Wednesday 8 May 2013

Blu-ray review: Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party-

Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party- was a live action television drama adaptation based on the Sengoku Basara game series which originally ran as a series of nine episodes from 12th July 2012 until 20th September 2012. Later the same year it was recut into a two-part film series, Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party- Remix Zenpen and Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party- Remix Kouhen. These two films were shown in a few selected cinemas across Japan at the end of 2012.

If my Twitter feed at the time was representative, the reaction from the Sengoku Basara fans when the show was airing in Japan ran the gamut from embarrassment to curiosity. Despite the references to previous works, this series has plainly been made for a different audience to the usual hardcore fans who attend the stage plays and obsess over the games. Still, even having experienced the weeks of laughter at the cheap special effects, inaccuracies and general pointlessness of it all, I was eager to see the show for myself.

There was no international broadcast for the television drama so I had to wait until the enhanced home video version was released on 2nd February 2013, on DVD (¥13,650) and Blu-ray (¥15,750). I chose the Blu-ray version; it didn't seem to make any sense to go for the DVD when the difference in price was minimal after Amazon Japan's discount. The Blu-ray set comes with the episodes spread across three discs and the extras on a fourth (the movie edits are not included). The first pressing included a 16-page Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party- booklet made from heavy, glossy paper. In terms of packaging, it's difficult to describe; a black cardboard box opens up to reveal four plastic 'pages' stacked on top of one another, each holding a single disc.

The cast is quite small since only a handful of factions from the games were included:

Hayashi Kento (Date Masamune)
Takeda Kouhei (Sanada Yukimura)
Tokuyama Hidenori (Katakura Kojuurou)
Izawa Yuuki (Sarutobi Sasuke)
Iwanagi Hiroaki (Takeda Shingen)
GACKT (Oda Nobunaga)
Shiina Taizou (Mori Ranmaru)
Nagasawa Nao (Nouhime)
Higuchi Yuki (Akechi Mitsuhide)
Arisue Mayuko (Uesugi Kenshin)
Ochiai Kyouko (Kasuga)
Hakuzen Satoshi (Narrator)

Shiina Taizou and Nagasawa Nao both reprise their roles from the early Butai Sengoku Basara stage plays, which pleased me since both of them suit their characters. Shiina is much older than Ranmaru appears in the games, obviously, but to use a young actor would have problems of its own (not least of which would be the issue of him eventually growing up if the series was a hit). Shiina does a good job portraying Ranmaru's precocious attitude - it's a crime that he only appears in a few episodes. Nouhime doesn't have much screen time either, and it's mostly spent glowering at people, pouring sake for her husband and angrily firing her pistols. Nagasawa is a stunning woman.

All of the other cast members are new, and I personally thought that the accuracy of the casting was variable even if most of them had a lot of experience in the entertainment industry. First and foremost, GACKT makes a magnificent Nobunaga, both looking and sounding exactly as he should. I have no complaints about his acting whatsoever. It's worth noting that newcomers to the series will have to fall back on the historical image of Nobunaga in the place of character development; Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party- makes the anime adaptation's script look deep and insightful in comparison.

Meanwhile, Hayashi Kento is too young and mild-looking to be convincing as Masamune; although he's obviously a sweet guy, sweetness has never been part of the character's appeal. There's no trace of the ruthless cunning that makes Date Masamune such a popular figure. Takeda's impressively-muscled portrayal of Yukimura fares better. The only problems are that he seems too mature when he's next to Hayashi, and he occasionally frowns sullenly when he's trying to look thoughtful, which seems very out of character.

Tokuyama's hair was never quite right for Kojuurou but his demeanour made up for it most of the time, making him one of my favourites. My main criticism is that his soft voice didn't really capture the threatening tone that the character needs.

Izawa was more boyish than the stage play version of Sasuke appears (or any version voiced by Koyasu Takehito). I liked seeing his happy-go-lucky take on the character. The weakness here was with the script - Sasuke is frequently required to play the part of a bumbling fool in order to make Kasuga look better. I prefer him when he's more competent.

Speaking of Kasuga, she's appropriately beautiful. She seems a little too serious though; while it's not exactly out of character, Kasuga's expression is usually softer even when she's seething with rage. Kenshin, here played by a woman, looks the part as a dashing god of war. He doesn't feature in many battle scenes even though his fighting style would have been a perfect fit for the camera techniques used in the series.

Akechi Mitsuhide is a strange one. His costume is completely unflattering. That doesn't mean that actor Higuchi has an unsuitable physique, only that the design of the armour could have used some modifications to shop his neck disappearing into his shoulder armour. Mitsuhide's face is often covered in pale make-up too, which unfortunately looks more silly than creepy (it's obvious that it isn't his natural complexion). Higuchi is probably one of the better cast members in Moonlight Party but the many drawbacks make him seem like one of the worst.

