Although it's based on Sengoku Basara 2, this particular stage play came out after the very successful stage adaptation of the newer Sengoku Basara 3, which might be confusing to people expecting a chronological timeline. If you've played the second game though, or watched the second season of the anime, you'll be familiar with the core plot. It covers the rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his attempts to unify Japan after Oda Nobunaga's defeat. Since this adaptation has the luxury of coming out after its own sequel it's able to include additional content for fans of the series, in the form of a number of scenes showing a fully grown Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari working in the Toyotomi forces. The games didn't properly flesh out these two characters until it was already too late to include this kind of material, and even the anime barely scratched the surface of the critical sequence of events which led to Mitsunari's bitter hatred of Ieyasu, and consequently, to the battle of Sekigahara.
Confusingly I'd already seen a few highlights from this play performed live at the summer Basara Matsuri event, which was heavily themed around the Toyotomi army. From my vantage point at the live show I'd seen how a few of the tricks were performed (after the thrill of seeing Hanbee's weapon miraculously change from a sword to a whip in the first show, I'd been keenly watching to see how it was done the second time around!). With a generous running time of 150 minutes there were thankfully ample brand new surprises on this DVD to justify a full viewing.
Butai Sengoku Basara 3 was heavy on music, which made it very accessible, but in Butai Sengoku Basara 2 it felt as though the music took a back seat to the dialogue (with the exception of abingdon boys school's then-new song WE aRE). As a result, the raw excitement was tempered while the plot felt much more coherent. Unlike the anime version, the stage play kept closer to the way events unfolded in the games and the transition to Sengoku Basara 3 wasn't so convoluted - as great as The Last Party was, rewriting everything to force Date Masamune into the lead role took a heavy toll on the other stars' characterisation.
One thing I've noticed amongst English-speaking Sengoku Basara fans is that they are very polarised when it comes to spin-offs. In one camp are the 'serious' gaming fans, who despise any sign that the series is catering towards its female-dominated audience in Japan. This group is very vocal in its derision, drowning out the voices of anyone who dares express enthusiasm towards the series unless they're talking about the technical details of the game. On the other side of the fence is the tiny community of English-speaking fans who are comfortable with the series' original demographic. This group tends to be quite knowledgeable about stage play actors and has considerable crossover with the Tenimyu/tokusatsu fandoms. I feel a little out of place in either camp since I disagree with everything the former group has to say while not being familiar enough with the live performance scene to discuss it with the latter. I've only seen a handful of stage plays in my life.
Butai Sengoku Basara, by its nature, is an easy target for the 'serious' SenBasa fans to pick apart. They don't seem to know how to take it. The costumes look exaggerated in comparison to some of the elaborate cosplay outfits they've seen (because they are designed for high energy live performances, not for still pictures and Photoshop). The special effects are simple (again, because these are live performances, not movies with Hollywood budgets and the freedom to use camera tricks). The 'serious' fans don't take the time to try to understand the dialogue, and instead pore over the details, criticising every compromise the creators made in order to stage the play using live actors. Not understanding the appeal, they react defensively by making fun of the event and its fans. In fairness, I imagine that if a live stage play adaptation was created for an action video game anywhere else in the world, even the actors and staff behind it would be tempted to churn out a cheap cash-in without enthusiasm.
Not so with Butai Sengoku Basara. The Japanese staff have treated the source material with the utmost respect. Every single actor, from the stars to the most humble black-clad soldier, is completely serious about entertaining their audience and maintaining the party atmosphere the SenBasa series is known for. The actors need to be physically fit and flexible to keep the action flowing as there are various acrobatics mixed in which make it feel like a martial arts show in its own right at times. When Capcom originally designed the characters, no consideration was made for being able to pull off their ridiculous stunts or wield their enormous weapons in real life; it's incredible that the cast has been able to pull it off as well as they have. Whenever a character reveals one of their famous moves from the game mid-fight my heart skips a beat in excitement.
The stage play staff know that the appeal of Sengoku Basara goes beyond the dark historical plot of domination and betrayal, so they include plenty of comic relief scenes to break up the action in keeping with the spirit of the source material. Several characters from Sengoku Basara 2 are missing to avoid overcomplicating the storyline. Aside from the central characters around whom the Toyotomi storyline revolves (Keiji, Hideyoshi, Hanbee, Mitsunari and Ieyasu), and the iconic poster boys whose very presence defines the series (Masamune, Yukimura and their respective allies), Kenshin's army and the Maeda couple made the cut this time. Keiji's friends and family being present give his journey a sense of gravity, with the Maedas in particular often contributing to lighter comedy scenes in between chasing after him. It's always pleasant to see a happily married couple on stage. And surprisingly rare.
If it's not obvious by now, I enjoyed this DVD a great deal. Before I finish gushing, this entry won't be complete without some observations about the cast.
First and foremost, even though he's not the main character this time, Kubota Yuuki plays Date Masamune. When I first came across the butai series I was turned off by seeing Kubota's handsome, chiselled features in Masamune's armour; he doesn't look like the character. For some reason his hair is black rather than dark brown, and the style of it combined with his eyepatch, which seems oversized for the stage, doesn't quite work for me.
In this early assessment, however, I was completely wrong. Kubota makes a brilliant Date Masamune! His face looks different but he has plenty of the one thing anyone playing the ill-tempered Oushuu Hittou needs: brazen cockiness. As soon as I saw him walking and talking (ok, shouting), I realised that he had the attitude down pat. He wears the armour well and struts around as though he owns the stage, shooting dangerous glares against anyone who crosses him. The creators were lucky to be able to find such a perfect actor for the role.
