Wednesday 16 May 2018

Sakura Taisen: the Blooming Spirit of Scientific Romance in the Taisho Period

Beginning with an innovative Sega Saturn video game in 1996, the Sakura Taisen franchise grew rapidly to become a Japanese mega-hit and a flawless study in how to make a creatively and commercially successful modern Scientific Romance. Unfortunately, the very things that made it such a creative and commercial success in Japan rendered it virtually incomprehensible abroad. The franchise floated across the Pacific in piecemeal fashion, tantalizing those lucky enough to discover it. 

My relationship with Sakura Taisen (also known as Sakura Wars) began in 1998, at the very first edition of my city's annual anime festival. It was the same year that I launched the very first incarnation of this blog, as a website on the long gone GeoCities server. I had recently discovered and fell in love with the genre of Scientific Romances, primarily as an interesting fusion of my love for Science Fiction with Gothic Romanticism. The Nineties and early-Noughts were an explosive time for modern Scientific Romances, with feature films like Wild Wild West (1999), Back to the Future Part III (1990), The City of Lost Children (1995) and Disney's Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002), comics like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), novels like The Difference Engine (1990), picture books like Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (1992) and its sequel Dinotopia: The World Beneath (1995), theme parks like Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland and Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, and television shows like The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000) and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993). It was an embarrassment of riches that has never been matched since. At this anime festival, I was piqued by a new anime series entitled Sakura Wars, which ended abruptly with the fourth episode.

This anime series featured a group of girls in an alternate 1920's Tokyo where steam-power produced far more advanced technology than in our own world. This alternate Japan was recovering from a devastating "Demon War" that happened roughly around the same time as World War One in our history, and it seemed that the infernal hordes were massing once again. Keen to see the rest, I learned to my chagrin that this series was merely a four-episode Original Video Animation (OVA) prequel to the Sega Saturn video game Sakura Taisen released in 1996 in Japan and never imported to North America. Shortly thereafter a second Sakura Taisen OVA was imported, as the sequel to the second Sakura Taisen video game, released in Japan for the Sega Saturn in 1998. This was followed in succeeding years by the OVA prequel to Sakura Taisen 3 (2001, Sega Dreamcast) and a feature film taking place between Sakura Taisen 3 and 4 (2002, Sega Dreamcast), leaving me with plenty of prequels and sequels but no idea of what the actual story was! Eventually a Sakura Taisen television series was imported, ostensibly adapting the first video game, but which altered the story so significantly that even Japanese fans of the franchise found it revolting. Then an official manga adaptation of the first game was imported by Tokyo Pop, which published half of the series before the company went into bankruptcy. By now a decade had passed and I was so desperate that when I went to Japan in 2009, I broke down, found a used video game store, and bought a Japanese Sega Saturn and every possible Sakura Taisen game, fan disk, spin-off puzzle game, and branded piece of hardware available. When I finished the first game and finally saw the hero and heroine kiss, it was like a religious experience! 

What could encourage a torch to be held out for so long? What makes Sakura Taisen the epitome of everything that can and should be done with a modern Scientific Romance?

Boldly, it is not the steam-powered technology in itself that makes the franchise so appealing. Virtually any movie, TV show, comic book, or video game can have attractive Retro-Futuristic technology so long as it has a decently creative designer (though that is harder than it sounds, since there has certainly been no shortage of unattractive designs since 2006). Rather, its appeal lies in the same unapologetic Japaneseness that so easily dissuaded Sega from importing it to North America. Sakura Taisen is an intensive survey of the history, aesthetics, pop-culture, mythology, and geography of Japan... So much so that it is itself a crash course in Japanese culture. To review it is mainly to write an essay on Japan at the turn of the previous century, as I am about to do.

