DVD: £29.99; Blu-ray: £34.99
19 Oct 2016
Dear old Joan of Arc. She's a busy little bee, isn't she? While the female medieval knight is actually not so uncommon a feature of history as many assume (fantasy authors struggling for less hackneyed references might want to look up subjects like Catalonia's Order of the Hatchet, or Princess Sichelgaita of Lombardy) it's nonetheless undeniably the case that the Maid of Orleans' story, given scale and stature by her pious fervour and fired into hard permanence by her tragic end, as well as its being interwoven with the Shakespearean backdrop of the Hundred Years' War (she features in Henry VI, Part One) which retained her in the global English-speaking consciousness, has lasted by far the longest. She stands head and shoulders above them all as the ideal image for others to be inspired by - especially for Japanese writers seeking out occidental exoticism to enliven their stories.
Joan inescapably has featured heavily in multiple editions of the Type-Moon Fate franchise (even if she's easily missed amidst the identikit line-up of umpteen copies of Saber that Takashi Takeuchi keeps churning out like a Barbie assembly line), but Japan's fascination with this classic heroine has lasted for decades. Her story's been told in two separate shoujo manga series from Sumiko Amakawa and Kenichi Sameki; Phantom Thief Jeanne turned her resurrected spirit into a cat burglar; Hetalia Axis Powers took a break from the shonen-ai pandering to give her a spot; and she keeps on popping up as a supporting character in fantasy stories as diverse as a blushing hesitant dandere in the Inuzuma Eleven DS games to a sadistic genocidal maniac in Drifters. Joan's had her very own RPG Jeanne d'Arc named after her on the PSP console. We've even already met Joan earlier this very year in the Western video release of Rage of Bahamut: Genesis. As you can tell historical fidelity is not exactly a priority for these titles but the name "Joan of Arc" and the image of a warrior-woman with smiting holy power is a simple, flexible and widely applicable one.
The situation in the East is a close counterpart, too. Japan stands a lot on its continuity from time immemorial but despite millennia of history to draw from, when they want to firm their stories up with historical stature they keep falling back on the bedrock of a few familiar touchstones. Chief amongst them is Oda Nobunaga, a dominant personality of Japan's Warring States period and as a man seeking to unify squabbling fiefs into a mighty empire executes the dextrous feat of simultaneously being amazingly powerful as an individual and an endearing underdog for the scale of his quest, creating an appealing archetype. It almost seems to be a writers' union rule that you can't have a Sengoku story without him and so the Big Fool of Owari has featured in dozens if not hundreds of works, ranging from the noble adversary of the Kurosawa movie Kagemusha to being another trainer who's gotta catch 'em all in Pokémon Conquest (no, really!). The utter dependence of scriptwriters on Nobunaga's tropes is obvious in anime - when you want to have a harem of cute and sexy samurai chicks but there's a bunch of smelly men in the way, that's no problem - rather than invent a character just follow the example of Battle Girls: Time Paradox and The Ambition of Oda Nobuna and turn Oda Nobunaga into a woman instead!
Given the sheer volume of works featuring Joan of Arc and Oda Nobunaga it was surely only a matter of time before the two shared top billing by sheer law of averages, and the time has come with the anime Nobunaga the Fool. Fascinatingly this anime is not an adaptation of a manga or a light novel but actually a stage play, a mixed-media experience of live-action and anime from 2013 - this fully-animated TV version is a two-cour anime that followed on in 2014, the first half of which we're looking at today.
