It's been more than a year since Butai Sengoku Basara 4, and since my DVD copy of the Devil May Cry crossover play arrived too late this was my first chance to see a play staged by the new production company which now manages the series. As a huge fan of the original Butai Sengoku Basara series it was impossible to avoid some concern about how the changes would affect things - most of the old cast members have moved on by now, and I feel a lingering sense of loyalty towards the old staff members. Even the familiar team of black-clad extras is full of new faces.
Then there's the plot - Sumeragi has a huge number of sprawling interconnected storylines loosely tied together by the presence of Ashikaga Yoshiteru. Yet his story was already covered in Butai Sengoku Basara 4 back in 2014 and he wasn't even scheduled to appear this time. How well would the new play's staff be able to tie the story together into a coherent narrative?
With these questions lingering in the back of my mind I managed to order my ticket early enough to win one of the fan club seats in the lottery. It was a great ticket - six rows from the stage, right in the middle. A perfect view, made even more fun by the fact that the actors passed by less than a metre from my position several times during the show.
Before I get started on my personal impressions, I'll include some facts about the play. Butai Sengoku Basara 4 Sumeragi is running between 21st January and 7th February 2016, comprising 22 performances across two locations: Zepp Blue Theater Roppongi in Tokyo and Sankei Hall Breeze in Tokyo.
|I went to one of the Tokyo shows|
The play is split into two parts (70 minutes and 65 minutes) with a 15 minute interval in between if you're seeing it live. Several of the shows have bonus talk sessions after the finale where the audience can see the actors fooling around out of character
The full cast list is as follows (newcomers are in bold):
Shiono Akihisa (Date Masamune)
Matsumura Ryuunosuke (Sanada Yukimura)
Inoue Masahiro (Katakura Kojuurou)
Shiina Taizou (Sarutobi Sasuke)
Kotani Yoshikazu (Mouri Motonari)
Shiramata Atsushi (Chousokabe Motochika)
Sakurada Kousei (Azai Nagamasa)
Sueno Takuma (Fuuma Kotarou)
Kawamura Yukie (Tsuruhime)
Mamoru Asana (Saika Magoichi)
Fujita Ray (Shibata Katsuie)
Juri (Sen No Rikyuu)
Matsuda Kenji (Matsunaga Hisahide)
In addition, Nakayama Yuuki and Yamaguchi Tomoya of boy band SOLIDEMO appear as members of Motochika's crew.
Composition and direction is credited to Ujigawa Masanari. The Sengoku Basara game series' scenario writer Matsuno Izuru assisted with the story and creators KobaP and YamamotoD worked on planning and supervision. This is important as the play contains new material which hasn't featured in the games to date; the staff have gone on record in the past to say that they sometimes try out new content in the stage play to help them monitor the audience reactions. Will we see some of these scenes appearing in future games?
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Butai Sengoku Basara 4 Sumeragi and the game series itself as well as a few of my personal opinions.
I don't want to write out the entire plot of the play for two reasons: I watched it a few days ago and won't remember everything perfectly in the right order anyway, and I think it's better to leave a few surprises for fans who manage to see the play at a later date. Instead, this report will cover the experience of attending followed by my impressions of each character in the show.
The Tokyo venue has an interesting tie-in with a nearby karaoke chain which is offering Sengoku Basara food and drink over the course of the play's run. People who attend with friends can turn it into a full day out. I didn't have time to sample the food on this occasion, but I did manage to pass by the Pasela building on my way to the theatre.
|If only there had been more time!|
It was a freezing cold January day so the staff let everyone into the theatre lobby a little early to do their shopping indoors. I picked up a programme and the newly-released Sengoku Basara 10th Anniversary Warrior Themes Vocal Collection CD from the stalls there; the latter came with a choice of a bonus poster or card as an extra incentive. Since I'd reserved in advance I was also eligible to receive a bonus photographic print of Fuuma Kotarou. The lobby area was decorated with the usual congratulatory flower arrangements with some familiar names attached.
It wasn't long before we were allowed into the theatre to get comfortable while the tracks from the new vocal CD played in the background. This was especially exciting for me as I still hadn't heard the full versions of the songs at the time! Experiencing them for the first time surrounded by hundreds of fellow fans and reading all of the advertising pamphlets the staff had been handing out made time fly.
