Sunday, 9 December 2012

Anime review: Sengoku Basara -The Last Party-

This post covers the release of Sengoku Basara -The Last Party-, the full length movie finale to the Sengoku Basara animated series which loosely adapts the events of the Sengoku Basara 3 game. Having originally debuted in Japanese cinemas back on 4th June 2011, it's recently made it to the west thanks to FUNimation. Their release seemed like a good excuse to watch it again!

The US version takes the form of a combo pack so I settled down with the Blu-ray disc. This was my third time watching the film on Blu-ray within a year.

Sengoku Basara -The Last Party- opens with a short recap of the two television series which came before it. New viewers might assume that this will allow them to follow the plot without having seen the previous anime episodes. It won't. The recap flies by far too quickly and throws too many characters at the audience to do anything more than confuse someone who isn't already familiar with the scenario. Instead it serves as a quick refresher to existing fans, reminding them of what happened to whom in the preceding episodes so that the huge contradictions between the plot of the anime and the game series don't cause confusion.

While I think that a newcomer could enjoy the spectacle of The Last Party for what it is, it's not presented as a standalone movie. Watching the first two television seasons before starting is advisable if you want to come away with an understanding of what happened.

Once the narrator has finished hurtling through years of political turmoil in the space of a few minutes, we're introduced to the main antagonist of The Last Party. Ishida Mitsunari originally debuted in the Sengoku Basara 3 game and had a short cameo in the anime's second season as one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's generals. Following his first appearance he's become extremely popular amongst fans of the series, even going as far as taking second place from Sanada Yukimura in the last character poll.

As the anime series made some major changes to the core Sengoku Basara story (and indeed, to actual historical events), several characters have had their motivations heavily altered in order to maintain continuity with the television series. Mitsunari is the one who suffers most. Fans of samurai movies or general history should know his sad story already, but there's a real danger that a lot of viewers overseas won't have a chance to become attached to him over the course of this single movie; his passionately loyal, tragic quest may simply seem like a shallow pretext to bring in a throwaway antagonist. Similarly, Kingo and Ootani 'Gyoubu' Yoshitsugu could have have used more time to flesh out their background stories, which instead rely on the audience picking up on clues from their conversations with other characters. Since Tokugawa Ieyasu was present in the first season of the anime, his expanded role comes across more naturally.


It's not a long film, clocking in at 94 minutes, so there's no time to set up a genuinely complex plot and include the full Sengoku Basara 3 cast. The story is simple, involving Ieyasu attempting to persuade the other warlords to unite and bring peace to the country. This being Sengoku Basara, everyone has a different agenda and the famous Battle of Sekigahara inevitably approaches. The battle ends up diverging quite heavily from the way things played out in the real world. Nothing about the plot or execution of the movie is subtle: that's the appeal of Basara.

Aside from the reservations above, I feel that the creators did a reasonably good job of giving the most popular characters some time to shine between the exposition from the new leads - with perhaps the one exception being Uesugi Kenshin, whose role here is diminished to the point of near-complete irrelevance. Maeda Toshiie, Matsu, Chousokabe Motochika and Mouri Motonari have small roles too, but Kenshin is hit especially hard. On the other hand, Maeda Keiji was treated well and gets to join Ieyasu, Mitsunari, Yukimura and Masamune right at the heart of the fight. It makes a change from the second season of the anime.

Another thing I appreciated was the way the anime staff members squeezed in a number of references to the original games, from the way characters move and fight to subtle in-jokes. They treated the source material with a great deal of respect. The Last Party is a film I'm sure I'll watch again and again.

Translation

FUNimation's subtitles were pretty good. There was only one noticeable error although it was an aggravating one; Kingo's real name (Hideaki) was transcribed incorrectly (Hideo) the only time it's used. The spoken dialogue pronounces it clearly and it's spelt correctly in the credits.

This leads me into my other minor complaint. The SenBasa series - and this movie in particular - could definitely have benefited from Hetalia-style translation notes to bring foreign viewers up to speed with Japanese history. While many of the characters will be immediately familiar to Japanese viewers, the average overseas anime fan will have to spend hours combing websites to understand some of the details in Sengoku Basara. In particular, several characters go by a number of different titles, and one character addresses another by a variety of completely incorrect names as a running joke. Keeping track of who everyone is may well alienate a casual western viewer unless they're inclined to do some further reading in their own time.


