Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings

Oda Nobunaga, the Devil King of the Sixth Heaven, is out to conquer all the states of Japan. Equally determined to put a stop to his bloody reign of terror are the formidable warlords Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, and Date Masamune (Souichiro Hoshi/ Johnny Yong Bosch). Cue the succession of octane-powered battles, vile treacheries, and desperate victories snatched from the jaws of defeat that go to make up the first season of Sengoku Basara.

There’s rivalry amongst the allies, too, as Sanada Yukimura (Souichiro Hoshi/ Robert McCollum) Shingen’s hot-headed young retainer, constantly seeks to challenge and outdo the flamboyant Masamune. Rivals at first, they are forced to put aside their differences and unite their strengths to challenge the seemingly-unstoppable Nobunaga.

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And when the Devil King’s lieutenant is the sadistic, battle-crazed albino Akechi Mitsuhide (Sho Hayami/ Vic Mignogna), Masamune and Yukimura find they may have taken on more than they bargained for.

This may look like 16th century Japan, but it’s an ‘alternate history’ warring states era, laced with neat and amusing touches from more recent times. The opening song, JAP, from Abingdon Boys School, sets the tone straight away, as serried ranks of warriors perform contemporary dance moves in time to its aggressive rhythms. Historical accuracy flies out the window – so it really doesn’t matter that Masamune (the One-Eyed Dragon) rides a horse kitted out like an Easy Rider bike with handlebars and exhaust, or sprinkles his speech with a generous helping of English words and phrases (this is lost in the dub, natch.)

Neither does it matter that the Devil King’s warriors wield an armoury of gunpowder-fuelled firepower (machine guns?) or that the lissom female ninja Kasuga wears a revealing cat-suit more appropriate for pole-dancing than stealth warfare. And wait – is that a giant mechanised suit of armour that can fly? From surprise attacks to breathtaking duels, the escalating conflict is presented with riotous panache and conviction; it’s one hell of a ride. Besides, tales of the period of the warring states in Japan crossed the divide from historical accuracy into legend long ago. Fans of Samurai Deeper Kyo will already have come across very different portrayals of Sanada Yukimura and his ninja sidekick, Sarutobi Sasuke.

Oh – and did I mention that it’s all based on a Capcom game? I purposely concealed that fact within the review because so often (sigh) anime TV series and films based on games can be deadly dull, not to mention seriously deficient in character development and plot. Not so with Sengoku Basara. Even though the protagonists bear scant resemblance to their historical originals, the animation brings them to (larger-than) life with conviction. It can be a little confusing working out who’s who at first if you aren’t familiar with the game – and I confess that I had to resort to a very useful article in NEO to help familiarise myself with the characters.

But, once past that initial hurdle, I found my resistance swept away by the sheer exuberance of the action, and the infectious shonen vibe of this show – in spite of the gloriously over-the-top orchestration of the battles (dazzling energy bolts and extreme sword and spear skills which hearken back to the series’ game origins), Sengoku Basara works for me because of the human dimension fleshing out the conflict. These samurai are not indestructible; they are passionate about their beliefs, they argue, they get hurt, they need time to heal, and some of them die.

The music is by Hiroyuki Sawano, who delivers a stirring score which is only occasionally tarnished by some tinny patches in the orchestral sounds department. As for the English dub, there are convincing performances in the lead roles, especially from Johnny Yong Bosch and Robert McCollum. However, it’s no good having excellent voice acting if the score and sound effects dominate. Something seems to have gone adrift with the balance between the dub and the music (unless it was just my discs) as in places it was impossible to make out what the actors were saying without turning the volume up way too high.

Putting these issues aside, however, the first season of Sengoku Basara is a fun and ultimately involving watch for anyone who enjoys samurai action dramas (and isn’t too bothered about historical accuracy!). A generous 13 episodes are included on two discs – and the final episode lays the groundwork for season two.

DVD extra features (approx. 20 minutes) include Sengoku Basara Chosokabe Motochika-kun and Mori-kun, and text-less opening and closing songs.