The fundamental appeal of Scientific Romances is that they take the principles of Science Fiction and ground them in history, culture, and aesthetic beauty. Star Trek, though a beloved franchise, is rightly criticized for the cultural sterility of its humans compared to the vibrancy of its alien species. I have raved about BioShock Infinite in the past and how well it captured the aesthetic and philosophical currents of the United States at the end of the 19th century while still including heady Sci-Fi concepts like quantum mechanics. Sakura Taisen is all this, but moreso, and wrapped in a bow of undeniable charm, fun, anime style, and natsukashii (a sense of nostalgic longing for the warmly cherished things of the past). 

An in-game animation setting the scene for Sakura Taisen.

The game's structure draws from three main influences: television anime, bishoujo dating simulation/"visual novel" games, and tactical role-playing games in the style of tabletop wargaming. Booting up the first Sakura Taisen game begins with an animated title sequence reminiscent of a television show. Each of the game's ten chapters follow an episodic format, including mid-way "eyecatches" (the freeze frames that bookend a commercial break on Japanese television) and a "next time" trailer at its end. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the player character Ichiro Ogami, a young naval officer assigned to a secret military unit in the heart of Tokyo. He soon discovers that that this secret unit is an all-girl theatrical troupe! 

The opening title animation of Sakura Taisen on Sega Saturn.

This surprising fact introduces both the bishoujo dating simulation aspect of the game and its endless double entendres. The official name of the theatrical troupe is "Teikoku Kagekidan", which can mean either "Imperial assault force" or "Imperial theatre troupe" depending on the Japanese kanji characters used to spell it. This style of all-female theatrical troupe is based historically in the Takarazuka Kagekidan, the Shochiku Kagekidan, and other similar troupes created during the Taisho Period (1912-1926). The Takarazuka Revue was the brainchild of Hankyu Railways president Ichizo Kobayashi, who was looking to provide an attraction for the terminus of the Osaka-Takarazuka line. Inspired by Broadway and Parisian cabarets, he developed an all-female musical revue in 1914. A decade later, its popularity warranted the construction of the Dai Gekijō (Grand Theatre). Takarazuka productions include both Western and Japanese works, given lavish treatment and typically ending in a showstopping dance number. Past productions have been diverse: Cinderella, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Tale of Genji, The Great Gatsby, Aida, Oklahoma!, Tales of Hoffman, Ocean's 11, West Side Story, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Rose of Versailles (based on the manga), Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, Zorro, Casablanca, An Officer and a Gentleman, and the infamous Capcom video game Phoenix Wright, all parts performed by a female cast. Today, the Takarazuka Kagekidan has theatres in Takarazuka and Tokyo, which host some 2.5 million guests annually, the majority of whom are women.

Photo of a Takarazuka Kagekidan performance of Parisette, c. 1930.

The Takarazuka Kagekidan is divided into five troupes: the Flower (Hana), Moon (Tsuki), Snow (Yuki), Star (Hoshi), and Cosmos (Sora). The Hanagumi is the dominant troupe, and this is echoed in Sakura Taisen. The fictional Teikoku Kagekidan's performers are also called the Hanagumi and the series plays constantly on the theme of flowers. The game's lead heroine is samurai heiress Sakura Shinguji, after whom the game is named and who is herself named after the cherry blossom, sakura. Other members of the Hanagumi include the wealthy and haughty Sumire Kanzaki (named after violets), awkwardly underaged French girl Iris Chateaubriand (named after the iris), mysterious Russian Maria Tachibana (named after the eponymous flower), athletic martial arts master Kanna Kirishima (named for the Canna lily), and kooky inventor Ri Koran (named after a type of red orchid). Their base is the "Grand Imperial Theatre" in Ginza, but they also have a base underneath the Hanayashiki, a flower park in the Tokyo district of Asakusa that opened in 1853 and still operates today as Japan's oldest amusement park. One of the side games that is offered to players is hanafuda, or "flower cards" (discussed in my previous article on Nintendo). The game's motifs pop up throughout Sakura Taisen, including a trio of villains based on the valuable combination of cards with the boar, deer, and butterfly images on their faces.

The 5-point Inoshikacho combination.

