(aka I Should Probably Not Reference Something Without Having Reviewed It First)
WARNING: This review contains spoilers and is mostly just a rant. Enjoy!
Senran Kagura is an anime based on the moderately successful video game series of the same name about the students of Hanzo Academy – a school which houses a secret shinobi training centre – and their struggles against the evil shinobi of Hebijo Academy.
Now, I’ve actually played Senran Kagura Burst, the only game in the series currently released in the UK, so I’m pretty familiar with the characters and storyline represented in the anime – and yes, despite the amount of jiggling on display (actual quote from the back of the box: “Two good reasons to turn on your 3D!”), there really is a good story.
You see, Senran Kagura shares a writing credit with 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors, Yukinori Kitajima. 999 is well regarded as having excellent, dark writing, and Kitajima wanted to continue this as scenarist in Senran Kagura – but the producer, Kenichiro Takaki, wanted something lighter and funnier. Eventually they settled on a happy medium of a light atmosphere with occasional flashes of darker themes, and frequent flashes of underpants.
The game itself is a fun Streets Of Rage-like beat em’ up – fast, flashy and frenetic to the extreme, an excellent addition to a dying genre. I liked it far more than I thought I would, and was especially impressed by the way the characterization was handled, creating characters that actually feel lively, with believable motivations and back stories. Apparently I’m not the only one, as Shinovi Versus achieved more preorders than Mario Kart 8 and Watch Dogs at Gamestop upon its announcement – which, for a niche title on an arguably failing handheld console, is an outstanding achievement.
But that’s enough of the history lesson – the point I’m making is that the series was popular enough to warrant the creation of an anime. Does it hold up? Is it an accurate representation of the source material? Or is it another case of Personafouritis? Let’s find out!
As I said before, Senran Kagura follows the five shinobi students of Hanzo Academy:
Asuka, ostensibly the main character, a second year student, wielder of Kodachi swords and toad powers.
Ikaruga, class rep, third year student, wielder of the nodachi sword ‘Hien’ and phoenix powers.
Hibari, clumsy first year student, wielder of panicked flailing and rabbit powers.
Yagyuu, extremely powerful, stoic first year student, sister figure to Hibari and wielder of an umbrella and squid powers.
And everyone’s favourite pervert, Katsuragi. Energetic third year tomboy, wielder of face-stompin’ boots and dragon powaaaaaas.
They are lead by their master, Kiriya, and occasionally advised by the legendary shinobi Hanzo, Asuka’s grandfather and the man the school was named after.
As shinobi in training, the Hanzo students rarely undergo real missions, but one trivial assignment brings them into contact with a group of ‘evil’ shinobi from Hebijo Academy, lead by their probably-inappropriately-dressed-for-the-job teacher Suzune.
Homura, Asuka’s rival, is the severe, tanned leader of the Hebijo elite five. She wields SIX swords all at once, like Freddie Krueger’s claws.
Haruka, Hibari’s… fancier, is a master manipulator and human puppet master. And maybe a bit of a dominatrix.
Mirai, who wishes she was Yagyuu’s rival, uses guns. Lots of guns.
Yomi, Ikaruga’s rival, hates rich people because she was poor, but loves bean sprouts. A lot. Too much.
Lastly we have Hikage, a serpent-like girl with no feelings. Katsuragi wants to beat feelings into her.
Now, the reason I’ve devoted so much time into discussing the characters of the Senran Kagura universe (and posting so many images), aside from the fact it makes this review seem longer, is that characterization and motivations are the aspects that make the series enjoyable. Quite aside from the fact that all the characters have distinct personalities and designs (easily identifiable silhouettes are a must!), their motivations are key to making the series work.
And then the anime took a lot of those motivations and threw them out the damn window. But we’ll get to that.
The Senran Kagura anime pretty closely follows the game itself – evil shinobi attack good shinobi, trounce them royally, good shinobi train harder, get better, fight back, win. And maybe there’s some defection and a huge demonic force that brings them all together in the end, but that’s getting into spoiler territory.
However, as someone who enjoyed the game, I find myself finding flaws in the way the anime series handles things. The ‘evil’ shinobi in the games are, as the inverted commas suggest, not actually evil. They’re just making the best of a bad situation – a direct quote from the series is “the light favours few, the dark accepts all”. Essentially, you need a spotless track record and family of good shinobi to become one, whereas the ‘evil’ shinobis accept anyone, but subject them to gruelling training exercises.