The universe of Nobunaga the Fool comprises of two different worlds which shine under the light of two different stars. The land of the Western Star has a culture derived from Europe, whereas the realm of the Eastern Star is inspired by Japan, and both are linked across space by the magical, mystical power of the ley-lines laid by the ancient godly dragons that created these worlds. Whereas the kingdoms of the Western Star have been successfully unified under the conquering reign of King Arthur, the Eastern Star is still a divided land of competing and battling lords; but however different they are both West and East are realms of sorcerous powers and impossible technologies. Tapping into these strange energies is a young peasant girl of the West, Joan. She hears voices in her head, urging her to find a Saviour King who will unite both Eastern and Western Stars and usher in a era of peace - and while the other women of the village ostracise her as someone touched by demons, her story has caught the ear of Leonardo Da Vinci, chief engineer to King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table and the designer of their Giant Battle Armour mecha. Leonardo Da Vinci is convinced that Joan is receiving true divine revelation and persuades her to join him on a quest to the Eastern Star to discover the Saviour King in her dreams. Abandoning the Round Table, they crash-land into the midst of a war in the East and Joan is shocked to discover that her visions seem to be suggesting that the Saviour King is not the holy pure paladin she was expecting but some callow youth called Oda Nobunaga - rude, ribald, rambunctious, recidivist but still, sadly, suitably royal. Joan is shocked - this isn't the way things were meant to go, could she be possessed by demons after all? - but it's too late now and she and Da Vinci are along for the ride as Oda Nobunaga has to contend with rival lords invading his lands, mutinous generals who doubt his fitness to rule, and an invading army from the Western Star who don't want to wait for prophecies to come to fruition and think they can unite the stars by force. With enemies both within and without, can Oda Nobunaga rise to the occasion and overturn the universe?
I'm not going to spending much time talking about the story of Nobunaga the Fool for the simple fact that it's total cobblers! Mecha, history, fantasy, grails and amulets and other magical gubbins are all just flung into the pot and stirred into a froth with no rhyme or reason. King Arthur is supported by his Knights of the Round Table, but rather than chivalrous figures like Sir Lancelot or Sir Gawain this round table is a lucky dip of past generals including Hannibal, Machiavelli (both turned into women), Charlemagne, and the Indian emperor Chandragupta, amongst others. It's very... syncretic. Just as the membership is a random grab-bag so too are their designs in mad motley. Leonardo Da Vinci looks sort of relevant with a get-up like a Renaissance Fayre refugee (plus blue hair, I mean, it's an anime and you just gotta have blue hair don't you?), but Magellan is a one-eyed clean-shaven bare-chested space-pirate king and do you see the bishonen in Prussian uniform in the image at the top of the review, with the Phantom Of The Opera mask? Yeah, that's Julius Caesar. I swear that Alexander the Great is literally Arthas from Warcraft... God knows his pauldrons are big enough! Suffice to say, the only remotely historical character traits any of the Western characters exhibit are Leonardo Da Vinci having a reputation as an inventor and Joan hearing voices in her head - for the rest they're just jobbing JRPG NPCs who have random recognisable names stapled to them to try and drag over more attention than a dozen other fantasy titles. But, you know what? It kinda works! These character designs are so laughably, ridiculously inappropriate that I'm interested to see what absurdity is going to caper into frame next; point to Nobunaga the Fool for successfully taking refuge in audacity.
The Eastern Star characters have a bit more historicity to them but don't try to use Nobunaga the Fool as an easy guide to the Warring States period. Some historical events do occur, but out of order and in different contexts - for instance, a scandalous incident when Nobunaga smashed the urn containing his father's ashes during his funeral happened both in real life and in this anime, although the situations completely different; while travelling incognito in the Eastern Star Joan is called "Ranmaru", after Nobunaga's real-life companion, although in the anime it has no significance and Nobunaga just picks the name at random. That said, sometimes differing from history can be a good thing - I honestly wasn't expecting how Nobukatsu, Nobunaga's brother and pretender to the throne, would be removed from the story and it was a genuine twist for me.
While talking about the historical accuracy of Nobunaga the Fool, this release has a fascinating feature of subtitles which pop in every now and again to explain a historical or cultural reference (and bizarrely, for the occasional Italian phrases the Western characters speak - when someone says "Andare!" it's not just titled "Go!" but written as "'Andare!' is Italian for 'Go!'". It's the "Keikaku Means Plan" meme in the flesh). It's a nice little value-add to polish the release with some Fun Facts For Fact Fans, but I can't praise it... because these notes are hardsubbed.
As some people seem to struggle with the message, let me spell this out very clearly: HARDSUBS DO NOT BELONG IN MODERN ANIME HOME VIDEO. AT ALL.