Iwanagi's Shingen spends most episodes sitting in a dark room looking pensive. I'm not sure any human actor has enough skill to compensate for how ridiculous everything in this drama series looks, but Iwanagi comes close with his rubbery facial expressions. I had become fond of him by the time the final episode rolled around.

Of all of the casting decisions, the weirdest was to use a brand new narrator instead of Watanabe Hideo. Watanabe's voice has been a part of the series for a long time, giving each adaptation a familiar sense of gravity whether it's a game, anime or audio drama. Hakuzen's narration is more relaxed, and consequently less interesting. Given that he never appears on screen I'd much rather have had Watanabe in the role.

With everyone covered I'll move onto my feelings about the show itself. Given its roots, fighting is the most important aspect of any Sengoku Basara adaptation. I have mixed feelings about how it's handled here; some scenes are exciting and visceral (such as the early parts of the forest battle in the second episode). Others are absurd and far too reliant on computer-generated effects and made-up special moves that aren't even from the original games. The camera speeds up and slows down from time to time in an effort to make things seem more 'dynamic'. Ultimately, the stage play adaptation occasionally gives me goosebumps with the savagery of the choreography. The television series does not.

Even though most Sengoku Basara fights end up as clashes between commanders in the games, anime and stage plays, there's always a sense of scale to the battles; a feeling that the warriors are battling through crowds of soldiers to reach the enemy camp. This is the most disorientating aspect of the combat in Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party-. Outside of a few scenes back at the Takeda base, it's as though the world is completely empty apart from the main characters, their armies reduced to CG silhouettes of whooping men stuck in the background of some scenes as an afterthought. The feeling of emptiness is heightened by the lack of any cameos from the wider Sengoku Basara cast. Dozens of fan favourites are missing, even though one of the biggest strengths of the series has always been its colourful jumble of larger-than-life characters. Here, it's as though nobody exists in the world other than the Oda, Date, Takeda and Uesugi forces.

Musically, Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party- is unremarkable. The opening theme is LET'S PARTY by Sandaime J Soul Brothers while the ending is GACKT's Hakuro -HAKURO-. GACKT's song was appropriate but I found the opening thoroughly irritating. Even the stylish visuals can't hide the fact that it's not exciting at all! I think LET'S PARTY is the only Sengoku Basara song I've disliked in the history of the series.

It's difficult to sum up my feelings on the story so I'll briefly summarise each episode for future reference.

Episode 1: rival of eternity
After a surreal first half full of invisible horses, empty backgrounds and a lot of special effects, Yukimura's happiness is shattered when Shingen sacrifices himself to protect Masamune from Nobunaga. He and Masamune then release their emotions in a lame punching match until Kenshin turns up. This episode made no sense and had the most gratuitously cheesy special effects.

Episode 2: Now, you get up!
Kenshin appears before the leads and explains that Shingen isn't dead. He's been taken prisoner by the Oda forces and is trapped at Honnouji. Still wounded, Yukimura wallows in misery remembering his old bonding sessions with his lord. Masamune catches up with him outside and the pair clash in combat. Then they clash again, this time in the name of training. This episode was memorable for the first of a few flowery Kenshin/Kasuga romance scenes.

Episode 3: get over difficulties
Masamune teaches the Takeda soldiers about zunda mochi while they regroup. The two leads finally stop hitting one another for long enough to participate in the Takeda Otoko Matsuri - without Shingen, who is still chained up in captivity waiting for his allies to get around to saving him. That's ok though, because the Otoko Matsuri is all about cooking; Masamune is gradually bonding with Yukimura by learning to cook Shingen's trademark houtou. This episode revealed that all of the characters are surprisingly serious about their favourite regional foods.

Episode 4: aqua luna
Yukimura and Masamune struggle with their next assignment from Tenko Kamen. Yukimura cleans the doujou until it shines while Masamune ponders instead. Akechi Mitsuhide finally makes a proper appearance, and his hair is fabulous. He has an awkwardly-choreographed fight with Masamune, leading to Sasuke being taken out by Mitsuhide's poisonous smoke until Kasuga shows up to save him. The episode ends back in the doujou, with the four leads clashing to finally unlock the riddle of the Takeda Otoko Matsuri. Everything else that happened in this episode was upstaged by Masamune's ridiculous upside-down spin attack in his battle with Mitsuhide.

Episode 5: strong bond with a friend
The first half of this episode continues the four-way fight. In a way, it's nice to be able to see this storyline performed by the television actors since several scenes would be impossible to pull off live on stage. Eventually everyone tumbles around in the grass outside and bonds, bringing the Takeda Otoko Matsuri to an end. Meanwhile, Kenshin's keeping an eye on things while Kasuga infiltrates Honnouji, where she's confronted by Nouhime. This episode felt a little pointless.

