By Benny Carrillo / January 12th, 2016
The lone man who gave his soul to gaming. Today, he returns.
He will punish those who do not play seriously. Their battered bodies will never forget.
Theme of Segata Sanshiro ~ “Sega Saturn Shiro!”
There is a man who embodies what it means to be a gamer. To dedicate one’s whole life and soul to a singular task. A man who can outrace an Olympic speed skater barefoot. A man who can hit a homerun with a single kick. A man who can make someone explode twice with a single judo throw. A man who will hunt down and punish those who neglect their duties as gamers. A man who willingly sacrificed himself to protect the console and company he loved. This is the man who even Neptune, Vert, and Keima Katsuragi call master when it comes to gaming. This man is Segata Sanshiro.
Segata Sanshiro was created by Sega of Japan to help with advertising the floundering Sega Saturn in Japan. If you were like me and were alive during the Fifth Generation of Video Game Consoles, the Sega Saturn was something of a rarity. Everyone had a Nintendo 64 or a PlayStation. While the Sega Saturn was discontinued in 1998 in North America and Europe, it continued to sell in Japan until 2000. So what was the difference? Poor management is often cited as one of the reasons the Sega Saturn failed. Despite that, many people often credit the Segata Sanshiro ad campaign as the reason the Sega Saturn found success in Japan. So why exactly would a single character be able to change an entire nation’s perspective on a console and why is he so beloved even by people in the West? Let’s take a look at his origins and I think you’ll understand why.
The Origins of a Legend
The making of Segata Sanshiro is a match made in heaven. The character itself is an homage to Sugata Sanshiro from the movie Sanshiro Sugata which was the first film directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa. The story is about a young man named Sugata who travels to the city to learn Jujitsu. Shortly after arriving, he sees a Judo master named Yano in action. He begs to become Yano’s student and thus embarks on the path of Judo, dedicating himself to mastering the art. This works very well for Segata Sanshiro’s character. Not only is he a master of Judo, but he also has dedicated himself to the path of gaming. Spending much of his time in the mountains training with a giant Sega Saturn on his back, and by rapidly punching a giant Sega Saturn Controller. If that’s not dedication to your craft, I don’t know what is. So we have the inspiration, but who could possibly play him? You can’t just throw anyone in the suit after all. A larger than life character needs a larger than life actor. Enter Hiroshi Fujioka.
Hiroshi Fujioka is a Japanese actor who has done quite a lot of work, including voicing the Japanese version of Shan Yu from Disney’s Mulan (in both the movie and Kingdom Hearts II) and Iwao Hazuki from Shenmue. He’s also had several live action roles such as playing Reiji Osakabe in the Tokusatsu Tomica Hero: Resuce Fire. His most famous role is playing the character Takeshi Hongo., a role which earned him the honor of having a minor planet named after him. Who is Takeshi Hongo and why is this such a big deal? Takeshi Hongo is the identity of Kamen Rider Ichigō, the very first Kamen Rider. He is the genesis of a franchise that has lasted 44 years and is known the world over. When Hiroshi once went to Thailand, people recognized him as Takeshi Hongo. The fans there staged a gathering where they all sang “Let’s Go!! Rider Kick”, the opening to the original Kamen Rider series. So, we have our inspiration for Segata Sanshiro and a very famous actor to play him. This certainly explains why the Japanese would already be poised to love him. However, just because you have a good idea and a good actor doesn’t mean things will always go so smoothly. This also still doesn’t explain why Segata Sanshiro is so loved over here in the west, where culturally we don’t have nearly as much as an affinity for Sanshiro Sugata and Hiroshi Fujioka. So, what really drew people to love and adore this character? The answer lies in the commercials themselves and Segata Sanshiro’s debut.
