UDON, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-926778-33-4
Turning Japanese historical figures into martial artists and swordsmen with near-superhuman powers is not a new concept by any means, but the Capcom video game Sengoku Basara and its subsequent sequels take things to crazy new heights. In those games, Oda Nobunaga is basically a demonic entity, Honda Tadakatsu is a giant robot wielding a huge drill, Toyotomi Hideyoshi looks and fights like an anime villain with superhuman strength, and more. Historical anachronism on crack is the name of the game, and it was great.
Unsurprisingly, the games spawn a slew of tie-ins including an anime series, a comic series, and more miniatures and dolls than one can count. There are even snacks. These games are like the Spice Girls on speed.
This particular volume is a compilation of the four Japanese comics based on the “story” of Sengoku Basara 2, published back in 2007 and now translated into English by M Kirie Hayashi. The main character is Date Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon of Ōshū. In history, he was said to be a cunning fellow that aligned with the right people in power so that he managed to stay afloat despite the turmoils of that period. Here, he still has that eyepatch, but he’s now a tall handsome guy that commands a band of suicidal and fanatical Yakuza-like followers and he wields three samurai swords in each hand. Don’t ask, just think of this as Japanese woo-woo.
His faithful second-in-command is Katakura Kojūrō, a sober guy who tends to the crops and tries to commit suicide every other day after admonishing Date to think more about his people and less about seeking thrills. I bet this guy murders the crops when people are not looking – with a boss like Date, one needs an outlet to release the tension, after all.
In this volume, the whole thing opens when Akechi Mitsuhide sets fire to the temple at Hannōji. Oda Nobunaga, then almost the emperor of everyone, died, leaving a power vacuum at the top. Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his second-in-command Hanbei Takenaka anticipated Mitsuhide’s betrayal and proceeded quickly to seize power. This is where things deviate from history. Rivals Takeda Shingen, still alive, and Uesugi Kenshin decide that the best way to seize power is to fight each other – again – while the other pair of rivals Chōsokabe Motochika and Mōri Motonori decide to do the same.
Not surprisingly, even an idiot like Masamune can see an opportunity and proceed to lead an attack on Uesugi forces while those people are busy clashing with the Takeda army. Meanwhile, Hideyoshi and Hanbei make a swathe toward the capital, taking on the remnants of the Oda retainers, Azai Nagamasa and Maeda Toshiie.
Key players in this party are, of course, Masamune, Kojōro, Hideyoshi, and Hanbei along with Shingen, his imbecile but powerful lackey Sanada Yukimura, Kenshin, his imbecile failed ninja “blade” Kasuga (who loves Kenshin and hates Shingen for being always the first thing on Kenshin’s mind and fails at everything), Shingen’s more capable ninja Sarutobi Sasuke (who secretly loves Kasuga for who knows why – her cleavage, perhaps), and Maeda Keiji, the brother of Toshiie’s wife Matsu. Keiji and Hideyoshi were once friends, but, obviously, things have changed now. Keiji, upon learning of Hideyoshi’s power grab, sets out to meet Hideyoshi, hoping to get some answers once and for all from that man about the incident that destroyed their friendship.
Nagamasa, his wife Oichi, Motochika, and Matanori are actually minor players making cameo appearances here, and everyone else from the game not mentioned here don’t figure at all. The Oda folks are understandably out of the picture early, but everyone else doesn’t fit the narrative, I guess. It’s all about Keiji and Date, with Yukimura showing up solely to become the rival for these two men.
I confess that I am disappointed by how the comics actually tone down the over the top nature of the video games. A big part of Masamune’s charm – his Japanese-style English – is missing due to the whole thing being in English, but even so, the motorcycle club nature of his army is gone. They actually ride horses instead of horses fit with motorcycle parts, sigh. Yukimura doesn’t do that pyromaniac thing of his, which makes him less of a child-like superhero and more of a very annoying imbecile. Oichi isn’t a woman with demonic powers, she’s just emo. Same with Nagamasa. Keiji doesn’t do his wind tornado thing. Why the sudden urge to strip all the charming anachronism?
What is left is a typical action anime story. The guys are fighting, the girls are pouting, and the good guys are invincible. Still, the story is tightly paced, and while it is going to be free of suspense for anyone who is familiar with the tropes or has played the video game before, it is still a pretty gripping read. Masamune is a pretty cool character, in that he is cunning in many instances, and yet reckless when it comes to his pursuit for power and glory. Keiji is a guy who deliberately avoids commitments and responsibilities, but the events in this story may just make him reconsider his stance about life. Everyone else is one-dimensional, although they are all pretty amusing unless their name is Yukimara. God, that guy is too stupid for words and the momentum of the story comes to screeching halt every time that imbecile shows up.
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends Volume 1 ends in an exciting cliffhanger, and I am intrigued enough to want to read more, so at the end of the day, I guess this compilation has done its job. I feel that this one could have been much better, or at least, there’s no good reason why it should be this predictable and familiar, or to be stripped of much of what made the Sengoku Basara franchise what it is. But I am entertained well enough, so I guess it’s okay. Not great, not horrible, just okay.