By The Sakura Wars Localization Project / June 8th, 2013
Note: For those of you who missed it, the previous part of this series is available here.
In the year 1868, the Kan’ei-ji temple was destroyed during the Battle of Ueno (a part of the Boshin War which helped to restore Imperial rule and begin the Meiji Restoration). The land became the property of the city of Tokyo, and in 1873 Ueno Park, one of Japan’s very first public parks, was established. Hosting ten million visitors every year, it is the most popular park in Japan. In the spring, visitors flock to view the park’s blooming Cherry Blossoms, its most popular attraction. It is here, in a park known for its桜 (sakura), that Sakura Wars begins.
Sakura Wars was first released for the Sega Saturn in 1996; a massive success, the game sold out across Japan on the morning of its release and to this day remains one of the Saturn’s more popular titles. Its unique blending of the SRPG and Visual Novel genres, combined with an anime aesthetic and a strong script, meant that the game was poised for success. The game’s development team, consisting of such heavyweights as character designer Kosuke Fujushima (author and illustrator of Ah! My Goddess, and, from 2003 onwards, a character designer for Namco Bandai’s Tales series), certainly played a role in the game’s success as well. These elements have helped the game age gracefully, and it remains as entertaining an experience as it was 17 years ago.
The game begins with a striking fully-animated cutscene containing a number of establishing shots that showcase the game’s unique setting. Sakura Wars takes place in Tokyo (referred to as Teito, the Imperial Capital, throughout the series) during an alternate version of the 1920s. During this period of history, Japan underwent a period of both westernization and rapid modernization, and it shows in the opening. Throughout, there is a distinct interplay between East and West as well as between Old and New. Both western and traditional Japanese dress can be seen on various people, and a western automobile passes by a Japanese rickshaw, highlighting the stark contrast between the traditional and the modern.
It’s a unique setting that’s rarely touched on in games (with the Raidou Kuzunoha series being one of the few other examples), but Sakura Wars takes things a step further with its light steampunk inspirations. The world of Sakura Wars is similar to the real 1920s in many ways, but the characters also have access to highly advanced steam-powered technologies such as steam computers and giant mecha robots. It is these elements that elevate an already little-used setting into something truly different.
The plot begins with navy ensign Ichiro Ogami being sent to Teito to become commander of the Teikoku Kagekidan (the Imperial Floral Assault Group). The name of this group is part of a flower motif that runs throughout the series (flowers appear constantly, there is a flower in the title, and the main female characters are all named after flowers). Ogami arrives in Ueno Park where he meets up with Sakura Shinguuji, the franchise’s primary female character. A member of the Teikoku Kagekidan, she takes Ogami to the group’s headquarters, the Great Imperial Theater. His initial excitement turns to disappointment when he discovers that the Teikoku Kagekidan is actually the Imperial Opera Troupe (also pronounced Teikoku Kagekidan, an ongoing pun) and that he is to be a ticket clipper. Ogami soon discovers that the Imperial Opera Troupe is actually a front for the Teikoku Kagekidan, Hana-gumi (Flower Division), a secret squad that protects the sanctity of Teito by battling evil with the aid of giant steam-powered mecha robots known as Koubu. The Teikoku Kagekidan soon must face off against a group of villains calling themselves the Kuronosukai, who hope to end Japan’s westernization and restore the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The Teikoku Kagekidan protects Teito on two fronts; as the Imperial Opera Troupe, they bring smiles to the faces of the people of Teito, and as the Imperial Floral Assault Group they protect those same people from those that would do them harm. It’s an interesting mixture. The game contains an exciting action-packed RPG plot as the Teikoku Kagekidan battles the Kuronosukai for the fate of Teito. On the other hand, this mixture also allows for more restrained slice-of-life moments that serve to deepen the already fantastic characters.
And it is these characters that are the main draw of Sakura Wars, even more so than the plot. While the plot is a large portion of the game (the main plot and the slice-of-life moments each occupy about an equal amount of game time), the fantastic characters are what make the game truly stand out. Each member of the Teikoku Kagekidan (except Ogami) generally gets their own episode where their development is the primary focus. This allows an excellent opportunity for each character to be in the spotlight.
There’s Ichiro Ogami, the protagonist; while he’s fairly clueless at times (anyone who’s played the fourth game will know what I’m talking about), he has a strong sense of duty and is driven to protect those he loves. A fantastic battle commander, he manages to unite the Teikoku Kagekidan despite their clashing personalities. He’s also one of the kindest and most good-natured men alive.
Then there’s Sakura, the series’ most important female character. Daughter of the famous warrior Kazuma Shinguuji and wielder of his sword, Arataka, Sakura is an incredibly sweet girl from the countryside who loves her fellow squad members. Garbed in a conservative kimono, Sakura is like a beacon of traditional Japanese values in the changing landscape in which the game takes place. Sakura is also unmatched with a blade.
There’s also Iris Chateaubriand. A young girl from France, Iris is the game’s adorable child character (there’s one in every Sakura Wars game). She has some incredible spiritual powers, and she always carries around and talks to her best friend, a teddy bear named Jean-Paul. She refers to Ogami as oniichan (big brother) and is obsessed with becoming an adult so that she can stop being treated like a child.