You Must Play the Sega Saturn… or Else
The first couple of Segata Sanshiro commercials were very different from the latter ones. These opened with a group of people, such as kids going to play baseball, or youths at a nightclub, just having fun only to run across him. Segata would then lay waste to them, before commanding that they play the Sega Saturn by telling them “Sega Saturn, Shiro!” The translation of which can mean two things. The first is a reference to the white model of the Saturn that had recently debuted. The second meaning is a command, thus “You must play Sega Saturn!” In essence, he punished others for neglecting their duties to the system. The idea of some Judo master showing up to kick your ass, all because you failed to play the latest console from Sega is more than a little dark. However, It’s all done in this very over the top Japanese way that you can’t help but enjoy. It’s ridiculous, but that’s what makes it endearing. Despite this being a defining trait for Segata Sanshiro, only the first few commercials used this gimmick. Two of the 22 commercials feature him punishing people for neglecting the Sega Saturn. Two feature him scaring a group of children by disguising himself as Santa (as not even Christmas is safe from the wrath of Segata Sanshiro). And one features him attempting fight off some zombies, only to learn that Judo throws aren’t nearly as effective on the undead. The remaining 17 commercials instead served to prove just how superhuman and amazing Segata Sanshiro was.
The second wave of commercial’s all had a similar theme. They would place Segata Sanshiro in some situation related to the game being advertised. Then he would use his awesome abilities to solve the situation. Examples of this would be throwing a man and making him explode… twice (Saturn Bomberman Fight!), rushing into a burning building and attempting to revive a woman (Burning Rangers), or winning the World Cup by Judo throwing a player in order to head-butt the ball into the goal. There really wasn’t anything Segata Sanshiro wasn’t capable of doing (save fighting off the undead). Every time he would perform his heroic deed, his theme song would kick in and it’s was glorious. It really helped to convey that this man was indeed not only larger than life, but someone who would defend the Sega Saturn at at all costs. Which brings me to an interesting point. How synonymous Segata Sanshiro was with the Sega Saturn.
In the opening paragraph of this editorial I mentioned how Neptune, Vert, and Keima would consider Segata Sanshiro their master when it comes to gaming. While I mean this all in good fun, there is something he also has accomplished that not even the Goddess of Planeptune herself can claim. That is, being synonymous with the console and company he represents. Part of that is because Segata Sanshiro is a creation of Sega, thus officially endorsed. Look at Kevin Butler for example, which many would say is the modern day equivalent of Segata Sanshiro for the west. Kevin Butler was indeed quite memorable, and synonymous with the PlayStation brand, something which worked wonders for Sony. It gave a face to the platform and the name, which many would argue Sony was needing for a long time. Nintendo has always had Mario and Link. Microsoft has Master Chief. Sega has Sonic, but Sonic had little presence on the Sega Saturn. Thus, it really was Segata’s console. In fact, just put him side by side with Sega Saturn from the Sega Hard Girls franchise. Both are officially endorsed and both are meant to embody the machine. Sega Saturn even having the same name as the thing she’s representing. However, between the two there’s no contest. Segata Sanshiro just meant that much to gamers then and now. For all intents and purposes he is the Sega Saturn and the embodiment of everything Sega wanted it to be. This of course sadly meant that when the Dreamcast was launching and it was time for the Sega Saturn to retire, Segata Sanshiro would have to go with it. However, you can’t just shelve an icon like Segata. No, if he’s going to go out, it’s going to be spectacle in and of itself.
A Heroic Finale and Birth of a Legacy
The final commercial begins as Sega celebrates the launch of the Dreamcast. Someone decides that Sega’s days are numbered and launches a cruise missile at Sega HQ. Somehow, Segata Sanshiro knew to expect this. He leaps off the top of the Sega Corporation building and goes beyond the impossible. He somehow breaks the laws of physics by catching the missile in midflight, bracing himself against a glass window without breaking it, and then proceeds to flip so that it flies off into space, all the while holding on to ensure he would remain in control of it. The Sega employees can only watch in awe of Segata’s heroic sacrifice. We cut to him on the missile yelling “Sega Saturn Shiro!” repeatedly until the missile finally explodes, seemingly taking him with it. The commercial ends with the announcer telling the audience that Segata Sanshiro will live on in our hearts. This final commercial served also as an advertisement for Segata Sanshrio’s own game, Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yugi, ensuring that he was immortalized on the console he loved. Legends however, never truly die.