Speaking of my fellow fans, the audience was dominated by female attendees as usual (and I do mean dominated - there were perhaps two or three guys in the entire theatre on this particular night). One thing that I found interesting was that most of the women were the older, more established fans; the louder general stage play fans who have caused trouble for the series in the past by behaving disruptively were noticeably absent. The series has certainly dropped in popularity over the last few years; have those people moved on to newer series like Touken Ranbu, or did I just get lucky with the date I picked?
In any case, it was time for the play to begin. The music faded out and the actors kicked off with the usual flurry of introductory scenes as part of the opening sequence. All of my worries melted away as their passion instantly pulled me into the world of the stage play.
|Flowers from Kubota Yuuki, the first stage play's Masamune|
The stage was relatively simple. As with Butai Sengoku Basara 4, moving walls were pulled across the width of the stage from time to time to allow characters like Kotarou to flit around without walking on and off the stage awkwardly. Special effects were kept to a minimum aside from one scene where a projection of Rikyuu was used to allow his inner struggle between Sabisuke and Wabisuke to take centre stage. Projections of the live actors never look all that convincing, but in this case it was important to give context for Rikyuu's state of mind later on in the story. The rest of the special effects were limited to super moves which needed a little extra pizazz to work in a live action setting.
The main plot is tied to Matsunaga Hisahide, who plays a similar role to that of Ashikaga Yoshiteru in Butai Sengoku Basara 4 - his ambitions for Kotarou (and eventually, Rikyuu) drive the storyline from the shadows even though he seldom appears in front of the other characters in person. Matsuda Kenji is very comfortable in the role now and projects Hisahide's self-assured attitude without the slightest trace of awkwardness. From the moment he opened the show I felt nervous being so close to someone with such a naturally menacing aura!
If it's Hisahide who is controlling the story, the person most affected by his plotting is the new character, Sen No Rikyuu. His tale begins with him fleeing the Toyotomi faction after he's implicated in the assassination attempt referred to in the plot of the game, and right from the outset it's clearly shown that Wabisuke is struggling to reason with his alternate personality.
Rikyuu's twin fans make for some very beautiful battle scenes; one of the earlier set pieces uses the flower arrangement scene from the game with morning glories adorning the blades of fallen warriors, and there's a chilling brutality to the way it's shown on stage which surpasses the emotional impact of the game's version. Actor Juri never misses a beat as he switches between Sabisuke's scorn and Wabisuke's timidity over the course of the play. I particularly liked his Sabisuke moments; the crueller side of Rikyuu appears more frequently in the second act and his unpredictable behaviour made him mesmerising to watch.
The other character deeply involved with Hisahide is the taciturn ninja Fuuma Kotarou. I was initially disappointed that he was recast for this play as his previous actor was one of my favourites. Thankfully, Sueno Takuma is a capable replacement with the agility to perform all of the shinobi's characteristic spins, flips and dashes without wasting any energy on unnecessary movements. The comedic one-sided romance storyline between Kotarou and Tsuruhime is back again at last, too, which brings a little humanity to this otherwise inscrutable killing machine.
Fujita's Katsuie is one of my favourite stage play characters and one of the ones I was most worried about in this adaptation. Katsuie's story was already told in Butai Sengoku Basara 4, and most of the characters he interacts with in the game are missing in this play. There's no Oichi, no Sakon, no Nobunaga or Mitsuhide...
What this means is that Katsuie's new story is mostly original. Parted from the Oda army, he runs into Sen No Rikyuu and the two of them form an unlikely duo until Hisahide's meddling moves the plot along. I was pleasantly surprised by how well Katsuie gets along with Wabisuke - he could even handle Sabisuke's bad attitude - and he came across as rather cool. This all comes crashing down when Masamune pushes him to his limit and the old 'Apparition King' Katsuie resurfaces, however. He removes his helmet and goes completely berserk as he tears through armies in a seemingly-unstoppable rampage, desperately trying to fill the emptiness within himself with the blood of his enemies.
Katsuie's rage is only soothed when he comes face to face with an unlikely friend - Azai Nagamasa - and mistakes the other man's simplistic kindness for something more. Nagamasa, for his part, is pleased to be able to help someone who knows his beloved Oichi. For an all-too-brief moment it looks as though Nagamasa and Katsuie could actually be getting a happy ending this time around. Until, that is, Hisahide intervenes...
Sakurada is the only person I can imagine pulling off Nagamasa's unique style of well-intentioned foolishness at this point. He has a commanding air whenever he's alone or in a serious fight, then in between he's able to switch gears and act like the doomed warrior of justice everyone secretly loves. Troubled by Maria's manipulation and being away from Oichi, Nagamasa first appears in a comical scene with Tsuruhime where the youngster tries to engage him in a conversation about love which almost leads to him opening up about his poorly-veiled feelings for his absent wife. Even though he was great on his own, however, I do miss his interactions with Tamaki Nami's Oichi on stage. The pair of them need to be reunited again in a future play.
