Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
Once again I bow down to the powers-that-be at Hulu for having some of the best anime series available on their website. This week, I finally got the chance to watch the second season of Sengoku Basara, a show that, back during my college days, single-handedly wowed an entire room of jaded anime fans with its over-the-top action sequences and quirky sense of humor. The show is an adaptation of the Sengoku Basara/Devil Kings video games, which means that it’s based on an intellectual property that has taken the already ridiculous Samurai- and Dynasty Warriors formula (super-powered generals cleaving through wave after wave of enemy peons) and ramped it up to eleven.
The first season of the show was an exercise in being excessively awesome: gorgeous and smoothly animated visuals; inventive, jaw-dropping fight scenes; characters for whom a life-threatening injury was a single night’s inconvenience. It was all about rivalries, loyalty, and fighting for a common cause – friendship and teamwork punctuated with swords, spears, and the occasional robot.
Yes, Sengoku Basara’s first season is an anachronistic joyride through Japan’s history of feudal warfare, and whether or not you’ll like the second season largely depends on how fully you can buy into the show’s particular brand of crazy. Does the liberal use of silly, enthusiastic Engrish annoy you? Then you won’t like Date Masamune, who drops random and heavily accented English into a ton of his lines. They even opened the show with [one]. (I find it endearing, frankly, but there were others who disagreed.) Or maybe you’re the type who likes subtlety in your characterization; a thin and easily-crossed line between good and evil? You won’t be getting that here, not when the show announces its villain with an [operatic soundtrack and ominous lightning] every single time.
You also have to suspend your disbelief and pretend that everyone in the Sengoku Era was an athletic, attractive pretty boy or a busty supermodel of a woman, but that’s anime for you. As an interesting experiment, [this website] has both the Sengoku Basara game’s character artwork and actual portraits from the time period, so you can compare at your leisure.
The second season, meanwhile, is a no-less entertaining but much less bombastic affair than its predecessor, one in which every character is forced to confront their own weaknesses in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful enemy. This is saying something in a show where characters regularly bend comically over-powered attacks to their wills – for example, the villain this time around, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, punches an inland sea so hard the water recedes only to return as a tidal wave.
This season puts aside most of its flashy fireworks in favor of more character development, giving the sometimes single-faceted characters new and interesting depths. The audience gains new insight into the motivations and histories of the Sengoku Era’s major players – which is always a good thing, in my opinion – but the show sacrifices some of its earlier frenetic energy to accomplish it. This doesn’t make the second season worse, per se, but it does make it a beast of a different color. If you’re coming in to this expecting the first season’s shenanigans, you’re going to be a little off-put when you’re shown the intense vulnerability of characters who once seemed invincible.
I’m not saying there are no grandiose battles (the screen grab above should speak to that), but they are fewer and farther in between. One highlight is the battle between Date Masamune and Chosokabe Motochika in the second half of the season, and the various final showdowns across the cast don’t disappoint either (Katakura Kojuro’s strikes a particularly impressive chord, despite how short it is). But the focus isn’t on these physical struggles – it’s on the fight to find meaning in a world that is dominated by war.
Nearly all of the character arcs are heart-wrenching. Without getting into too many specifics, the up-beat, simple-minded, and honorable Sanada Yukimura is taught a series of painful lessons about the sacrifices of leadership and the futility of trying to protect everyone. Date Masamune, meanwhile, is forced to confront how vulnerable he truly is without his right-hand man to watch his back. Maeda Keiji is pinned between friends old and new; Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin stand as remnants of a by-gone age; and Kojuro is set up as bait for his beloved leader.
The newest additions to the cast have their own captivating storylines as well. Effeminate but dangerously shrewd strategist Takenaka Hanbei is one of the most fascinating as he schemes his way through confrontation after confrontation, trying to unite the turbulent country under a single banner.
His sovereign lord, the aforementioned ocean-punching Hideyoshi, is pretty one-note in his pursuit of strength for strength’s sake, but even he has his occasional moments of depth. Chosokabe and Mori Motonari, both characters who saw a little screen time in the first season, get more and better treatment here.
Oh, and before you men in the audience go complaining that, among all the pretty boys, I never have anything for you, I present female ninja Kasuga in all her bouncy glory:
Something else this show does exceptionally well is its voice acting, at least with regards to the Japanese version. (There’s no English dub out yet for the second season, but the first fell a little flat with its casting. To match a chaotic show like Sengoku Basara, you’ve got to go all in.) I could listen to Date’s voice actor lecture about theoretical physics and still be entertained, and the man playing Yukimura must have blown a vocal cord with how much shouting he did for the part.
The biggest flaw with both seasons, though, is how short they are. Twelve episodes isn’t nearly enough to slake the audience’s thirst for awesome samurai action, and even at the end of season two they’re nowhere near the end of the Sengoku Era conflict. If all goes well, that means more seasons for us. If not, it means leaving the series on a rushed and unfulfilling note.
Sengoku Basara as a whole is one of the most entertaining rides to come out of anime-dom in a very long time, and it achieves this by marrying two very different but complementary seasons. The first should be watched with a group so everyone can marvel at the spectacle; the second, however, is better witnessed alone, allowing yourself to feel for and sympathize with the growing cast of characters.