In 2000, Segata Sanshiro would make a cameo appearance in Rent-a-Hero No. 1 for the Dreamcast and in 2002 he would have an AI profile for Aikra Yuki named after him in the Japanese version of Virtua Fighter 4. While these cameos were nice and showed Sega still honored the character, it would be a decade before we’d see Segata come back into focus again. In 2011, a character by the name of Shiro made his appearance during the chirper sections of Hyperdimension Neptunia MK2. The character is pretty clearly an homage to Segata and even appears in Planeptune, which is based off Sega. It was a nice homage and showed that Segata was indeed considered an important part of the company’s history, even according to other developers. I hesitate to say this was the catalyst for Segata’s return but, I almost wonder if someone at Sega took notice as next year gamers would get quite the surprise.
In 2012, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed was released. During the final lap of the “Race of Ages” course, if the player is in first place at the start of the final lap something special will occur. Segata Sanshiro appears with his beloved Sega Saturn on his back, still riding the missile that supposedly killed him over a decade ago. At the end of 2012 a poll was held on the official Sega forums to nominate a character to be added by DLC. While Segata Sanshiro would not win, he would place third only 766 votes behind the eventual winner, Ryo Hazuki (Shenumue) and 567 votes behind Hatsune Miku. The next closest place? Vectorman, who trailed behind Segata Sanshiro by 1,392 votes. On one hand one could say this just proves both Ryo and Miku’s popularity. Keep in mind though, that Segata has no official presence in the west. He was able to place third based solely on his legend and what fans over the years have come to learn about him. Segata would unfortunately not make his way over in a playable form this time. However, the Judo throwing, Sega Saturn wearing legend would not be denied for much longer.
The Son of Sega Returns
March 16th, 2013. Sega threw a concert in the Tokyo TV Center and who should show up but both Hiroshi Fujioka and Koji Ando (the producer for the commercials.) Both appeared on stage to reminisce about the entire Segata Sanshiro experience. We also would learn that Fujioka and the production crew went above and beyond the call of duty by refusing to use stuntmen or CGI. Those commercials, including punching the giant Saturn controller, were all the blood, sweat, and tears of Fujioka. To cap off things, Segata Sanshiro himself came out to sing his own theme song and declare “Segata Sanshiro has returned!” and he would indeed return in a big way.
Last April, Project X Zone 2: Brave New World was announced for international release and Sega fans would get a surprise. In a September issue of Weekly Famitsu, Segata Sanshiro, voiced by Fujioka, was announced as one of the characters. Finally marking his first official playable western appearance. Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time though Segata has interacted with at least one of these characters. One of the most surreal commercial’s that was produced was of him and Sakura Shinguuji from Sakura Wars frolicking through the cherry blossoms. It’s certainly a break from his normal character, but all indications are that the game treats those commercials as cannon. We’ll have to see what role Segata Sanshiro plays in the story as a whole, but you can believe he will punish anyone that would threaten the way of gaming, or his beloved company.
No matter what era of gaming you hail from. It’s always important to know where we originated from and the legends that helped build our favorite companies and franchises on both sides of the Pacific. I hope that this piece has left you all with an appreciation for this amazing character and his impact on history. Please take a look at the video below from Saturn Memories’ Youtube Channel which showcases all of Segata Sanshiro’s commercials. I leave you now with the hopes to see your impressions of Segata Sanshiro once Project X Zone 2 releases next month and that you’ll soon be joining others in saying SEGA SATURN, SHIRO!
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