On the whole, though, the translation flowed well and it skilfully preserved the feel of the Japanese dialogue. If the project's budget had allowed them to attempt a premium release with translation notes (and corrected spelling), it would have been perfect. Perhaps Manga Entertainment UK can use this weakness to give the eventual UK edition an extra boost?

Video

I compared the US Blu-ray to my Japanese Blu-ray on identical equipment. While my setup is by no means the best, FUNimation's version is slightly brighter than the Japanese edition. There is also some noise and distortion in the picture from time to time which seems worse on the American version. I took some screenshots from a couple of affected scenes for comparison.

Japanese Blu-ray 1 2
US Blu-ray 1 2

The picture quality for the introductory recap is quite poor. This is not FUNimation's fault at all but rather an issue with the original footage which lays text and effects over clips from the television version. I checked the Japanese Blu-ray and the problems were identical.

Dark scenes throughout the movie are grainy in both versions, and there's also some occasional banding present on both the Japanese video and Funimation's version. These flaws will not be noticeable most of the time due to the amount of detail and movement in most scenes, and it was impressive how closely the video mirrored the quality of the Japanese disc overall. The 'making of' feature in the extras actually looks significantly better than the fuzzy, DVD-only Japanese version.

Audio

First of all, I didn't watch the English dub and I don't intend to. Those viewers who like that kind of thing can be assured that the option is at least available; both the English and Japanese audio tracks are presented with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes. The subtitles can be removed during playback. In addition, there is a second subtitle track for dub fans who want to know what the on-screen text says.


The next point might be specific to my stereo equipment. When I watched the movie I noticed that T.M.Revolution's rousing opening and ending songs (FLAGS and The party must go on) sounded distorted on my setup with very powerful treble and subdued bass. The Japanese Blu-ray included separate 5.1 and stereo audio tracks which seemed to mitigate the problem. This issue would only affect someone who already knows how the songs sound and might not show up at all on different setups. I still think that it's worth mentioning since not everyone will be using a 5.1 configuration.

Presentation

FUNimation released Sengoku Basara -The Last Party- on 6th November 2012 in a single Blu-ray case with an extra plastic 'page' inside to hold both of the DVDs. The case is an 'eco-friendly' type which feels flimsy thanks to using as little plastic as possible to support its structure. The cover is printed on both sides so you can see a large illustration of the four main characters while selecting your disc.

The plastic case comes inside a DVD-sized cardboard o-card to allow stores to display the movie in the DVD section where it will sell better. Due to the o-card being larger than the box it contains, it's flimsy and susceptible to damage like the 'eco' BD case itself.

Inside the packaging are two DVDs, one for the film and a second full of extras. The Blu-ray is a single double layer disc. The disc and box art claim that the BD is locked to region A.

Extras

The main extra is a set of five 'Gekijouban Sengoku Basara 4-Koma Gekijou -Another Last Party-' picture dramas, which are the usual Mini Sengoku Basara gag shorts. There are five on this disc, one for each of the four leads and an extra one for the unfortunate Kuroda Kanbee, who had been abruptly removed from the movie cast during production.

There is also a collection of promotional videos, including some very funny 'manner' videos from the cinema reels where the characters teach the audience how to behave during the movie. The pairings in the 'manner' videos are Masamune and Kojuurou, Yukimura and Shingen, Keiji and Kasuga, and finally Ieyasu and Tadakatsu. The Takeda pair's clip made me laugh most.

The usual textless opening and ending videos are present too, as well as some FUNimation trailers. It's interesting that during the movie the Japanese ending credits were left untranslated. A list of the US contributors is shown afterwards on a black background, but this is unusual for FUNimation who generally prefer to overlay their own version and hide all trace of the original text. As they plainly had access to a textless version of the ending, it must have been a deliberate choice to leave the Japanese credits intact. I'd like to imagine that they did this intentionally to avoid covering up any of the stunning ending sequence with bulky English credits.

The final extra is my favourite. It's a 50 minute 'making of' feature where the staff at Production I.G take the viewer through every step of the anime production process. There's plenty of insightful commentary from director Nomura Kazuya and his team on topics as diverse as the original planning meeting for the movie adaptation, the challenges specific to animating for the big screen, integrating 3D models with standard digital animation and painting the background artwork.