Maria Tachibana is the squad’s leader before Ogami’s arrival. Hailing from Russia, Maria is a serious, no-nonsense type. While she begins as a cold character that is far too focused on getting the job done, she lightens up considerably later on. Her weapon of choice is a six-shooter revolver and she is a master marksman. She is also one of the game’s more masculine characters, and as such usually plays men in the group’s plays.
Li Kohran is another member of the Teikoku Kagekidan. Originally from China, Kohran is a machine-loving inventor who loves working with the Koubu. Incredibly enthusiastic, she loves building things, though her inventions always seem to explode in everyone’s faces. She speaks in a Kansai dialect, meaning she has a very distinctive voice. Having Kohran around to do repairs on the Koubu is a lifesaver for the group after major battles.
There’s also Kanna Kirishima. Hailing from the island of Okinawa, Kanna is the daughter of a karate master. As such, her martial arts skills are unmatched. She’s also 6’6”, laid-back, and eats an ungodly amount of food. She’s also one of the kindest and friendliest characters in the entire series. A tomboy, Kanna is another character that tends to play male roles in the group’s plays.
Finally, there’s Sumire Kanzaki, the rich daughter of the head of a massive corporation and, in her words, the Teikoku Kagekidan’s “top star”. Her massive ego and inflated sense of self-importance means her personality is abrasive, and the large number of fights that break out between her and Kanna becomes a running joke. Despite playing herself off as insensitive, Sumire cares deeply about her squadmates, and she becomes kinder as the series progresses.
There’s also the Teikoku Kagekidan’s support staff. Yoneda Ikki manages the theater as well as pretty much everything involved with the stage productions, and acts as the Teikoku Kagekidan’s commander. Yoneda acts as a father figure to all the members of the Kagekidan, and he thinks fondly of all of them. Almost always drunk, Yoneda has the unique ability to immediately sober up in serious situations.
Ayame Fujieda is the Teikoku Kagekidan’s vice-commander; while she often comes off as flirty (something that leads to some fairly humorous situations with the other characters), she also provides Ogami with advice on how to lead the Teikoku Kagekidan and resolve the conflicts between its members. She is an old friend of Yoneda’s and is very dear to him.
Tsubaki, Yuri, and Kasumi round out the rest of the support staff. Tsubaki is the always-happy clerk of the gift-shop who loves putting smiles on the faces of the theater’s customers. Yuri and Kasumi man the front desk. Yuri is an incurable gossip, whereas Kasumi is her more serious counterpart. All three also support the Kagekidan with information during battle.
In addition to its strong cast of heroes, Sakura Wars also features some incredible villains, including Tenkai (the leader of the Kuronosukai and proponent of the restoration of the Tokugawa Shogunate) and Aoi Satan. And of course, all of these various characters are brought to life by some amazing voice acting by a cast that includes such iconic voice actors as Chisa Yokoyama and Mayumi Tanaka.
The series’ unique gameplay also begins here. In the adventure segments, Ogami wanders around and talks to the various characters using the series’ proprietary LIPS system. While there are many different types of LIPS events in the series, the most common is a timed dialogue choice. These choices oftentimes end with Ogami gaining or losing favor with a character. Choosing nothing is an option, but this more often than not ends up being a poor choice.
The LIPS system ties into the battle system as well; the more favor you have with a character, the better their battle stats. The battle system is a traditional grid-based system popular in SRPGs; it’s executed very well, and the characters are different enough to keep things interesting. The game also allows you to cover squadmates a certain number of times per battle; this allows Ogami to gain points with the covered character and eliminates any damage they would otherwise take. The game also contains a number of fun character-specific minigames, including cleaning with Sakura, cooking with Maria, and helping children find their parents with Kanna. Furthermore, Sakura Wars introduced the series’ traditional dating sim elements; Ogami will end up with one of the members of the Teikoku Kagekidan, and this affects various scenes throughout the game as well as the ending and the battles. These elements serve to deepen the game’s characterizations and make the player more attached to the characters.
And Sakura Wars has still more to offer as well. Beyond its strong gameplay, exciting plot, and memorable characters, Sakura Wars contains an infectiously optimistic view of the world. This worldview pervades the game, from its pleasant slice-of-life moments to its kind characters to its themes of love and friendship. Indeed, Sakura Wars, despite some high stakes and rather dark moments, may be one of the most feel-good videogames ever created, and its optimistic view is a stark contrast to that seen in so many modern games.
Sakura Wars is available on the Saturn, the Dreamcast, and the PC. A port of the first two Sakura Wars games is available on the PSP. The game is very cheap to import and is fairly easy to play on an American Saturn or Dreamcast. Translation guides are available on Gamefaqs from Kayama. Make sure to check out our ongoing English Let’s Play of the game as well! There is also a PS2 remake available, but it is incompatible with the original’s translation guides. And don’t forget to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter! We need your support to bring this classic to our shores!
Scenes from Next Episode:
It took two years, but Ogami and friends finally return!
A bigger, more action-packed sequel,
It’s Sakura Wars 2: Prithee, Do Not Die!
A storm of romance in Taisho Cherry Blossoms!
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