Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 8th 2012
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings 2
Blu-Ray + DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
Nobunaga Oda has gone the way of the dodo, so the remaining warriors of the Warring States are now free to fight each other to their hearts' content. Their various rivalries are again cut violently short when uber-warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi arrives. His army is huge, disciplined, well-trained, and no one stands a chance against it alone. After an initial beating, Date and Yukimura separate to fight the threat in their own ways. It will not be easy, however. Even if they can get past the devious machinations of Hideyoshi's aide-de-camp Hanbei Takenaka, Hideyoshi himself is seemingly indestructible. So was Nobunaga though, and look where that got him.
The outrageous action and knowing camp that made Sengoku Basara's first season guilty fun are still in force in its second outing, but there are differences here—and not small ones. Like its antagonist Nobunaga, season one was simple and elemental: action for action's sake, fast and furious. Like Hideyoshi, season two is more careful, less headlong—divided between its need to rock the house and a desire to say something. Uh-oh.
Nobunaga was a force of pure evil, much the way a tornado is a force of nature. He was less a person than an embodiment of all that is ruthless and ugly and destructive in the world. His ambition wasn't noble or even comprehensible on human terms; it was death and misery and betrayal for their own sake, not for what they could gain him. Hideyoshi is a human. Make no mistake, he's nearly as indomitable a foe as Nobunaga; but his goals are concrete and understandable and his motivations complex and personal. He is strong, but also fundamentally flawed, given to acts of inhumanity for human reasons. He is also, curiously enough, a lot less interesting than Nobunaga. No matter what happened, what stress he was put under, what the series threw at him, Nobunaga remained an evil cipher. Hideyoshi, on the other hand, is eventually laid bare as yet another tyrant ruled by the conviction that might is right.
To make that point, the series takes precious time out from the clashing of heroes and blowing up of things to discuss his philosophy, address the events that led to its formation, and detail the clash of his version of strength with that of his pacifist friend Keiji. That takes its toll on the series' formerly unstoppable momentum. The relentless forward grinding of his war machine is also a lot less dynamic, not to mention less colorful than Nobunaga's almost supernatural conquest, steered as it was by his monomaniacal devotion to evil—whether it served his strategic purposes or not. Nobunaga threw every battle into chaos; Hideyoshi moves them forward with crushing inevitability.
Hideyoshi isn't alone in dialing back season one's mad energy. The protagonists are complicit in it too. Too many of the second-tier protagonists are made to wait on the sidelines—Uesugi tending to his own lands, Takeda pinned at home by Hideyoshi's forces, Katakura kidnapped and held in a cell. Third-tier protagonists—ninja spies Sasuke and Kasuga for instance—have token influence at best. And the main protagonists spend as much time wrestling with personal problems as they do kicking righteous ass. Date has to struggle with the humiliation of serial defeat and his loss of Katakura, while much time is spent on Yukimura's fight to reconcile his violent path with his kind nature and forge a philosophy of his own, independent of his beloved Lord.
The approach has its advantages. However shallow they remain, the characters are expanded. They gain emotional and intellectual dimensions they didn't have previously, even going so far as to elicit sympathy. The outcomes of some fights, particularly towards the end, almost start to matter. And while Hideyoshi's meticulously planned war may not be as wild or exciting as Nobunaga's, it is more strategically nuanced—giving tactics and intelligence equal footing with martial prowess. That has its own drawbacks—the strategies within strategies require an awful lot of dull exposition—but it's still nice to see battles decided by brains instead of (or in addition to) big blasts of chi.
The fights are enriched by the additional intellectual and emotional context to be sure, but make no mistake: spectacle is still their raison d'etre. And despite swapping director Itsuro Kawasaki for Kazuya Nomura, this is still a series that does spectacle very well. This is a series whose action sequences are so ludicrously pumped-up that oceans split, skies are rent, and buildings are pummeled into non-existence. Through it all Production I.G.'s animation remains vital and vibrant, following characters over chasms, through explosions, and into battle after battle. Sometimes the action is rendered cleanly, sometime in exaggerated smears of motion, but always it is big and bombastic and cool, cool, cool. Cool moves, cool shouts, cool chi-splosions that rip through buildings and hordes of soldiers to cool effect. Even the war-machines are cool, the coolest being a mobile fortress armed with a spiffed-up version of Archimedes' Death Ray.
The show can go too far in pursuit of awesomeness—most notably in its characters' attire. The characters themselves are handsome, but their outfits are borrowed from some glam-rock nightmare. Uesugi's Queen-Victoria-meets-Ziggy-Stardust getup is probably the worst, with Mori's green monstrosity not far behind, and the various exposed abs and S&M masks making third place a real crapshoot. The series has its costuming as much as anything to thank for its veneer of camp.
Still, the series' raw visual impact is its greatest strength. (That, and its musical impact—Hiroyuki Sawano's blasts of anachronistic rock and demonic chanting are as good as any punch or explosion at getting one's blood up.) The true failing of all that strategizing and character-building isn't that it doesn't work—though often it doesn't—but that it gets in the way of the series' visual forte. Time spent on distractions like tactics, character and philosophy is time not spent indulging in ludicrous battlefield mayhem or shooting like a deranged rocket from fight to fight. And in this case that feels like time wasted.
Funimation delivers a predictably solid dub: fun and kind of hammy and a bit looser in translation than is the norm at present. In short, everything it should be. It suffers in comparison to the original only because the Japanese cast is crammed with insane amounts of talent. Sasuke loses the humor that Takehito Koyasu brings, Takenaka loses some of Akira Ishida's cold intensity, and onward down to season-one leftovers like Mamiko Noto's creepily dim-witted Oichi. None of the losses is as major as the loss of Norio Wakamoto's inimitable insanity last season, but the difference is still felt. On the plus side, Date's embarrassing English war cries are blessedly lost in translation.
In addition to both Blu-Ray and DVD versions and a chipboard box to house both seasons, this set includes as on-set extras the now-customary (for Funimation) commentary tracks (with Christopher Bevins and Patrick Seitz commenting on episode 6, and Eric Vale, Robert McCollum, and Chris Cason on episode 12) along with "Sengoku Basara II Katakura-kun." The latter is a series of seven SD shorts, mostly about Katakura defending his vegetable garden. They aren't as funny as they apparently think they are.
Contrasting Sengoku Basara's two seasons is instructive, but one shouldn't let it obscure their similarities. Both are thoroughly preposterous re-interpretations of Japanese history as a DBZ-styled free-for-all, best enjoyed by turning your brain off and letting their big, spectacular action sequences carry you along. They differ only in the density of fighting and the context they provide for it. If you're looking for context, this season will scratch that itch better than season one and probably seem less like a blur of historical personages beating each other up in the bargain. Then again, if you're looking for context, you probably aren't looking here anyway.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Lots of eye-popping action; more characterization; greater focus on strategy.
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