Masamune isn't let down by his loyal follower, and the attractive Yoshida Tomokazu is a devastatingly cool Katakura Kojuurou. After seeing him fooling around in his casual clothes during the summer Basara Matsuri event I'm even more impressed at how much he can take on Kojuurou's serious personality as soon as he puts the costume on. He also has a brilliantly mean face, which is a compliment - he's my favourite!
Opposite Masamune is Sanada Yukimura, here played by Hosogai Kei. Hosogai's Yukimura is adorable, not too smart and very vocal. It's amazing that he can run around at all after shouting as much as he does, let alone with two spears in his hands. In one of the curtain call extras, the cast are all giving personal thanks to the audience and they unintentionally forget to introduce Yukimura at all. His shocked reaction was very cute.
Yukimura is accompanied by Sarutobi Sasuke (Murata Youjirou) and Takeda Shingen (Nakamura Kazuto). Neither seemed to have a large part to play this time around besides acting as comic relief and supporting the leads as they ran between battlegrounds, where Sasuke occasionally had some entertaining interactions with Kasuga.
Particularly charming in a standout performance was Isaka Tatsuya as Maeda Keiji. Sengoku Basara 2 is Keiji's big chance to be a hero and this time around he took centre stage in several scenes. Isaka has a good set of lungs and a dazzling smile, switching between Keiji's playful dancing and swordplay at will. In the games, Keiji is a physically big guy and a sense of that strength came across well through his powerful-looking movements.
Tokugawa Ieyasu (Hirose Yuusuke) and Ishida Mitsunari (Nakamura Seijirou) completed the Toyotomi army. Ieyasu is a difficult character to portray with his (relatively) plain looks and (relatively) muscular build. Hirose did a good job. His friendly expression seems to come naturally and he seemed to have one of the more physically demanding jobs when it came to fight scenes. It was also easy to see how the youthful Ieyasu was wavering at times, without ever actively going against his allegiances. Nakamura too was adorable, getting immersed in his role and shouting at the audience in character even once the performance was over. His ad libbed line about being lonely without Gyoubu (who had been present in Butai Sengoku Basara 3) made me smile. I had to wonder a few times how easy it was for Nakamura to see where he was going with Mitsunari's absurd hairstyle in the way.
AKIRA makes a wonderful Uesugi Kenshin, much better than the anime version of the character who took a back seat far too often. AKIRA's take on the gunshin himself was full of grace; she's a real beauty who makes the costume look natural. It was great to see Kenshin getting to fight most of the other characters this time.
Accompanying Kenshin was of course Kasuga, played by Chinen Sayaka. I'm familiar with her from the Browser Sengoku Basara marketing campaigns, where she is - generously - quite annoying. Here she is the girliest cast member by far, adding a welcome dash of sweetness without the silliness of her real life persona. Her passion for AKIRA's gorgeous Kenshin is convincing. One romantic scene in particular made me laugh out loud so hard I almost applauded (despite being in my own living room!).
Rounding off the cast was the sengoku period's strongest couple, Maeda Toshiie (Masao) and Matsu (Beppu Ayumi). Toshiie was extremely close visually to how he appears in the game, with scars and panty-flashes intact. His actor also managed to sound similar to his normal seiyuu's speaking voice. Matsu's slightly crazed affectionate lilt in her voice was perfect, and Beppu is fun to watch. She seems to throw herself completely into her character, her ferocity contrasting well with the other (openly) female character, Kasuga.
Last but not least, there were a total of 18 extras who performed various functions from being mobs for each army to partying at a festival. A few had speaking (or singing) parts and their main job was to make the main characters shine by supporting them. They did their job splendidly and kept rushing on to be beaten up with gusto.
Ultimately every cast member was perfect. They didn't all look exactly like their game equivalents, and the stage play cast of course lack the vocal range of the seiyuu I associate with each character, but none of that matters when they're giving such energetic performances. They're all so good that they wipe the floor with the well known actors from the Sengoku Basara -MOONLIGHT PARTY- live action drama, so much so that I wondered several times over the course of my viewing why the stage play cast hadn't also been selected to act in the live action television adaptation. Perhaps the drama actors look more like their characters behind the lens of a HD camera? The stage play crew already had an established fanbase so comparisons were inevitable; a pity.
This time around I was lucky enough to pick up the special edition, which comes with a tasteful light pink slipcase, a photo pamphlet and a special bonus DVD containing 50 minutes of extra footage and interviews (including some dressing room scenes which give a closer look into the costuming). I was excited to see Hanbee without his mask! The next project in the Butai Sengoku Basara project moves the timeline forward again, this time focusing on the fan-favourite combination of Mouri Motonari and Chousokabe Motochika in Butai Sengoku Basara 3 ~Setouchi Kyouran~. It's running through November so the DVD should come out early next year. Having already covered the main plot material in the previous stage plays, I'm especially looking forward to seeing what they do with the storyline for the next one, especially as we've been promised appearances from newcomers Tachibana Muneshige and Ootomo Sourin. Let's happy ceremony!
The special edition of Butai Sengoku Basara 2 sold out before the release date with copies now changing hands for several times the original price. The standard edition is still readily available for foreigners to pick up relatively easily through stockists such as Amazon Japan and Yesasia.