So I might as well say this: If you want an abridged version of what I’m about to say, our good friend Moecharacter did a Nobunagun review that basically hits my points. I have stuff to add (I ALWAYS have stuff to add), but we basically share an opinion on the series. Other than perhaps our opinions on tentacle rape, which would be one of the five food groups if I had my way.
Nobunagun is a different creature than we have encountered here. It is not insubstantial like BlazBlue. It is not great like Sakura Trick or KILL la KILL. Neither are its flaws numerous like Machine Doll, or its good points so backseat that they only inspire apathy like Strike the Blood. It is, rather, like a car with square wheels. Sure, it has good parts. The seats comfortable and doors sturdy. And out of the 70 pieces that went into constructing it you scored pretty good on about 66 of them. But those couple of parts that you missed are SO glaring that the whole just isn’t going to work.
I admit when I adopted my “wild card” system, choosing a few series based on their premieres, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find one. It was a sense of dread, honestly.
But I fell in love with Nobunagun right away. Here it was. The sophisticated action show with subtext and character study and amazing energy that the anime community had been searching for.
And more than anything, I fell in love with Ogura Shio. She was such a brilliant, fresh kind of character we had never really seen before. Her interests were relatively masculine, that of tanks and weapons and guns, but her personality was very feminine, full of cute expressions and speech, socially awkward, and really this child-like optimism about her. She has visible weaknesses but always just barely overcame them, a visible struggle we could connect with. And for all the things that would eventually go wrong for the series, the character of Shio was never one of them. So let’s get into this show.
But if you’re looking for a relatively spoiler-free review…here it is. Shio Ogura is the reincarnation of Oda Nobunaga, and uses her powers to fight aliens. Nobunagun is a middle of the road action series. Not bad, not exactly great, but reasonable entertainment that comes recommended, and will probably not blow your mind.
Machine Doll 2.0: The Pilot
You may recall in my review of Unbreakable Machine Doll that I regarded the pilot as a weakness, setting up expectations the rest of the show never had the faintest intention of even TRYING to deliver.
Nobunagun fell into a similar trap. Its two part opener set the bar SO high that the very safe, sometimes boring show we later got paled so miserably in comparison. It did two things. At first, the pilot allowed us to give the pedestrian middle section the benefit of the doubt. And later, it made us rather bitter. This isn’t comparing apples and oranges, here. We aren’t looking at Nobunagun and saying “Why can’t you be more like Madoka Magica?” We only need to compare Nobunagun to ITSELF to see both genius, and mediocrity.
Several elements were lost from pilot into main body of the series. First, and one that sticks out to me, is the horror atmosphere that was so prevalent in the first episode. I only mention it as it was slightly recurring in the third episode, but after that, the element vanished. The scene when the EIO attacks Taiwan takes what is, until that point, a bubbly, optimistic field trip, and without even noticeably shifting its tone goes straight from Shio’s sense of wonder into terror and gruesome death. This direction was brilliant, and was one of the best draws of that first conflict.
Second was the tight storytelling. It was not clunky, it was not heavy on exposition. Shio’s rather asocial nature was demonstrated to us in the course of getting the business of the plot done. As she goes to Taiwan we see little insights into how she is different from her peers. This was extremely tight and effective storytelling, something that got lost in the main body. Later on, the show was almost never able to characterize Shio (or anyone else for that matter) independent of its story. Instead it fell back on those Creative Writing 101 habits of “exposition scene/character scene/exposition scene/action scene”. There were SOME instances of more sophisticated storytelling, but they were so very few, brief, and far between that I rather think it was an accident of structure than any conscious decision. Which can happen, don’t misunderstand, accidental characterization means you have a grasp on character motivation. But it felt like the effort was lost, that the desire to tell an engaging, fast paced story was gone, and now we were just filling out 20 minutes of air time.
The characterization, as mentioned, was rather lost as well. Shio’s knees buckle at the very first kaiju attack. I cannot remember when we had an action hero who did that as a baseline reaction (and not just because we need to get across to the audience how badass the enemy is…the kaiju were doing that just fine before Shio panicked). And Asao was magnificent…but we’ll be talking about her independently.
