There are two kinds of episodic stories. The first follows the same cast, just that their adventures are broken into smaller parts, each with its own beginning, middle and end. Often, they can be finished in half an hour. Stories can still form naturally as a sort of overplot, but for the most part, if you understand the premise, you can pick a random episode and begin from there. The other kind of episodic storytelling is much harder to pull off, because the cast is constantly changing. There may be one or two characters that play a role in all the stories, but each installment is a fresh experience, needing to set its own tone and message. This is the anthology.
Anthologies are actually pretty rare in anime. Hatsukoi Limited tried to become one, but its focus was so split that it had to force an abrupt ending. The anthology I’m here to talk about is Sengoku Collection. While other warring states series – Basara, Oda Nobuna and Otome – are all fairly similar to each other in their exaggeration and condensation of Japan’s civil wars in the name of entertainment, Sengoku Collection is a unique beast. The basic premise – generals are turned into girls – does add some flavor to the show, but it’s only part of what makes the show work. What it created was one of the most unique anime in recent memory.
Lessons in History
In order: Roman Holiday, A Star is Born, Wings of Desire, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Bowling for Columbine, Back to the Future, Baghdad Cafe, Alice in Wonderland, Volcano High, The Sting, Knight Rider, The Day of the Jackal, Yappari Neko ga Suki, Hell House, Sleuth, Ladyhawke, Dancer in the Dark, Inugami-ke no Ichizoku, Amadeus, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Zero Focus, Legend of Galactic Heroes, Diva, Tsurikichi Sanpei, Maboroshi no Mizuumi
A good portion of these are Japanese, but it’s an international buffet.
The greatest part of Sengoku Collection wasn’t realized until about a quarter of the way through its run. The “Sengoku” part isn’t as heavily emphasized as, say, The Ambition of Oda Nobuna (which aired alongside its latter half), but the “Collection” part is what makes it stand out. Every episode is a homage to a classic movie. Sometimes in the broadest of strokes, with the end result bearing only a few similarities, as the elements of Japanese history and the hunt for magical treasures are filtered in. This does not affect the core of the show – that the staff set about to create a well thought out, well executed homage to films from around the world. There are potential audiences for this anime in the lovers of cute girls, of Japanese history, and of movie buffs. This article will primarily focus on the third. (I’m also part of the first.)
You have classic Hollywood pictures like Roman Holiday for Nobunaga (not the first time this has been homaged in anime. Strike Witches 2 also did a take on it with Lucchini) and A Star Is Born for Ieyasu. Even then, the tonal shift is jarring. One is a lighthearted romantic comedy, the other a drama about the inner workings of stardom that laid the groundwork for the Takotsuboyas of today. Speaking of, the work that influenced TK’s Shocking Trilogy, Amadeus, is also one of the works being homaged. (With Yoko Hikasa, or one of her characters, playing the Salieri role in both of them.)
You have teen comedies like Back to the Future and profound yet terrifying works like 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are even works being homaged that aren’t quite fictional, like Bowling for Columbine, or aren’t even movies, like Knight Rider. I realize this section has been listing things, but the sheer discrepancy in tone, in theme, in artistic vision between all the things I’ve been listing shows that, despite its niche appeal (genderbent warring states girls), the actual stories being told in Sengoku Collection are universal, encompassing every corner of fiction conceived by humanity, every point of view we’ve had on life itself.
There are too many episodes and stories for me to analyze them all, and by dissecting a small sample of something, one can generally get a good idea of the broader picture. I’ll focus on the episodes that have an interlocked story, and a select few standalones that I feel speak to the power of short fiction.
Oda Nobunaga and the Greek Chorus
The first episode is a common anime story in itself, but it’s also setting the premise for the whole world to come. As it is with many of these stories, Nobunaga is a central figure, and she wants to take over the world. That world just happens to be ours, in the present. The issues of culture shock don’t come up as often as they should, though they form a major part of the comedy in the first episode. What’s important here is the setting up of the overplot. Nobunaga must collect the secret treasures held by the other generals who were whisked away from the past for reasons unknown and unexplained – why they were isn’t largely important – in order to get herself back. The cost is that if she steals a treasure from someone, they can’t go back themselves.