Episode 6: Lunar eclipse
The heroes get together and at last plan their assault. Kenshin proves a surprisingly helpful ally for someone whose entire army appears to consist of one person (Kasuga). But Ranmaru and Mitsuhide are lying in wait for the two leads, and Masamune is taken down by a pathetically slow arrow attack. Fortunately, for some reason Shingen had perfectly prepared Yukimura for every possible environmental phenomenon he'd face on this rescue mission in advance, so fighting in the dark of the titular eclipse wasn't a problem for him. The credits roll as Masamune and Yukimura are chained together and left despairing in the forest. This episode had an epic long distance spear-throwing moment.

Episode 7: blood moon
Hilarious hijinks abound as Masamune and Yukimura continue their journey with their hands chained together. They keep failing to coordinate in a hot-blooded way, and try inventive solutions like tying their legs together too. How funny. Anyway, they eventually make it to Honnouji and fall straight into Mitsuhide's trap while Nobunaga keeps sitting around drinking wine without doing anything. He must be rather tipsy by now. This episode was amazing for silliness, including disguises, plenty of evil laughter and...the death of a main character?!

Episode 8: I never break your heart
It turns out that they lied about the death part. Masamune heads deeper into Honnouji to confront Nobunaga on his own, intercepting an exhausted Yukimura underground once he finds the throne room empty. Nouhime's cold personality softens slightly in front of the invaders, moments before she's abruptly slaughtered by Nobunaga to demonstrate how evil he is. Kasuga helps the incompetent Sasuke rescue Shingen. Nobunaga demonstrates that he can fight Masamune, Yukimura and Kojuurou simultaneously with no signs of exertion, eventually killing the latter. This episode ruined its own climax by having revealed at the start that the only people who stay dead are the villains.

Episode 9: Moonlight Party
Mitsuhide reveals himself to be a treacherous pyromaniac, then immediately falls before the power of Nobunaga's cape and the most fake-looking CG flames I have ever seen. Masamune and Yukimura then take the opportunity to blast Nobunaga out of existence with a spinning attack so flamboyant that it makes the anime's battle scenes look sensible. Everyone then meets up before heading off to Kawanakajima for the traditional never-ending skirmish to close the series. It seems as though Kojuurou not only survived his tragic death scene from the previous episode but also took the time to change to wash all of the bloodstains out of his trousers as he escaped. This episode featured more aerial stunts and a better attempt at mimicking horse riding (the horses are still fake).

But that's not all; the home video version also contains a bonus unaired episode!

Episode 10: Outlaws
A slower-paced side story about Kojuurou and Sasuke chatting and cooking daikon meshi. It's heavy on (deliberate) comedy and pokes fun at the gap between Kojuurou's serious personality and his love of gardening. This episode made for a decent extra feature even if it wasn't all that interesting to watch.

The enhancements for the home video release included a director's cut of the first episode and some improved CG effects (which were sorely needed, from all accounts). There are also some trailers and a long 'making of' documentary, as well as three shorter 'making of' features following the three lead actors titled 'Oshitemaitta! Date Masamune' (Hayashi Kento), 'Zenryoku De Oaite Tsukamatsutta! Sanada Yukimura' (Takeda Kouhei) and 'Dairokuten Maou Oda Nobunaga Kourin!' (GACKT). These behind-the-scenes films show the actors performing in the studio in front of the green screen as well as chatting to the camera about their characters. It was apparently extremely hot when the series was being filmed, so in between the interesting comments from the actors and action scene preparations we're treated to the sight of Nobunaga wearing sunglasses, Yukimura rehearsing topless and an uncomfortable-looking Masamune being swung around upside-down in full armour. I felt a pang of guilt writing such negative things after viewing these clips since the cast were clearly trying their best to turn Moonlight Party into a good show.

The Blu-ray video quality is amazing compared to the stage plays (which are always released on DVD). However, I was disappointed that the video is 1080i instead of 1080p; interlaced video doesn't look as good on my equipment even when it's a decent transfer. It's also best to avoid looking too closely at the fake beards and moustaches as they're considerably less convincing in HD. The sound quality seemed fine. As with the majority of Japanese television dramas, there are no subtitles in any language and only the original Japanese audio is present - I felt once or twice that Japanese-language subtitles would have been appreciated to help decipher some of Masamune's unintelligible English interjections. The show's total length clocks in at 216 minutes with an extra 120 minutes of special features.

I'm glad that I watched Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party-. Some of the effects and costumes are impressive, each episode sailed by and it did make me laugh. Having said that, of all media adaptations the series has received to date this is easily the weakest (even more so than the very first Butai Sengoku Basara) and I wouldn't recommend picking up the box set unless you're a hardcore fan who has to see everything. Any of the recent stage play DVDs are a much better buy.

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