Another strong element in the pilot was Nobunaga himself. His presence was excessively strong compared to the screentime he would barely receive the rest of the series. And for me this had been one of my big hopes, to see Shio openly interact with Nobunaga, even if just inside her mind. Hell, I’d have settled for his role in the pilot: to exposit the instincts he was giving Shio. Certainly not a dealbreaker, but a weakness that, when compounded with these other things, just adds to this sense that the Episodes 1 and 2 are this completely different show.
Let’s not forget the plot points that were just dropped. Like Samurai Kyubey’s (no he STILL doesn’t have a name!) line that Nobunaga wasn’t supposed to be awake yet. Or about how the EIOs had destroyed Samurai Kyubey’s world and he some how got away. Or the Nobunaga Three Line, or the land invasion itself. But again, that’s another point.
Not Enough of a Good Thing
Listing Nobunagun’s flaws is possible, and we totally will. But even combined, every misstep taken together only, at best, weighs the same as the biggest flaw of this series. And as I’m sure you’ve guessed, that flaw was the sacking of the Shio/Asao dynamic.
Asao Kaoru featured prominently in the opening episodes. So much so she seemed to be up for role of deuteragonist. Most of us watching (yours truly included) thought there might have even been an element of romantic interest. While this is certainly true for Shio (she frequently blushes and compares Asao to Jack, whom she would eventually hook up with), for Asao these details seem to be washed away by a kind person on the other side.
And I’m frankly okay with that, even if I am of the Asao/Shio ship. But regardless of the context of their relationship, their dynamic was excessively strong. Asao brought out the best in the writing, and the best in Shio. Her introductory scene was powerful, and visually striking (another thing only the bookends seemed to use, that Gankutsuou-esque character filter). It laid out so much detail about the characters that it really did seem a cut above the storytelling we got in the rest of the series.
And the hospital scene from episode 2…was priceless. It fit into the flow of the episode so well. We heard the words from Samurai Kyubey, “When you go to help, you see how powerless you are”. Shio had stepped up, she had made the difference in the fight. And yet her objective, Asao, was still damaged. Still she was here, and while recovering, the sight of her in all those bandages doesn’t do your sense of worry any favors. Let’s not forget that there was this underlying idea that Shio had not been able to join DOGOO until this conversation, which was some time afterwards, possibly as much as a month or so. Because, really, WE are like the public, saying “Why AREN’T you a superhero yet, Shio?”. And the quiet way she expresses her fear, “I’m just a kid. And so far a sub-standard one…”, and shares how she feels responsible…it was such a brilliant stroke, that is completely understandable. Asao’s words are comforting to her, in the way she completely disarms that by showing how she won a good friend.
It was an interesting idea, would Shio have committed to the fight if she had nothing to fight for? If Asao had not gone up to Shio at THAT MOMENT, put butterflies in her stomach, and become, in that instant, one of the important people in Shio’s life… Asao was a visible example of how an ordinary person changes the world. By affecting the hearts of the extraordinary. Or even, that that act of reaching out MADE Asao as extraordinary, even if it can’t be measured as a military asset.
Finally, yes. I am on the Asao/Shio ship. The hints of romantic interest were just another layer that made these two so interesting together.
And I’ll just mention it here as it falls under this umbrella of “Shio’s life”, why did we NEVER see the Mom? Who is likely a single parent as Shio never mentions her dad? Instead, these proven dynamics were jettisoned in favor of a new dynamic…
An Army of Backwards Sex Drives
One thing that makes Asao’s lack of romantic interest in Shio all the more perplexing (and borderline paranoid/insulting) is that she seems to be only character beyond The Commander who didn’t have a sex drive. Be that Gandhi’s flirting with everything on two legs, Jack’s Mandere antics, Newton’s constant french-kissing, Cyx’s lesbian shower rape, or whatever. For a show that put sexuality on full display for humor, it certainly was terrified of it as a dramatic character motivation.
Shio had a little crush on Jack, and Asao, and that was the end of that.
