There's a narrative in modern anime criticism that we're currently in a dark age, after the shock of the real estate bubble and a later, smaller crash in the anime market in general ended the days of high-budget, high-violence OVAs and 200-episode fantasy series, all lovingly rendered with hand-drawn backgrounds and three-toned faces. What's left are cashgrabs for the disgusting tasteless otaku who are willing to put money down for those shows that pander specifically to them, which are stereotypically cheap, ugly, and focus more on cute girls doing cute/sexy things than manly men doing manly things, as was common in days of old.
A commonly cited example is 2012's Oda Nobuna no Yabou. It looks like a perfect example of what's wrong with the world: The premise has a modern transported to the Sengoku era to find famous figures of the era transformed into cute girls. If you go no farther than the poster in forming your expectations, you might expect harem antics, boring and sidelined action, dirty jokes that fall flat, the protag walks in on a girl in the bath and gets slapped, a twelve-episode nothingburger that leaves a nasty taste in your brain if you push through it hoping for something good.
That description does not apply to Oda Nobuna no Yabou.
I'm going to praise this show to the moon and back because I love it so much I watched it for the fourth time to get material for this article. It's well-directed, clipping along at a pace that gives us excitement, tenderness, and humor without hardly ever seeming to drag or leave us behind. It's beautiful. The color palette is exciting, the characters are visually interesting and easily distinguished, the camerawork goes above and beyond. The characters grow and change and change each other, all actions have consequences, all choices have tradeoffs. The time travel angle is treated seriously by the writers and the characters. And it's fun. Beautiful women in bright outfits perform slow-motion stunts, heroes make heroic sacrifices only to get rescued at the last minute by other heroes, and all ninjas can teleport. It doesn't take itself too lightly or too seriously. It deserves praise.
The first six episodes follow Oda Nobuna, the young, pretty, blonde version of notable Japanese unifier and self-proclaimed Demon King of the Sixth Heaven Oda Nobunaga, as she maneuvers through battles and politics to cement her control of central Japan. The second six, inferior in most ways to the first, show her attempts to take control of the central government and end the civil war.
By her side is the time-traveling teenage boy protagonist they call Monkey, who joins her team of advisors, generals, and warriors, who are actually not all pretty girls. There are manly men in this show too, not least of which is Monkey, who grows from an overconfident sim gamer to a balanced, courageous general throughout the show.
The director is very handy with the tricks available on his limited budget. Most CG models that show up on screen aren't cel-shaded but fully traced, which is possible because they aren't on screen very long, just enough to show some action before we cut back to fully hand-drawn animation. Dramatic conversations are spiced up with close-ups and camera shakes. The camerawork in general is much better than a show like this normally gets..
Nobuna's character hews close to what's known of Nobunaga's, with the crucial difference of a time traveler showing up to be her conscience. She wants Japan to be peaceful, prosperous, to learn from the West so someday it will be able to compete. In real history Nobunaga broke eggs for his omelette. He did some evil things and they came back to him, that's why Hideyoshi had to finish the war. Nobuna's torn between what she feels are cold necessities of leadership and her love of family and friends, and throughout the story develops the ability to more fully trust those she's close with, especially Monkey. Even though the first thing we see her do is do a flip off a horse and duel two samurai, she's wonderfully feminine in her speech and mannerisms.
|Joss heroines don't wear these.|
There's very real tension in this story. Nobuna's got to unite Japan. This is the center of her character and she doesn't doubt this except in the most trying circumstances, which of course arise, because she also wants to keep the people she loves alive, and it's not always obvious how both of those goals can be met.
Monkey's got to help Nobuna unite Japan. He also wants to keep this vulnerable girl from growing into the demon Nobunaga became. His own life comes later. When he risks his life it's not because he knows he has plot armor, it's because he feels like with the risk involved it's an excellent tradeoff.
It's a time travel story, which is easy to forget sometimes. Monkey's from the modern day, modern enough to have a smartphone at least. He wears his school uniform (with a yellow T-shirt beneath, like all heroic isekai protags of the early 2010s) throughout, occasionally has trouble being understood because of modern language (not enough for true accuracy, but at least it's mentioned), and has intimate knowledge of the war he's been put into, or at least a similar war where he didn't show up with the future in his head.
The spine of episode 4 is the idea that there is a moral weight to changing history, that you don't know if you'll ruin everything but you know what the right thing is right now, regardless of consequences.
By the end of the 12-episode run history has changed significantly, but Monkey's developed the reputation, courage, and skill to be useful to Nobuna anyway - but even if he hadn't he'd still keep trying. He's a hero.
The director of Oda Nobuna may not seem like he's taking care to build that foundation, with spirit beasts, teleporting ninjas, waifs at the head of the battles, but he really does. We don't see women in period-accurate dress and grooming up front buttkicking, and they don't act like men outside of cutscenes. They're all in costumes, some of them quite anachronistic (you try finding jean shorts in medieval Japan). We're meant to separate the actual struggles, won by hordes of men with spear, sword, and rifle, with our mascots' moments of glory. There's magic, but it doesn't influence the plot. Battles aren't won by hero units or magic, they're won by the courage of the soldiers and the skill of their commanders.
How is this believable? I still don't fully understand. Your mileage may vary. I swear it works though. And it pulls together for an exciting and heartwarming mile-a-minute comedy action drama whose ultimate goal was to sell light novels but went beyond, a diamond in the rough. I don't accept the prophecies of anime doom, and Oda Nobuna no Yabou is a big part of that.
|I just can't stress enough how pretty everything looks.|