Like the myths of old, a hero has to be assigned their quest by somebody, and these somebodies are muses in the most literal sense of the word. They’re sacred, they’re songstresses and they have more power than anyone in the cast. The Miko three are our Greek chorus. Why are they animal girls? No clue. They’re voiced by Yui Hasegawa, Yurika Takagi and Sayaka Takenouchi – aka the three members of Sweety, the idol group that sings the first ending and second opening. It’s pretty clear it was done for marketing purposes, but it doesn’t dilute the roles of the Miko trio. They’re in places not even Nobunaga goes to, subtly manipulating the events. Only, unlike say, the rock in Natsuiro Kiseki, they’re benevolent about it. As long as that benevolence suits Nobunaga.
If anyone tried to grasp what Sengoku Collection would be about from only the first episode, their theories would be wholly inaccurate. It follows the plotline of a romantic comedy series to a T. Nobunaga declares Shoichi (his name is never said in the episode) to be her underling, changes in his house, and looks like she’s going to form a relationship with him… but she never does. Her mission is more important than that. In a way, this makes the first episode more of a prologue than the stories that follow, but with the linking element of Nobunaga and the Miko trio, the audience always has some form of stability to fall back on. (Most of the time.)
What’s nice is that we can return to Shoichi and his colleagues in a later episode, without Nobunaga making a reappearance. It’s a setting that was ripe for another story. Every time the show goes somewhere new the world expands, but when it goes back to the well of already established material, it becomes deeper rather than wider, which is just as good.
The Genre Roulette Wheel
Sengoku Collection has only two two-parters in its long run. That’s just over 20 episodes that are stand-alone (for the most part, that will be covered later), and in that short time frame, they can tell a story about nearly anything, as long as it follows the pattern of featuring a genderbent version of a warring states general or other famous person from that time period. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. Literally, in some cases. There are two instances where the series ventures into science fiction territory, and even then, they’re radically different from each other.
The first sci-fi story occurs very early in the series’ run. “Knowledge Master”, about Gennai, has the theme of the episode be about the future. Gennai, despite coming from a feudal past and having the technology of our present day, has Doc Browned up a time machine. Not out of a DeLorean, but the general idea is the same. This is the Back to the Future homage I mention above. It becomes clear when the panel of Gennai’s time machine is shown, largely resembling the DeLorean’s. Gennai wants to use the time machine to go further into the future and see what advancements humanity has made, like Farnsworth, but with a way to get back. The problem is that finding the right materials to make her time machine work has proven to be a task, so most of her inventions aren’t of much use.
She ends up using the time machine to help fulfill her young assistant’s dreams. The son of the family she’s been living with wants to play soccer, but ends up hurting his leg and being unable to play. Gennai sacrifices her time machine to help someone close to her (narrowly avoiding a time paradox in the process), and realizes that the future should, perhaps, remain unknowable. The theme of accepting your imperfections and living life on your own terms is crucial to the series in general. The next time supertechnology would be involved, it wouldn’t be as impressive as a time machine, but it would be much, much larger.
Episode 21, “Cavalry Queen”, focuses on Takeda Shingen and a tea robot named Fasad 28 fighting to save a space colony from the control of an evil AI. This is the 2001 homage, though nobody gets turned into a Starchild in the course of events. Like Gennai, Shingen is a bit of an absent-minded genius. She’s a great tactician and fighter, but not very good at math, and at times a little easygoing for the situations she finds herself in. Like forcefully shooting herself into the vacuum of space. The AI that controls the space colony asks Shingen to join her, but Shingen declines, finding the AI’s perfection to be too boring. The contrast between Fasad’s trust of Shingen, and the AI’s simple desire to rule also forms the thrust of the episode. Whether it’s the future or oneself, not knowing everything is expected and okay. The people who do try to know everything in Sengoku Collection often end up changed from the experience.