Didn't anyone authoring these discs remember the rightful barracking Anime Limited received for its hardsubbed version of Kill la Kill defacing the show's stylised titles? Does anybody in the anime industry ever talk to each other? Why do they keep making these same basic mistakes? Hardsubbing should have been discarded with the VHS swap-meet - it's not charmingly retro, it's moulderingly obsolete. The technology we have access to today means there is absolutely no need for it. Would it really have taken that much extra effort to just cut-and-paste the timecodes of these factoid surtitles into a third 'Trivia' track? It's so frustrating - a good idea, soured by poor implementation.
There really isn't any significant fanservice in this series. While the publicity material shows off Joan's curves with a very busty and leggy outfit, she only wears this costume for a single episode and a couple of boob jokes early on (and it's never explained how she got hold of such fancy threads when she was a poor peasant girl in the first place - did Da Vinci dress her in it for the journey?). In the vast majority of this series Joan wears entirely conservative Japanese clothes while pretending to be a man as one of Nobunaga's retainers. It has to be said that it's the laziest gender-bend in fiction, too - she doesn't even cut her hair! I'm sure that the entire cast know full well that Joan's a woman but are tactfully not telling her to just give it up already so as to spare her blushes. Joan doesn't even have to do a skinship scene in the men's baths, which is just such a blindingly obvious and expected routine for anime that the fact they don't do it makes you wonder why they even bothered with the whole subplot in the first place. Meanwhile Nobunaga's petite fiancé Himiko is a nymphet loli but she only sashays in with her night exciters for one or two short shots so it's not Fate Kaleid Line Prisma Illya 2wei levels of awkward at least.
Talking about pretty girls leads to pretty art in general - what does set Nobunaga the Fool apart from the pack is that it's absolutely gorgeous. Nobunaga the Fool may be initially compared to Samurai 7 for its mashup of katanas and robots, but it does have a lot more elaborate style. The technology and architecture are replete in sumptuous baroque ostentation that engrosses with its scintillating craftsmanship, while the landscapes sweep you along with panoramic depth, delight you with verdant natural splendour, and fascinate with the unearthly compelling features that dot the Western mountains. The mecha are rendered in CGI but they're done at a good resolution and the models are both attractive and diverse (Lord Takeda's burning kneepads are a sight to behold), and the mecha battles are not simply firin' mah lazors but show off plenty of dynamism - and while there are still a lot of energy beams, the sheer extravagance of their light-shows is itself impressive. A number of reused frames do become apparent - the mecha have their own transformation scenes as extra equipment is clipped on to them - but they always make for dazzling special effects. Earlier this year I reviewed another show from studio Satelight - Lord Marksman and Vanadis - which also originally came out in 2014 but while I criticised that one for its poor large field battles the smaller, more intense mecha duels in Nobunaga the Fool are a lot more convincing and exciting. It seems clear that Nobunaga the Fool enjoyed the lion's share of that year's budget and made good use of it.
The simple prettiness is apparent in smaller details too. Every episode Da Vinci suggests to a character who's not sure what to do next (usually Joan but occasionally someone else) that he pick a card from his tarot deck, and the dealt card both names the episode and offers a cryptic clue about how to proceed. Everyone knows about the Major Arcana beloved of occultists, of course - The Lovers, The Wheel of Fortune, The Heirophant and so on - but what many in the English-speaking world don't realise is that tarot decks also have complete Ace-to-King suits and they are commonly used for regular playing-card games in Europe. It's a credit to Nobunaga the Fool that it breaks away from the usual trump cards and also incorporates the pip cards into its divinations too. While the clues are pretty vague and woolly in terms of their contribution to the story, I'm actually very fond of the gimmick because the cards themselves also look great with colourful, detailed nouveau-styled designs that you also have time to admire as each episode concludes with a close-up of the card the episode is named for - MVM missed a trick not printing these cards out physically and adding them to a Collector's Edition, it's merchandise that I would be genuinely interested in buying.
Nobunaga the Fool does little with its fantasy reimagining of history - in addition to all mentioned above, the great conjunction of historical characters falls flat as Joan of Arc is only a supporting character on the sidelines for much of the tale, and this is definitely Nobunaga's story - but for all its nonsensical story it remains a beautiful show that can be enjoyed for its elaborate designs, theatrical personality and its enthusiastic action.