Jack’s characterization is background noise. On display was his existence as a mandere, and nothing else. I know, I know, Mandere isn’t the right half to emphasize, but if a reverse werewolf is a wereman (were- meaning “man”) fuck it. Jack had a lot of interesting dimensions in PRINCIPLE that did not manifest in practice. He was originally slated as “apart” of his team, that he would leave before them in part out of eagerness and in part because his teammates were rather intimidated by the fact he was the one among them who was a reincarnated serial killer. But we apparently made the decision after episode 2 to say “Yeah but, the personalities of the past lives themselves don’t matter”, so thus it was dropped.
More fascinating was his E-Gene itself. Whom we learn was, in truth, Florence Nightingale. A woman who needed to commit murder in order to save Humanity from a vile threat. She chooses to be remembered as Jack the Ripper, which the show acknowledges, as in real life, that the “Yours truly Jack the Ripper” letter was almost certainly a hoax meant to get a rise out of people. In a way it added this shinobi dimension to Nightingale, living in the shadows and allowing people to dictate her life as they wanted. She needed, nay, wanted no recognition, good or ill. And almost certainly had the truth come out about the Jack the Ripper murders, she would have been vindicated, at least somewhat. But that wasn’t good enough for Nightingale.
A healer her entire life, she turned to the act of killing because her “power” (an ill-defined thing that seems to indicate where she is “needed” most) compelled her to. A woman who sacrificed her entire life of mending the wounded and caring for the ill, to take a young woman’s life for the good of Humanity, with the only price paid that of her own soul. Seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? No wonder she so willingly allows Samurai Kyubey to take her life. Religion is not a theme of Nobunagun, but Nightingale is the closest we have to a woman following what she deems to be God’s will, or the universe if the monotheistic connotations make you uncomfortable. But regardless of where she believed that power derived, she was willing to be its instrument purely and wholly.
But Jack himself? Jack was quite boring. But it could be argued that he was a man who was bitter from being untalented in many things, and even when finding his talents, had to hide them from everyone. He once explained the command structure, and how the combat teams were like grunts. They followed orders and killed what they were told to kill. And lacking any particular talents, upon noticing that Shio wasn’t just a grunt, but command material, well, he took to making sure she embraced it and put her in a position where she could make a difference, even if he had to drag her himself.
Gandhi was quite pedestrian. He passed to fill background space but there was little compelling about his character. Though really, he and Newton existed to do very little. After about Episode 6 the story shifts from our team of fighters to Vidocq and the research lab. It would have been nice to see him fill the mentor role somehow. That maybe he was in touch with his E-Gene when others weren’t, that he could lend advice through an understanding of Human nature that others may not quite see. But he didn’t really fill this role, he mostly became the default confidant for Shio because Jack was too busy being a Mandere and Shio was just afraid of Newton raping her.
Newton herself was boring. We know she was a model while/before serving with DOGOO, and she oscillates between being extremely physical (more, no one ever explained the concept of personal space to her) and a hard-ass bitch during combat. I think there may have been an attempt to show that Shio’s battle lust wasn’t exclusive to her, but Issac Newton? For real?
he Commander and St. Germain really needed a full episode to explore their backstory. As it is, it was rushed and there was little to appreciate there. Hell, I don’t even know WHY they fight like they do, not really. All of the good details need to be provided by my head canon…not a promising sign.
Vidocq just kept showing us how much of an asshole he was.
Overall, while character -traits- were well developed, they were spread pretty thinly over the abnormally large cast, resulting in either unbelievable or unrelatable characters. Like Hunter. Hunter was well characterized, and I was always pretty sure I knew how he’d react to a given situation (arguably, he was way too predictable in that regard), but I know nothing -about- him. No one had ambitions beyond their life in DOGOO. What did they fight for? At least Jack, in hindsight, you can blame his do-gooder lifestyle as him following his E-Gene, even if it seems to clash with his personality. And, including Asao, our cast sat at 15 people…quite the number for a single season. There wasn’t any time to truly get to know these people, at least, not at the pace we were being given (slow).
Credit where it’s due, Shio was an amazing protagonist. She was asocial, and nailed perfectly. Not anti-social, she just had excessively strong introverted tendencies. But not PURELY introverted, she made a conscious choice that she just didn’t fit in with the world, so I prefer to use the asocial label when discussing Shio. She was quite happy being by herself and that was a refreshing change of pace.