Shiramata Atsushi's casting as the series' fourth(!) Chousokabe Motochika has received a lot of publicity and he has really nailed the character's attitude, from his swagger and shock of white hair to the way he acts like a loveable thug who is simultaneously intimidating and endearing. Motochika is first seen travelling with Magoichi when he runs into Masamune and Yukimura, persuading them to join him in an alliance to bring an end to the dominance of the Ashikaga faction. It's good to see Aniki putting his leadership skills to good use instead of being used as comic relief.
There was one particularly good interaction with the audience where Motochika was doing his usual call and response routine and sent his men out to ask attendees which character they had come to support. The first girl obligingly answered that she was cheering for Motochika, but when the second said she was a Nagamasa supporter Motochika looked as though he'd had a bucket of cold water thrown over him and it got even worse when a third admitted to being a Katsuie fan. The entire scene was then hijacked by Magoichi, who won the fans' immediate support with yells of "Anego!" replacing the usual "Aniki!". As Motochika and his two soldiers watched in flabbergasted amazement, Magoichi's soldiers carried her around and let her walk all over them (literally) while she worked the crowd.
It's Mamoru Asana's first time as Magoichi in the stage play series but you wouldn't have known it to look at her. She is fierce, confident and proud, her tiny, wiry physique no obstacle when it came to standing shoulder to shoulder with all of the guys in combat. I'll never forget how delighted she looked when the crowd shouted back at her in support during her big scene. We've been lucky to have a number of excellent actresses playing Magoichi over the course of these adaptations and I'll certainly be happy to see her return in future if the character continues to appear.
One of the most popular actors still with the stage play series is Kotani 'Kony' Yoshikazu who plays Mouri Motonari. Unlike Motochika, who has been recast every single time he's appeared, Kotani has stayed with the series right from his character's first appearance and built up a solid fanbase with his volatile, dangerous take on the reclusive tactician's complicated personality. A constant presence, Motonari is working for Ashikaga Yoshiteru this time and controlling Tsuruhime by posing as Himiko. The Himiko scenes are some of the funniest in the whole show with Kotani's falsetto voice sounding every bit as ridiculous as it should - and funnier still is the moment when Yukimura and Sasuke stumble upon the truth behind the illusion. Motonari's fury is always a pleasant sight!
Along with Motonari's Kotani, Kawamura Yukie is actually celebrating her 100th Butai Sengoku Basara appearance as Tsuruhime during this play. Despite being one of the veterans she's as giggly and full of life as ever, and Tsuruhime actually has quite an important role; while Hisahide is pulling the strings behind the scenes and Motonari is openly confronting the heroes, Tsuruhime represents a weakness in the Ashikaga faction who can be reasoned with by her old friends. Her wavering doubts about 'Himiko' test the strength of her relationship with Magoichi. Tsuruhime's arc from the game translates very well to the stage, providing a strong narrative in its own right and a reflection of the growing power of the anti-Ashikaga alliance over the course of the story.
The Date and Sanada armies contained several new faces so I've saved them until last. Masamune has been recast yet again which is something of a concern; it makes it look as though the staff are struggling to find a long term replacement for Kubota Yuuki. Shiono is a much younger-looking, skinnier Masamune than I'm used to and I wasn't sure about him at first. He does a great job, though, and has a very deep voice. It's worth noting that he also manages to draw all six of his swords Basara-style, one by one, and wields the six claws naturally rather than resorting to trickery such as running offstage to replace the individual blades as previous actors have done. I was impressed! It looked much cooler whipping the weapons out naturally during combat instead of running around.
So long as he stays with the series long enough, I think that Shiono will grow into the role well as Masamune goes back to having a more central role in future plays. His youthful looks will also serve him well if they decide to show more scenes from Masamune's past too. Hmm...
The one new actor I'm struggling most to adjust to is Inoue as Kojuurou; it's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Kojuurou's original actor and Inoue's version is very different to Yoshida's. Inoue just seems a little too sweet natured to come across as a formidable, gangster-like brute. It doesn't help that the Date army's interactions take a back seat in this show so there's very little opportunity for Inoue to demonstrate what he's capable of - Kojuurou's drama route ending isn't the most glorious scene from his repertoire. If the next play can give him more time in the spotlight, I'm sure I'll eventually learn to appreciate this new version of Kojuurou properly.
