Reviewby Theron Martin, May 8th 2014
episodes 1-13 streaming
Sio Ogura is more than a little weird, and a hard-core military otaku on top of that. She knows that she does not mix well with other girls, so she even politely declines an invitation from Kaoru Asao, one of her school's most popular girls, to join her group while sightseeing during a class trip in Taiwan. Sio discovers that she is more different than she could have possibly imagined when giant buglike creatures called Evolutionary Invasion Objects make landfall despite the Taiwanese military's best efforts to stop them. Only E-gene Holders, individuals whose genetic link to prominent individuals of the past gives them the ability to use special AU Balls to manifest incredible weapons and devices, can effectively combat the EIOs. When one such individual, a young man with the ominous name Jack the Ripper, is badly wounded in combat against the EIOs while she tries to rescue an unconscious Asao, Sio finds herself drawn to his AU Ball. Suddenly the dreams she has been having make sense: she is, essentially, a new incarnation of Oda Nobunaga, and that allows her to manifest his weapon of choice – a gun – as well as to call upon his canny sense of battle tactics. Hence she becomes Nobunagun, the newest member of E-gene Holder secret organization Dogoo and a front-line warrior in the battle to defend humanity against EIOs, whether she and her fellow E-gene Holders are ready for it or not. Faced with an enemy that is both tenacious and adaptable, Dogoo will need everything from Nobunagan that Sio can bring to the table.
Aside from some odd stylistic choices in it artistry (more on this later), the first episode of Nobunagun starts off inauspiciously. A misfit girl discovers that she has a heritage that no one knew about when monsters attack and a classmate who has been nice to her needs to be rescued. That heritage effectively allows her to access super-powers when push comes to shove and step up to help save the day. Of course there's a secret organization whose super-powered members are the only individuals capable of fighting off this alien menace, as conventional weapons are ineffective. The basic premise could not get much more generic (as anime super-hero stories go) if it tried.
But then we get the first shots of the empowered Sio: a petite girl who wields an impossibly large gun on one arm, sports an expression of wicked glee, and has an image of a sharp-featured Oda Nobunaga laughing maniacally in her red-tinted eyes, all while a hard rock score plays in the background. This is definitely not generic, and the impact it carries is quite striking. And that is just a prelude to an outstanding second episode, one which explodes into an orgy of deliciously-absurd action and creative power use in its first half and then delivers just as well on the emotional front in the second half, where it uses Sio's visit to Asao in the hospital to more firmly establish the relationship between the two and explore the reality that, for all of the awesome power she possess, Sio is still an overwhelmed and uncertain teenager. As cool as the action scenes were, the scene selection and composition used in this segment are truly brilliant. That this is from the same director who has Kekko Kamen, Oni-Tensei, and a couple hundred episodes of Sgt. Frog on his directorial resume makes it all the more remarkable, as nowhere previous did Nobuhiro Kondo show this kind of potential.
While still good, the series settles down a bit for its middle run, which mostly consists of Sio getting acclimated to working at Dogoo, encountering other various personalities associated with other historical luminaries (even ardent history buffs are likely to have to use Google for a few of the names brought up), adapting tactics to the evolving threat offered by the EIOs, and developing faint traces of a romantic connection between Sio and Jack. The backstory for a couple of key characters is also delved into a bit, and a couple of other potential romantic pairings are flying around, too. All sorts of cool action scenes pop up, and one episode set at a remote research station plays out like a horror movie, but some of the strongest content in this run again features Asao, whom Sio is reunited with during a convalescence in Japan. The story picks up again towards the end as Dogoo plans for and executes its biggest and most important operation, with one of the highlights being the jaw-dropping revelation at the beginning of episode 13 about who Jack the Ripper really was – and the truth presented here, which is astounding in its audacity, is something that no one who has not read the source manga will see coming.
