The release of the second series of Sengoku Basara comes as something of a surprise, the first series didn't sell particularly well, especially on Blu-Ray, and the UK release of the game it's based on - called Samurai Kings here - got average reviews and swiftly disappeared from the shelves. However, the series must have done some business for Manga to take a punt on series 2, and it's good to see that it avoids the scrapheap.
Following the tumultuous events of the first series and the
defeat of Nobunaga Oda's ambitions to unify Japan under his rule, the various
generals who fought him have returned to their own lands and resumed their
skirmishes with their neighbours. However, each general's hopes to further
their own cause is brought up short with the rise of a new power, a power with
ambitions beyond even those of Oda. Hideyoshi Toyotomi has been building
his forces through forced conscription and harsh training, and with the support
of the scheming strategist Hanbei Takenaka is in a position to challenge the
great powers of Takeda, Date, Uesegi and Mori. Unlike Oda, who aimed to
kill all who opposed him, Toyotomi wants to dominate through strength, forcing
the country into submission before invading and conquering foreign lands.
With several regions already under his control and huge armies at his command
Toyotomi's rise is causing alarm amongst his rivals, and Shingen Takeda decides
to dispatch the impetuous Yukimura Sanada to the south of Japan to strike an
alliance with the powerful forces of Satsuma. Yukimura is an extremely
capable warrior but his inexperience as a leader is affecting both his
confidence and his ability in battle, Shingen hopes that the journey will awaken
his latent abilities and make him the difference in the final battle with
Toyotomi. However, Toyotomi has other rivals to contend with too. In
an attempt to weaken the forces of Date, Hanbei Takenaka has kidnapped their
strategist Kojuro Katakura and sent a large force to rout their armies.
Barely escaping the ensuing assault, the hot-headed clan leader Masamune Date
and his depleted forces vow to rescue Kojuro and defeat Toyotomi's ambitions,
whilst the skilled Kenshin Uesegi and scheming Motonari Mori manoeuvre their
forces to exploit the situation. Toyotomi remains unbowed though, he
believes in his own strength and the power of his forces and with Hanbei's
tactics seemingly putting his rivals exactly where he wants them, do any of them
stand a real chance of winning?
Sengoku Basara has always been a bit of a strange series, based as it is on a Dynasty Warriors-style console game which is in turn loosely based on the historical events of Japan's 16th and 17th century Warring States period. Never has the term 'loosely based' been more apt either, those who watched the first series will know that historical accuracy is in somewhat short supply, and the second series possibly goes even further. In real life Hideyoshi Toyotomi was a skilled general and a reformer who succeeded in unification through
force of arms and shrewd political moves. In Sengoku Basara he's a 10 foot tall mountain of a man who aims to conquer Japan by punching it until it gives up. The other generals get a similarly bizarre anime makeover, including Masamune Date wielding six swords at once and peppering his dialogue (in the Japanese dub) with random English and Motochika Chosokabe depicted as a pirate who uses an anchor as a weapon and lives in a castle which is also a ship. The console game origins of the series are quite obvious, with all of the action revolving around the colourful generals whose super-powered attacks can split the earth or wipe out entire armies. The majority of rank and file troops are little more than identikit cannon fodder, hilariously under-powered when compared to the main characters and largely anonymous unless they're needed to prove a point via a heroic death. The main characters can also take a direct hit from a sword you've just seen cut a castle in half and suffer nothing more than a bruise.
So it's gloriously silly, completely over the top and follows
similar injury logic to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, but for
some reason it's actually quite enjoyable. One of the reasons is that the
cast, whilst stereotypical and anachronistic, are quite engaging. Masamune
and Yukimura are good leads, both raw and impetuous but driven and honourable,
and both grow over the course of the series. There is a feeling of each
coming of age, with Yukimura sent on a journey which teaches him the skills and
responsibilities that come with leadership, whilst Masamune must rise above the
loss of his strategist and close friend Kojuro to unite his lands and challenge
Toyotomi. Their journeys are balanced by a parallel story revolving around
Keiji Maeda, an old friend of Toyotomi who has been shocked by his all-consuming
lust for power and hopes to appeal to his better nature to stop his rampage.
Unlike the other characters Keiji is something of a pacifist, making him an
interesting figure in a series which revolves around martial prowess and war.
The story is also quite intriguing, despite the super-powered battles there are
a lot of strategic machinations going on in the background and the tactical war
is probably more interesting than the battles themselves. If anything it
gives the series some much needed depth, which makes it slightly more than just
a mass of boss battles.
However, there's nothing here you haven't seen a million and one times before, all the macho posturing and over-the top attacks are more than a little reminiscent of of Fist of the North Star, and several of the characters - Toyotomi in particular - could quite easily have come from that series. The cast is interesting but pretty huge, and it's quite easy to get a bit lost as they all plot and scheme. However, one of the biggest drawbacks is that it doesn't all hang together as well as it could. Whilst the strategy and subplots are intriguing, whilst the
characters are generally colourful and grow as the series progresses and whilst there are several concurrent plotlines vying for your attention, it just doesn't sit comfortably with the sheer daftness of the character designs and over the top action of the battles. The drama of showing the inner turmoil of a character as he struggles with with his own weakness is somewhat undermined when the next scene shows him unleashing a tornado of fire to wipe out an army. Intriguingly though the final episode on the disc is a bonus episode that dumps all of the drama in favour of straight comedy as Yukimura and Masamune take the Takeda test of strength. It's completely unlike all of the other episodes in this series, and seemed like a strange way to round things off after the more dramatic tone of the story to that point.
Sengoku Basara Season 2 definitely falls into the 'guilty pleasure' file. It may reduce one of the most turbulent periods of war and upheaval in Japanese history to a convoluted melodrama, and change some of the most famous figures in Japanese history to a group of anime stereotypes, but it's great fun. It's stupidly over the top, and the balance between the drama and the sheer insanity of the fighting and the exceptionally anachronistic characters doesn't really work, but I still found myself enjoying it. This series tries for a more dramatic story than the first one and also tries to challenge its cast more, and whilst it doesn't always succeed it does have a bit more weight to it than the last series managed. It's not big and, although it tries, it's not really that clever, but despite all its flaws it's still quite enjoyable, provided you can switch off your incredulity.
Pretty good, as well as a couple of commentary tracks from the American dub staff there's the usual clean open and closing sequences and best of all three short comedy shorts revolving around Kojuro's gardening hobby. The shorts are quite entertaining and combined with the other extras, make up a decent selection.