Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings

If the image (left) doesn't grab you straight away, take my word for it - as cheap as it sometimes is.

This was was an interesting series. I always love my Production I.G stuff, and it's great to see it getting the attention it deserves outside Japan.

The complete first season was released overseas towards the end of last year by FUNimation Entertainment in the USA, and it's also out through my fave chaps at Madman in Australia.

I did an interview with the series' character designer and chief animation director, Toku Okubo, back in 2009 for the late Geek Monthly magazine, and it went something like this (well, actually, a lot like this since I just cut and pasted):

Sans Wikipedia, you’d be forgiven for not immediately guessing when the Sengoku Period took place.

So let’s indulge in a quickie history lesson here.

Also known as the Warring States era, the Sengoku Period covers a time of dramatic political and military flip-flop that gripped then-divided Japan, from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th, when shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu took charge.

Think something akin to the barbarity of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), minus the religious hogwash but with occasional earthquakes added into the mix, and you may begin to get an accurate picture.

357 years, two months and six days after the peace treaty that ended the European equivalent of complete chaos (in other words, on July 21, 2005, just to save you wearing down your fingers), Japanese videogame producer Capcom - the makers of similarly rough-and-tumble games like Street Fighter, Captain Commando and Resident Evil - released Sengoku Basara (戦国BASARA, aka Devil Kings) for PlayStation 2.

Obviously the game’s specifics revolved around the mayhem of the Warring States period, and it starred three real-life historical warlords as the central cast: Sanada Yukimura (once dubbed the #1 warrior in Japan), Date Masamune (nicknamed the One-Eyed Dragon, for obvious reasons.), Takeda Shingen (the Tiger of Kai), and Oda Nobunaga (the Devil King himself), a man who conquered much of Japan before committing seppuku in 1582.

Given the ever-popular combination of the slice-and-dice action format with samurai iconography (it sold 1.2 million units in Japan alone), this baby was always destined to reach screens other than PCs, and play on machines dedicated away from games - which is where veteran anime studio Production I.G (of Ghost in the Shell franchise fame) became involved.

Their resultant series, released on TVs here in Japan from April [2009], is not directly based on dusty facts from antiquity, but sets its sights on “paying homage to history” - which gives them plenty of leeway to be creative, especially in the character stakes.

Think contemporary brooding flair and surly, somewhat streetwise youth-culture antics that rest at home in the 21st century living room, rather than the blank, honor-bound rural rigidity probably present four centuries ago.

“It also has a high-octane story arc and fantastic action throughout the whole series,” assesses character designer and chief animation director, Toku Okubo. “I think we’ve created a whole new genre that didn’t exist before!”

While this is Okubo’s first major foray into character design, he previously worked on key animation on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, as well as on the Ghost in the Shell TV series and Immortal Grand Prix, and was the animation director on several episodes of Blood+.

Also on board for the I.G ride is director Itsuro Kawasaki, who helmed the Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle movie and did episode directing chores on Ghost in the Shell and Noir on TV. Scripting the armoured descent into anarchy is Yasuyuki Muto, responsible for the movie Afro Samurai: Resurrection, costume romp Le Chevalier D’Eon, and ninja-actioner Basilisk.

Okubo’s own involvement, however, had quite unusual origins.

“Everything started when the producer, Tetsuya Nakatake, held an in-house competition to establish the character designer for this new series. I‘d worked as a key animator many times, but never designed the characters for any project thus far. I thought this was going to be a good opportunity, and I took on the challenge.”

Luckily for us he was successful, as the character designs here are sensational - although Okubo is keen to pass around the plaudits.

“Each artist added his personal touch in creating the spectacular animation for each character’s fighting technique,” he raves.

“And the background art is beautiful. It perfectly matches with the colour palette used for the characters, and this gives a distinctive realism to the animation as a whole.”

The action here is as vital as the rapidly changing story and the range of unique characters involved, and Okubo is quick to make his pick of the cream of the crop of historical figures at play in the series.

“Takeda Shingen,” he blurts out. “He’s a real dandy, and he can fill the screen by just being there.”

With Okubo himself doing all the cast compositions, Shingen most certainly does - it helps when your own design god goes to bat for you.

Here's the opening montage to the series; you'll have to pick up and watch the rest:


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