While this is touched on in the anime, something about the way the Hebijo students are written rubs me the wrong way (no, not like that), in particular Haruka and Hikage. Haruka is portrayed in the games as being a manipulative sadist to her foes and underlings, but kind and motherly to her friends. She holds an especially soft spot for Hibari as soon as they meet, and desires her friendship. In the anime, she’s just a manipulative sadist to everyone, seems to lust after Hibari and eventually just wants to make her into one of her mindless thrall dolls, something that she would NEVER do in the games – she threatens it all the time, but would never do it to Hibari.
But it’s Hikage that sadly gets the worst of the rewrite treatment. In the games, Hikage is completely devoid of emotions and grew up on the streets, adopted by a gang leader who was killed in a fight. Hikage found her body in an alleyway and took her knife as a reminder. It’s a sad story that resonates with her constantly blank face and monotone voice. Katsuragi wants to fight her so that she can expose the emotions one feels when involved in a good battle. Hikage mostly just responds with lazy curiosity.
In the anime, she was a soldier conditioned to fight without feeling, and Katsuragi wants to fight her ‘because she’s strong’. The first time we see her she is SMILING. What.
It’s baffling that the huge amounts of dialogue in the games dedicated to painting the Hebijo characters as likeable if misguided misfits is almost completely passed over in the anime, instead pretty much labelling them squarely as villains. Sure, they have their little redemption near the end, but there are no real powerful moments where their humanity really shines through.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast is largely kept as was in the games, with some characters even being improved upon. Master Kiriya, formerly designated as a side character, has a great deal of involvement in the anime, with particular attention paid to his doubts about his former student Rin. Hibari and Yagyuu’s sisterly relationship is also used to great effect – in the game, Yagyuu had comparatively little dialogue and screen time, despite being such a cool character.
That’s not to say that the plot is a perfect recreation of the games. Hibari’s temporary defection to Hebijo to recover Hanzo’s stolen ninja scroll is handled with no suspense or doubt – she literally leaves a note telling everyone else her intentions. In the game, we’re not sure for a long while if it’s because she actually wants to go because she’s clumsy and not ‘fit’ to be a good shinobi, or to recover the scroll.
The final battle, too, is changed – and not for the better. In the games, the Hanzo students attack Hebijo to help Hibari recover the scroll. When each Hebijo student is defeated, they wait for the Hanzo student to leave and have a very sad moment where they commit themselves to suicide for their failure. Asuka and Homura fight on the roof, both using their respective ninja scrolls in an attempt to overpower the other. Homura finally has the power to draw her seventh sword but is bested by Asuka. Dougen, the principal of the school, uses the combined spirits of the Hebijo students to summon the horrifying demon Orochi and attain ultimate power. Asuka fights and eventually kills the monster and Dougen along with it, and the Hebijo students, alive and well, appear atop the wreckage of the academy, then disappear into the night.In the anime? Dougen summons Orochi with the scrolls, and then Suzune tackles him off the roof. Orochi disappears. Homura doesn’t even have a seventh sword.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
Aside from these irritations, the series has decent animation, fanservice out the wazzoo, and retains all the original voice actors from the games, which is nice. The fanservice itself involves no nipples, as in the game. Because everyone knows that nipples are the offensive bit, right? Sigh.
Giving Senran Kagura a rating is going to be difficult. I’ve spent the entire review hating on it for deviating from the source material – which I’m totally okay with, IF it goes in a completely different direction, rather than ‘some in, some out’. LA Confidential, The Shawshank Redemption and the original Fullmetal Alchemist series are good examples of where deviation from the source material can be good, or even better. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story Senran Kagura tells, it’s just not quite the story I know and appreciate. Looking at the anime objectively, there’s a lot to like – it looks nice, sounds good and the music is fantastic. There are points in the soundtrack that sound like To The Moon, some that sound like Persona, some like Clannad. And at least this series has a plot that hangs together well and isn’t boring as hell, unlike some shows I’ve been watching recently.
To be honest, my ‘try it’ rating was invented for this. Think of it as ‘your mileage may vary’. Here goes.
While an arguably flawed representation of the games it is based on, Senran Kagura may provide some light entertainment for those willing to look past its lackluster characterization and finale, perhaps through the soundtrack, lively animation and fight scenes. However, if you like what you see, I highly recommend buying the game for the true SK experience.