As such, Shio was unused to having a place in society, and it follows that she had difficulty finding a place in DOGOO. Though the command staff wanted to shoehorn her into being a sniper, she ultimately was sent to the combat teams because her talents in combat were recognized early. It is this interesting motiff, I guess, of Shio just not fitting into boxes. “You should be this,” “But I excel at this!”, almost the unspoken exchange between Shio and Command.
And for all this, Shio was never portrayed in a caricatured light. Her shyness was very natural. She handled conversation well enough, if not a little curt with others. It was only when it ventured into personal territory that she started to blush and squirm. Most commendable, Shio’s shyness was never really “an obstacle”. She certainly had to believe in herself and step up to argue with Vidocq, who is a condescendingly smug prick who outranks her, so fair point. But there wasn’t any tacked on mantra of “I have been shying away from the world for years! Well no more! I have to CONFORM!” with a rising sun banner behind her to show us how important this was. She was shy and that was just part of who Shio was. Much like Shinichi’s quirks in Outbreak Company, the show did not treat them as flaws to be polished over, but recognized it as a component of the PERSON who was Ogura Shio.
One of the details I loved was how Shio starts the series weirded out by the DOGOO people, seeing them as all abnormal (which they are), but seamlessly she starts to adopt her own strange habits, as they help her connect with Nobunaga, like the “war dance”. I’d say this puts a spin on the others, but I have a hard time seeing Gandhi or Issac Newton as lechers. Maybe Ben Franklin if he’d been in the show, but not those guys. Of course I’m not up on my Issac Newton biographies.
The Problem of Scope
Apart of the series introduction and some moments in the final battle, Nobunagun lacked the gravitas that its plot demanded. This involves several instances of completely arbitrary backpeddaling.
For instance, the EIO attacks. The first attack on Taiwan occurs because the EIOs have finally learned how to advance on land. And yet, this only comes into play once. The rest of the fights are back at sea. We lose part of the drama because, while we KNOW there can be kaiju attacks on Hong Kong or San Francisco, we end up fighting monsters from rowboats all the time. Stirring.
Other plot points lost are the backstories to the Commander and St. Germain, along with Samurai Kyubey’s history. He came here to help our world avert the fate of his own. SHOW US! “Show, Don’t Tell” is the first mantra of Creative Writing 101.
The EIO invasion in the second half of the series had the same problem. What invasion? You know the one. The big, multi-front battle that kept all the DOGOO teams away from the trans-oceanic tunnel. Off-screen drama. That is, unfortunately for us, not good for tension.
It’s not like the creators were concerned about showing us too many E-Gene holders. The cast was unwieldy as it was. And it’s not like they added the Team 1 guys to show us complex and sophisticated characters. They did it to…uh…why the hell did they do it? I guess to give the final battle some sense that our heroes of Team 2 weren’t doing EVERYTHING by themselves.
But the point is that they were little more than their E-Genes. What harm, then, would it have been to show us William Tell with her bow and arrow battling the enemy in Sydney? Or, Benjamin Franklin blasting them with lightning vision (lightning bifocals?) in Hong Kong. Why was 20 seconds of action between EIOs and…I dunno…Theodora in Singapore, such a chore? The conflict unfolding is small in demonstration, so it thus feels small to us.
How do we know there’s really an invasion? Did we confirm this? Or was Robespierre just like, “Uh, Commander…dude…we like…can’t come to help Team 2…it’s like…a Kaiju here in Perth…what?…Oh, yeah, make that like…like three kaiju…if only you could see it now! *makes static sounds into the phone speaker*”
Hey, for all you know, my version is no less accurate than the Commander’s.
As it is, the monster in Taiwan seems to have been a “how do we get an ordinary girl into this police force?” for the believability factor, which I am all in favor of. But then the forethought about the conflict just kind of…vanished.
Even points like Shio’s bloodlust felt lost compared to the humdrum shit we saw. There was no emphasis on that stuff, no emphasis on Nobunaga’s presence inside her. And since the show didn’t care, we really didn’t care either. Hell, Geronimo has more of an impact as a crazy psychopath killer because, as a percent of the story we get about her, her crazy eyes take up a much larger amount of screentime by comparison.
One of the big successes of Nobunagun’s fights were the sometimes seemingly random color filters used. And I really, really liked it.