Ogami eventually clues into the double entendre and the fact that this group is both an assault force and a theatrical troupe. As a theatrical troupe, the Hanagumi raise the spirits of Japanese people, hone their own spiritual energies, and hearken to Shinto dance rituals that seal away evil spiritual entities. As an assault force, they deploy in spirit-powered armor suits to do battle with the forces of darkness first hand. This is when the game switches to tactical RPG mode, as characters move around a grid map, fighting villains in famous sites around Tokyo. The catch is that the combat bonuses assigned to different characters depend on how you, as the male commander have interacted with them during the dating simulation part of the game. In your day job as ticket taker for the theatrical troupe, you interact with the girls in dialogue events that can raise or lower your status with them. The better they like you, the better they fight. By the end of the game, one will become your "special girl" and reward you with one of six possible endings, one unique to each girl. Essentially, Sakura Taisen is a combat dating game.

Sakura Taisen's first battle, taking place in Ueno Park.

The first episode's battle takes place in Ueno Park during spring cherry blossom season, at the Benten-dō temple on an island in the middle of the park's Shinobazu Pond. If that sounds remarkably specific for a video game, it's because I've actually been there, standing in the location where the battle was fought. That sense of natsukashii is not merely a nostalgia for distant and brighter-seeming times, but also memories of visits taken to the Land of the Rising Sun. Later fights take place at a Retro-Futuristic version of Tokyo Tower, the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Kaminarimon Gate and Nakamise Arcade in Asakusa, and the shrine to Emperor Meiji in Harajuku. One episode takes place in a haunted house in the Fukagawa district, a famous venue for Japanese ghost stories. This whirlwind tour of Tokyo is courtesy of the villains, whose base lies beneath the Nihonbashi Bridge, at the centre of a great demonic sigil that, when released, will allow the demon hordes to pour forth onto the Earth. Each location is a key nexus to be unlocked. The architect of this plot, or so it seems at first, is the ghostly form of Tenkai, the Buddhist priest who rose to prominence as the right-hand man of the first Tokugawa shoguns. His goal is to crush the decadent, Westernized culture of the Taisho Period and re-establish the shogunate with himself at the head, but an even darker power may lie behind him.

The temple in Ueno Park that was the site of the first battle.
Asakusa's Kaminarimon Gate and Nakamise Arcade.
The Nihonbashi, formerly one of the most important and famous bridges in Tokyo.
Approach to the Meiji Shrine.

At the end of 150 years of civil war, a series of decisive victories in the early 1600's brought the warlord Ieyasu Tokugawa into uncontested rule over Japan. He became the shogun and set up what was essentially a military dictatorship, ruled by the warrior class, that would last for the next 250 years. Shortly after the Tokugawa bakufu (military government) took control, Japan's borders were restricted and Westerners, for the most part, cast out. Christianity was outlawed and trade conducted exclusively with the Dutch on an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay. Any gaijin (foreigner) who set foot on Japanese soil would be killed on sight.

Bishop Tenkai, who attained the highest rank of Buddhist priesthood during his life, was a trusted advisor to the Tokugawas and go-between for the shogun and the emperor, who resided in Kyoto. Tenkai took charge of many restoration projects to repair damage to temples during the civil war, and built the Kan'eiji Temple on what is now Ueno Park in Tokyo. Northeast of the Tokugawa's residence at Edo Castle, Kan'eiji was intended to ward off evil spirits coming from that inauspicious direction. Eventually it became the resting place for six of the Tokugawa shoguns, whose funerary temple is one of the few remaining structures of Kan'eiji that remained after the devastating civil war that ended the rule of the Tokugawas. In Sakura Taisen, the Kan'eiji also warehoused the steam-powered enemy footsoldiers.

