Saturday, June 10, 2017

PulpRev: Oda Nobuna no Yabou


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.
I promise.
The series director, Yuuji Kumazawa, is a virtual unknown who directed this and Sunday Without God for Madhouse before disappearing. His episode directors seem to all have long resumes - one of them directed Blue Gender - and this is apparent with how deftly its plot points are touched on.

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.
Some battles are shown, some are mentioned by the narrator, some are reported by breathless messengers so the main characters can react to the news. Often characters are all over the map, their travel shown in brief cuts or told about in retrospect. The director isn't being cavalier with our time.

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..

Monkey is not a passive protagonist. Shortly after his arrival in the past - touched on extremely briefly, as we don't really care how - he's rescued by the sacrifice of the man who will become known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who he remembers as Nobunaga's closest advisor and greatest general, who avenged his death and completed the unification of Japan. Now Monkey has to fill that role, making up for his lack of experience with a wealth of game knowledge of the Sengoku period. He swiftly gains a reputation not only as a prophet but as Nobuna's loyal retainer, and finds himself, against his will, falling in love. This is a crucial aspect of both characters' growth and is not handled lightly.

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 a large cast of side characters who also develop and are developed by the mains. Some of them, like generals Katsuie and Hanbei, are now cute girls (and Hanbei is now a sorceror), while some, like Hattori Hanzou (famed ninja) and Saitou Dousan (known as the Viper, brilliant general and Nobunaga's adopted father) aren't. A highlight of the first six episodes is Dousan's fatherly relationship with Nobuna and Monkey - not something the poster would lead you to expect.

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.

There aren't always easy options, and they don't always trust each other to make the right choice, because they're sure the other will sacrifice too much for them. Added to the stress of keeping each other alive are invading armies, shaky alliances, problems at home, and the increasingly pertinent issue of a diverging timeline.

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.
Other characters interact with this knowledge in their own ways. Dousan considers it on a deep level, and warns Monkey early on that interference now could spoil his foreknowledge later. Nobuna struggles with a need for Monkey's foresight and a kind of jealousy of it, warning him not to tell her how he remembers her story ending. Katsuie accepts it with simple faith.

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.
Touching on the subject of fun - it's common for fans of mediocre shows to wave away horrible structural problems with something along the lines of, "Who cares? It's awesome." I don't buy that. It's the creator's job to not only create amazing moments but to develop a foundation so they're believable enough to enter our minds as vicarious experiences, not merely as neat pictures.

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. 
One of the most criticisms the modern PulpRev has for the past seventy years is how the entire pulp genre was dismissed as garbage by people who hadn't even read it. We acknowledge that there was plenty of bad work produced, but what was good was really good. Post-2007 anime deserves the same courtesy.

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