It was one of those things ONLY animation can do. And for me? It didn’t even phase me. I think partly because the show was so confident in it, that it was just like “Yeah, the sky’s green now. So what?” And we just kind of had to roll with it.
The show really embraced its genre. It said “We are a shounen action battle show. Remember when cartoons could be about violence without any moral dilemma? Well here it is.”
Perhaps this is why the horrific aspects of EIOs were toned down.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the fun factor justifies the abandonment of these heavier elements, but I can sort of see why they might want to downplay them.
I’m just upset they chose to downplay them ALL. No horror, no showing Shio loving war too much, no moral conflict, no personal conflict among the cast, you really need something to keep the suspense rolling.
But the fights themselves, mostly superb, with a few that fell below the Nobunagun standard, but compared to anime as a whole they were still mid-tier. We never really had an out and out BAD fight like BlazBlue.
Also, the SFX and music guys did their job superbly. Every time Newton’s boots went off, I wanted more. Every time the battle theme started it, I was so set to see shit explode. The EIOs were generally terrifying in their bug-like, creepy noises. It was a strong soundtrack and good at making the mood match the visuals.
The Quiet Voices
I mention this mostly as a lament of what I really wanted Nobunagun to be about. And that was the E-Genes themselves. They were what made this show unique, I thought, and their absence, essentially, made the show weaker.
Really, there is no difference at this point between Nobunagun and a Super Sentai about historical inspirations. Kyubey could have summoned the main cast to the Command Center in the first episode and the plot would have rolled along essentially the same. I mean we didn’t learn anything about the EIOs themselves until Shio joined the cast, like the way they evolve, the stem-cell EIOs, the tunnel, the battleship…none of it was known to our cast beforehand. All they knew was the series blurb in the TV Guide it seemed.
And the shame is, back in the pilot story, when Nobunaga himself is directing Shio’s actions. In this he basically served to monologue WHY Shio was taking actions and where her powers came from, such as the Three Line. I found this interesting, a dynamic about how the past lives were guiding our protagonist’s actions.
There is so much conflict you can wring from this premise. Perhaps Shio, by taking the AU Orb too soon, without preparation, at full power, exposed Nobunaga’s consciousness to her own. Maybe he is a bad influence on her, despite his power and instincts.
Maybe Shio is disconnected from Nobunaga, and finds she needs to connect with him somehow. It’d be cute to see her trying to find something that would draw his personality out.
Or in her mind, have an internal monologue between herself and Nobunaga. I’d love to see the two argue.
And those are just the really cliche things that could have been done. With Nobunagun’s weirdness, you could have the E-Genes playing poker in some ethereal world together and it wouldn’t have been so out of place. Now that would have been silly yet strangely awesome, have Issac Newton calling Nobunaga’s bluff.
But things were kind of stretched in regards to the character’s past lives. They didn’t even really affect them much. Some basic things, certainly. Gandhi was rebellious by nature (so we’re told, but not really shown), Shio was interested in the latest and greatest in military hardware like her predecessor. And there were some stretched metaphors like the Three Line. But really? Yeah it was Super Sentai. Maybe not even.
To not watch Nobunagun would leave you greatly diminished. At least…the bookends.
The middle of the series is rather shallow and predictable. Some interesting ideas crop up, but nothing of real merit.
But if you like action it is a must see. I expect a host of imitators for it action palette to crop up. And I would recommend the first two episodes to ANYONE interested in anime. It’s such a brilliant example of what animation can do where live action would lag behind.
On the whole I’d score it above average. But only just.
My big hope for the series is that if there is a second season (knowing nothing about the manga story arc here) it would draw itself into the more serious territory, just a bit.
Though, in a perfect universe? I would love a Nobunagun OVA that shifted the focus to the more adult elements. More Asao/Shio shipping, more horror, more unhinged danger, more Nobunaga, more backstory on Commander/Samurai Kyubey (here’s an idea, why don’t we call him something other than “DOGOO alien”?) That would be the best thing to happen.
Still, you can’t downplay a show entirely on “what might have been”, it’s just that the “might haves” actually appeared in the show itself to set up lofty expectations when the show basically planned to skirt by with minimal effort from the beginning.
If you’d like to see my full trip through Nobunagun, you may do so here.