In 1852, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed his warships into Edo harbour, pointed his canons at the castle, and insisted that Japan open its borders to unrestricted trade with the West. Faced with the prospect of Western colonialism and the foot-dragging of an ill-prepared bakufu, Emperor Meiji gathered a coalition of powerful men to overthrow the Tokugawas and modernize the country. Meiji achieved his goal after the civil war of 1868-69, transforming every aspect of Japanese culture and positioning the country as a major player on the world stage, where it remains today. The plot of Sakura Taisen provides an interesting contrast to dominant Western progressive narrative that modern Western culture is a toxic, "inauthentic" lifestyle inferior to traditional, "authentic", non-Western and pre-modern ways of life. We see this narrative in Hollywood films like The Last Samurai (2003), in which Tom Cruise, playing an American Civil War veteran, must go to Japan to "find himself" and falls in league with the last of the samurai warriors fighting to preserve traditional Japanese ways in the relentless face of the Meiji modernization programs. In Sakura Taisen, instead, we see a Japanese story about a group fighting to prevent Japan from backsliding into a xenophobic, pre-modern military dictatorship.

The game taking place during the Taisho period deftly reinforces this theme. Sakura Taisen is part of  an aesthetic called Taisho Roman, a romanticized view of the Taisho period as, in a sense, Japan's "Roaring Twenties." Japan had entered the world stage with victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars (1894/95 and 1904/05 respectively), as well as fighting on the side of the British Empire, France, and the Russian Empire during the Great War. Average wealth increased with new economic opportunities, expanding cultural and educational opportunities along with it (such as the Takarazuka Kagekidan). Fashion and architecture ever more deeply fused Japanese and Western style. The weakness of Emperor Taisho shifted power towards the elected parliament, though by the end of the period, authority would come to rest with hard right-wing nationalists that would set Japan on its course towards World War II. Today, many appeal to Taisho Roman as a nostalgic "high time" with just the right mix of tradition and progress in culture, politics, and aesthetics between the transformations of the Meiji Period and tragedies of the Second World War.

The tea room of the Kanazawa Hakuchoro Hotel Sanraku in Ishikawa
exemplifies Taisho Roman style. Photo: Kanazawa Hakuchoro Hotel Sanraku.
The interior of the SL Ginga special steam train in Hanamaki, based on
the writings of Taisho Period author Kenji Miyazawa,  was also
designed to reflect Taisho Roman. Photo: JNTO.

 John Daub of the Only in Japan YouTube channel visits
Hasunuma Onsen in Tokyo, recently renovated in Taisho Roman style.

These last, belaboured paragraphs on Japanese culture, history, and geography are only the tip of Sakura Taisen's iceberg. The details pile on and on. In a chapter taking place in Asakusa, the player is treated to a reenactment of the unique style in which early films were presented in Japan. During the silent era, Japanese movies were narrated by a professional benshi. Powerful, dramatic benshi could become as big stars as those actually on the screen. The popularity of benshi, whose role evolved from similar counterparts in kabuki and noh theatre, actually stalled the transition to sound films in Japan until the mid-1930's. At the point in the game where you select your "special girl" you do so as date to the New Years festivities at the Meiji Shrine, taking vicarious part in the sort of festival games popular at the time. Another example are the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. These imperial regalia - the sword Kusanagi, the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama - are used in the enthronement ceremonies of the emperors and are said by legend to have come from the kami (goddess) Amaterasu as an inheritance to her descendants, the emperors of Japan. So precious are these treasures that they have never even been seen by anyone besides the emperor and their caretakers. No photographs or drawings of the regalia are known to exist. That did not, however, stop the creators of Sakura Taisen from making them a key plot element in the first and second games.

The Majinki, or Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, as imagined in Sakura Taisen.

Nor is it exclusively Japanese ideas used in the game either. When the demon hordes are revealed, shedding their steam-powered robotic footsoldiers, they are the splitting image of H.R. Geiger's Xenomorph. The "Kouma" even spit acid from their double-jaw, but the game did innovate with the addition of wings, as though Xenomorphs weren't frightening enough. With the revelation of the Kouma come a new set of villains, and the central conflict takes on a Christian theme. Yet this is one of the only examples I have seen of a Japanese product that gets the fundamentals of Christian faith correct. That in itself is an accomplishment and more than I expect from most Westerners these days.

A Xenomorph-like kouma confronts Iris in the first episode of first Sakura Taisen OVA.