Sasuke has been recast as well following Murata's graduation in Butai Sengoku Basara 4 and Shiina's interpretation of the wisecracking ninja is extremely accessible. Shiina appeared in previous Butai Sengoku Basara plays as Mori Ranmaru so he's a familiar face in his own right, and his Sasuke is absolutely wonderful. Murata was a hard act to follow which makes it all the more incredible that I was able to warm to Shiina so quickly! This new Sasuke is more energetic than before, leaping and flipping around the stage almost as much as Kotarou. He breaks the fourth wall in his very first scene when he tries to explain to Yukimura that they're in the Blue Theater - something Yukimura interprets as meaning that they're in Masamune's camp, naturally - and this sets the tone for his cheeky, monkey-like interactions with his master for the rest of the show.
Matsumura returns as Yukimura, thankfully, and he seems to have settled into the role well by this point. Initially used as comic relief, Yukimura finds his resolve as acting leader of the Takeda forces early on and takes command of his destiny, persuading Masamune to do the right thing several times as his equal (and eternal rival). The pair's interactions are classic 'red-blue' moments with them starting out on the opposing sides of a fight before teaming up with Aniki and working together to take on a common foe as the play progresses. Matsumura is cute as the vulnerable, slightly silly Yukimura we see at the start of the story, but more importantly he's suitably bold as the more confident hero he develops into later on. I wonder whether we'll eventually see him taking a leading role if the Retsuden Series makes it into Butai Sengoku Basara...?
Last but not least, the two SOLIDEMO members who played Aniki's crew members were fun additions. They were both obviously enjoying swinging swords when they participated in the fighting, and they also helped turn Motochika's biggest scene into more of a spectacle by getting the audience involved in cheering for their master. I wouldn't mind seeing them return one day, or perhaps appearing as minor background characters in the games as a bonus for stage play fans.
Once the main play was over there was an 'after talk' segment with Kawamura, Kotani, Fujita and Sakurada which was full of cheeky in-jokes. Fujita was the main host and they all started off in character, which was a disaster; Tsuruhime's bubbly personality couldn't carry a discussion when she was stuck with Motonari, Katsuie and Nagamasa! So they slipped out of character for the rest and talked about how shocked they were when they first read their scripts and discovered the new twists in the story. Poor Nagamasa had been hoping to make it through the story unscathed with the Oda family missing from the play.
At one point, Kotani and Fujita went for a walk to survey the audience members (so exciting!), and later on Kotani pulled out a mini version of his ringblade and declared one of the fans a sacrificial pawn in a chillingly Motonari-esque voice. The fans were thrilled but when he returned to his seat Kotani apologised and confessed that saying that kind of thing made him feel like a terrible person.
|The goodies I picked up at the venue|
Once the show was over attendees were able to turn in the surveys they had been given to complete. When it asked for any additional comments I begged them to put the new stage play DVDs on Amazon so that they are more widely available. Speaking of the DVDs, attendees could preorder the first press edition of the new one at the venue for ¥7,000 plus ¥500 postage which is a significant saving over jumping through all of the hoops to order from overseas from the official website. It would be wonderful if the DVDs could be distributed more widely again one day.
I hope that I've managed to remember all of the important points from Butai Sengoku Basara 4 Sumeragi as it was great fun to attend. The new staff members have successfully recaptured everything that makes the Butai Sengoku Basara series so thrilling, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.
On that note, the play finishes its run on Sunday and according to a poster shared on Twitter, a major announcement is scheduled for the grand finale. Details will be posted on Twitter and the stage play's website at the same time so I'm guessing that they're going to reveal the next stage play right away instead of waiting a few months before making a separate announcement. Will it be Butai Sengoku Basara 4 Sumeragi II, or will they go straight to Butai Sengoku Basara: Sanada Yukimura-hen? There's still plenty of material for the former if they decide to linger on the Sengoku Basara 4 series a little longer - heck, several characters have yet to even appear. There's a lot of potential for future entries in the stage play series.
For those curious about how the new actors handle their roles, the Theaterclip account has posted a preview video with scenes from the dress rehearsal.
Press reports from the dress rehearsal with pictures from the first act are available via Capcom, Animate, Famitsu, 4Gamer, Game Biz, Gamer, Spice and Theaterclip. The Theaterclip article also includes a video recording of the cast messages from the end of the first day's performance.