime series on account of the fact that it only really requires a single voice-over to narrate the film via the voice of its animated professor, even if the original Japanese audio does make use of multiple voices to do effectively the same job. Certainly, this English dub is a solid offering that does the job as required (although it does seem to miss one or two minor lines that are voiced in the Japanese audio) - its delivery is a bit stilted and less well-suited to the quirky foibles of this documentary, but it does well enough to be arguably a better choice for ease of viewing than utilising the disc's subtitles.
Ultimately, Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai is a tricky offering to review - it goes without saying that it's a million miles away from any other anime you're ever likely to watch in tone and content, but more importantly its value to you as a viewer really depends on how great your interest in Japanese history and Musashi himself is, coupled with how much prior knowledge of the era you already have. In all honesty, I'm not entirely convinced by how well the animated medium works in conjunction with this documentary format - its light-hearted delivery can occasionally detract from rather than enforce points of discussion, while the action scenes look great but are only short illustrations of key points in Musashi's life, so you certainly shouldn't pick up this DVD expecting wall-to-wall blood, buts and swordplay.
If nothing else, it's good to see The Dream of the Last Samurai get a UK release - if you're fascinated by Miyamoto Musashi's legendary status then you'll almost certainly learn something from watching this film, and even fans of samurai anime or movies may well appreciate a chance to dig a little deeper into the facts and history within their favoured genre. It might not quite be Adam Curtis in its delivery, and "anime as documentary" might not be a revolution in the medium, but it's a welcome and education experiment despite its flaws.