Sakura Taisen's unique blend of elements made it an instant smash success. On its debut, the game sold out within hours. It went on to move 360,000 units in 1996 and has since been voted the best game for Sega Saturn by the official Sega fan club, and Game of the Year at the CESA Awards and Semi-Grand Prix Awards of 1997. Gaming magazine Famitsu listed it at #13 of the top 100 Japanese video games of all time. Sega capitalized on this success with a string of quick "fan disks" filled with supplementary material and small games which, in today's market, would otherwise be provided by websites and phone apps.

The first was Sakura Taisen Hanagumi Tsūshin (Flower Division News, 1997), featuring cast interviews, videos, and announcements about forthcoming projects. More involved was the Sakura Taisen Steam Radio Show (1997). This two-disk set featured, on the first disk, a visual novel about a radio show being produced by the Hanagumi, in which one selects a member of the troupe to be DJ, listens to music and DJ vignettes, plays a new series of mini-games, and eventually goes on a date with the star. The second disk featured a summary, videos, and interviews pertaining to the first Sakura Taisen stage show, Ai yueni (Because of Love, 1997). These stage shows, which became a semi-annual tradition, were lavish productions in the spirit of the Takarazuka Kagekidan, starring the voice actors in character. Performed through 2006, these shows occasionally replicated productions from within the games: Ai yueni, Treasure Island (2003), and Shin Saiyuki (New Journey to the West, 2004) were all alluded to in the first Sakura Taisen game. Some characters in the Sakura Taisen franchise also had their start in the stage shows and were subsequently included in later games and manga. These shows became as important and popular a part in Japanese Sakura Taisen mania as the games themselves, though they may come across as somewhat odd to Western audiences.

Everybody now! A live performance of the Sakura Taisen theme song.

Sakura Taisen's first OVA was also released in 1997. Titled Ōka Kenran (The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms), the first three of its four episodes revealed the backstory behind the formation of the Hanagumi (including a climactic battle on the Ryounkaku, Tokyo's first skyscraper). The fourth episode was more of a love-letter to the fans, taking place during the events of the first game (roughly between chapters four and five) and making copious references to incidents, mini-games, and other moments from it. It is a testament to the strength of the premise and the storytelling that this mere prequel could spawn fans of a franchise who would never be able to play the game itself, short of actually going to Japan and buying it. While there, one might wish to round out their Sakura Taisen collection with Hanagumi Taisen Columns (1997), a competitive column puzzle game.

Sakura Taisen 2: Kimi, Shinitamō Koto Nakare (in English Sakura Wars 2: Thou Shalt Not Die) was released on April 4, 1998, selling 650,00 copies in its first week and ultimately becoming the fifth best-selling game on the Sega Saturn and overall top grossing game of the Sakura Taisen series. It also had the most humourous commercial, starring one of the most popular video game mascots of all time, Segata Sanshiro. Played by Hiroshi Fujioka, lead actor in the legendary tokusatsu (special effects) TV series Kamen Rider, Segata Sanshiro was a parody of the Akira Kurosawa character Sugata Sanshiro and himself a play on words. The enunciation of "Segata Sanshiro" can sound like "Sega Saturn shiro", shiro (white) referring to the colour of the second edition of Sega Saturns. Segata Sanshiro's usual MO is feats of strength and beating up people who don't play Sega Saturn, but his heart changes when he meets Sakura.

A fairly typical Segata Sanshiro commercial,
for the game Saturn Bomberman Fight.

Commercial for Sakura Taisen 2.

Gameplay in Sakura Taisen 2 is more refined and complicated, as timing in dialogue events and new strategies in the combat portions takes greater importance. The story deftly fills in missing backstory from the first game and addresses critiques of it. A new group of villains and a pair of new members are introduced to the Hanagumi. These new members hail from the Hoshigumi, the European test group for the armoured suits, and have celestially influenced names in keeping with being members of the "Star Division." First is Soletta Orihime (named for the star Vega), a half-Japanese, half-Italian girl who is initially contemptuous of Japanese men, and the emotionless, logical German androgyne Reni Milchstrasse (named for the Milky Way).