One of the keys to making the series work is its titular heroine. Sio is a rarity amongst female anime leads: a geeky girl who is allowed to fully be a geek, rather than a pretty girl just putting on the airs of being a geek. As a result she has a goofy charm which can endear her to viewers without the need for blatant moe trappings; a classic example of this is one late scene where she is the star player and effective field commander of one part of a massive operation, and yet she turns to a tank operator next to her and shyly asks him for an autograph when they are done, because she is a total tank nut. She also stands out amongst shonen action lead protagonists because she is a prodigious tactician as well as warrior when Nobunaga's spirit takes over; rather than just bull-heading her way through everything, she is often the one making tactical calls and ordering people around, which embarrasses her when not in Nobunaga Mode. The chemistry she gradually develops with the acerbic Jack is plain and enjoyable; one gets the impression that she caught his attention fully during an early scene when she fires back against his complaints about not doing something because of being injured by saying, “but you're not a normal human, are you?” The rest of the cast is colorful, too, including a brassy female Newton (with gravity-control ability, naturally) who French-kisses everyone upon greeting them and a Gandhi (puts up defensive shields) who fancies himself as a playboy. Each of them and other E-gene Holders get plenty of opportunities to show off their powers in clever ways as well as their personalities. Amongst normal humans, Asao, who seeks to befriend Sio because she admires (and perhaps envies?) Sio's willingness to be her own person, shines in a limited role as Sio's moral support.
The artistic aspects also stand out. Kondo and his team from animation studio Bridge (Devil Survivor 2, Mitsudomoe) have given the series a distinct visual style, one whose battles scenes are characterized by bold, almost overpowering color schemes tinged in red, laughably outlandish equipment manifestations, and dramatically stylized combat outfits; the prevailing attitude seems to be, “we don't care if it looks ridiculous, as long as it looks fun,” and in that respect the series scores big-time. In other places color schemes painted in shades of blue or green predominate, or filters are used creatively in filling shapes in ways that suggest personality and behavior; for instance, early on Sio has a camouflage aura, while Asao has a flowery aura. Character designs tend to emphasize big features, broad mouths, and lively expressions, and any of them would stand out in a crowd of anime characters. EIO designs, whether they take on more buglike or more octopoidal appearances, are less inspired. The intense visual gimmickry obscures rendering quality in both backgrounds and character designs that is actually very ordinary and slumps even lower at points, and the animation definitely has its limitations and shortcuts. Still, the series makes quite the visual impression. Despite the French-kissing business and one recurring joke about how Sio was photo-shopped by another E-gene Holder to falsely be depicted as having quite a rack, the fan service in the series is actually very limited and mostly tame. Violence does get graphic but not especially gory.
The musical score is nearly as much of a star as the visuals and Sio are. In action scenes it uses driving hard rock numbers, with heavy electronica themes appearing elsewhere, but it also deftly uses softer and gentler instrumentals to support the handful of more emotional scenes. Regular opening theme “Respect for the dead man,” by Japanese alternative rock/metal band Pay Money to My Pain, hits with a heavy metal sound and gruffly-vocalized English lyrics which nicely set the tone and attitude for the series. Regular closer “Chiisana Hoshi” is a gentler, more J-pop-flavored number whose visuals vary over the course of the series depending on which characters are being featured in a given episode.
Japanese vocals are also a cut above, especially Shiori Muto in her debut role as Sio and veteran supporting actor Nobuo Tobita (Zeta Gundam's Kamille Bidan is one of his few leading roles) as Nobunaga. In the former case Muto gets the inflections just right to showcase Sio's offbeat character, insecurities, and ultra-confident Nobunaga Mode, resulting in a performance far from the typical cookie-cutter anime girl sound. In the latter case Tobito makes the most of a small role by flavoring Nobunaga as something of a mad genius; his maniacal laugh at the end of episode 1 is one of the greatest of its type that you will ever hear in an anime title.
Even the most generic of story foundations can be overcome if the execution is good enough, and that is certainly the case with Nobunagun. Although it does have its flaws, a great cast of characters, striking visuals, strong musical score and voice acting, and a high-spirited sense of fun help establish the title as a worthy entry in the action genre. Its ending leaves room for the story to continue, as the enemy has taken a major loss but not been entirely defeated. But that will probably require the original manga to get farther ahead.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Title character, outlandish artistic style, second episode.
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