We're also introduced to the audio production team. Sound director Iwanami Yoshikazu shares footage of the seiyuu recording their performances in between discussions about the script backstage. He mentions that scenes where character voices overlap are usually recorded separately to allow the sound team to edit them individually, but for Yukimura and Shingen they made an exception and let them shout at one another in real time. That the anime production staff greatly respect the all-star seiyuu cast is obvious. The seiyuu themselves contribute often-hilarious anecdotes from a completely different perspective.

Another aspect of Iwanami's role is working with the background music created for the film, so we're shown how Sawano Hiroyuki reworked the familiar themes he'd written for the television anime using a live orchestra. He's even shown playing the piano solo from the soundtrack.

The rest of the footage is made up of messages from the staff (including series producer KobaP) and brief clips from the in-house premiere of the finished movie. One touching moment was when people were asked to describe their favourite scene. Although they all had slightly different reasons, everyone chose the exact same poignant line of dialogue from the climax.

It's surprisingly rare to be treated to translated Japanese production materials nowadays so I'm grateful for FUNimation's efforts. It's sad that the audio commentary from the overseas release couldn't be included but I'm glad they didn't replace it with one of their usual cheap-to-produce, self-congratulatory efforts with the American dub team misleadingly talking about how they 'wrote' the script of the movie. Those can be intensely grating if you're a fan of the original staff.


Comparison with the Japanese editions

I've mentioned comparing the video and audio quality with the Japanese edition of the film. Since there are other differences and information on the series isn't always available in English, I'm also going to go a little more in depth into what the Japanese sets included for reference. It's important to note that the Japanese home video editions of Sengoku Basara -The Last Party- contain no English translation at all. There's no dub track, and there are no subtitles in any language (not even Japanese).

The movie was released on home video in Japan on 7th December 2011. It is available as a choice of a barebones DVD (¥4,515) or a limited edition Blu-ray set (¥9,450). While the DVD comes with nothing more than the film itself, the Blu-ray set includes four discs and an illustrated digipak, full colour booklet and the entire script in its own book.

The first disc is a Blu-ray containing the movie and 'manner' video clips. The film is accompanied by a separate audio commentary involving Nomura Kazuya (director), Ookubo Tooru (character design and animation director), Nakatake Tetsuya (animation producer) and Wada Jouji (producer).

The second disc is a DVD, for some reason. It comes with both the 'making of' feature which I described earlier and a substantial amount of exclusive seiyuu footage from launch events. Note that a DVD version of the movie isn't included. Combo packs aren't common in Japan.

The third disc is another Blu-ray, this time with special material such as 'Ashigaru Dance: Movie Edition' (a special textless ending which highlights the animation for the individual dancing soldiers on a white background). It also contains the Mini Sengoku Basara picture dramas and some promotional trailers.

The fourth and final disc is an audio CD: 'The Last Variety Party CD'. Like the limited edition Variety Party CDs included in the DVD release of the second season, this is mostly made up of a collection of audio skits featuring the characters from the movie in comical situations. The cast includes Nakai Kazuya (Date Masamune), Hoshi Souichirou (Sanada Yukimura), Ookawa Tooru (Tokugawa Ieyasu), Seki Tomokazu (Ishida Mitsunari) and Watanabe Hideo (Narration).

Additionally, an exclusive special edition of the Blu-ray set is available through Animate. It's more expensive at ¥9,891 and comes in a fancier box with a bonus 40 minute cast talk track on its CD. For some reason, Hoshi Souichirou is replaced by Morita Masakazu (Maeda Keiji) for this cast talk. This is unquestionably the definitive package for a hardcore seiyuu fan, but for anyone else FUNimation's western release is a worthy alternative at a fraction of the price.


Conclusion

FUNimation have done a fantastic job for the price with the US version of Sengoku Basara -The Last Party-. The three disc combo pack is priced at less than $35; special offers bring this down to around the $20 mark. The picture is a little noisier than the original in some scenes and a few extras are missing, but you get what you pay for. I'm certainly pleased that I picked it up!

2 comments:

  1. Where can you watch or buy the disc? I can't seem to find them anywhere - those 'manner' videos seem super funny!

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    Replies
    1. Hm, I think it should still be available everywhere which sells (USA) discs such as Amazon.com. I suppose there's a small chance they will create a bundle or priced-down version once Judge End (End of Judgement) is finally released in the next few months, too!

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