Sakura Taisen 2's new suite of villains are the "Black Demon Society," apparently headed by Oni-Ou (Demon King), who hides his identity with a Hannya demon mask from Japanese Noh theatre. The five other members of the society are based on the five elements of Fusui, the Japanese version of Feng Shui: wood, gold, earth, fire, and water. But like the first game, the villains of Sakura Taisen 2 have an even greater threat lying behind them, which seems capable of systematically dismantling everything that the Teikoku Kagekidan has built. In the early chapters, the Hanagumi appear to lose their commanding officer to a sniper's bullet and have their financial backers back out, nearly forcing Sumire into an arranged marriage that would procure an heir for her family's zaibatsu (business conglomerate) and funding for the team.

This conspiracy plotline is a reaction against one of the major criticisms of the first game, which was its sometimes too sunny spirit of Taisho Roman. There is much that Sakura Taisen gets right about the setting of the Taisho Period, even down to the style of writing and grammar in the dialogue events. Yet the Japan they depict is a little too happily multicultural and the military a little too beneficent, more closely reflecting modern Japan and its Self-Defense Forces than the reality of the Taisho Period. Historically, this was a period of rising influence for the Imperial Japanese armed forces, which rode a wave of nostalgia for the military strength of the Meiji Period and a conservative reaction against Western cultural and philosophical influence. In Sakura Taisen, this was reflected in Tenkai and his forces of evil rather than the Japanese military. Sakura Taisen 2 puts it back where it belongs.

This conflict of loyalties is reflected in the game's subtitle Kimi, Shinitamō Koto Nakare, which draws from a poem by female Japanese poet Akiko Yosano. Published in 1904, it bemoaned her brother being sent to fight in the Russo-Japanese War. A partial translation reads:
O my young brother, I cry for you
Don't you understand you must not die!
You who were born the last of all
Command a special store of parents' love
Would parents place a blade in children's hands
Teaching them to murder other men
Teaching them to kill and then to die?
Have you so learned and grown to twenty-four?... 
O my brother, you must not die!
Could it be the Emperor His Grace
Exposeth not to jeopardy of war
But urgeth men to spilling human blood
And dying in the way of wild beasts,
Calling such death the path to glory?
If His Grace possesseth noble heart
What must be the thoughts that linger there?
At the time of publication, it was considered a grossly unpatriotic poem, but it gained mileage as an anti-war manifesto in the lead up to World War II.

Also in 1998, Sega released Sakura Taisen Teigeki Graph for the Saturn. Like Steam Radio Show, this had Ogami interacting with the girls in dialogue events and mini-games leading up to a grand performance of Sleeping Beauty (amusingly based on the 1959 Disney animated version). Soletta and Reni join in this one, which was the final Sakura Taisen release for the platform. Sega Saturn was phased into retirement when the Sega Dreamcast was itself released in 1998. Sakura Taisen and Sakura Taisen 2 were both imported to the new platform in 2000, as a preamble to Sakura Taisen 3: Pari wa Moeteiru ka (Sakura Wars 3: Is Paris Burning?) released in 2001. This game moved the action to Paris, France, where Ogami has moved to set up a new defense force. A year later, Sakura Taisen 4: Koi Seyo, Otome (Sakura Wars 4: Fall in Love, Maidens) was released, which combined the Tokyo and Paris troupes in what really amounted to a final farewell project. In between these, a wide range of spin-offs, tie-ins, and animations were created.

Opening to Sakura Taisen 3.

Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2 was released in 2000 for Dreamcast, as were the fan disks Ogami Ichiro Funtouki: Sakura Taisen Kayou Show "Benitokage" Yori, Sakura Taisen Kinematron Hanagumi Mail, and Sakura Taisen Online: Teito no Nagai Hibi and Sakura Taisen Online: Pari no Yuuka na Hibi in 2001. Jissen Pachinko Hisshouhou! CR Sakura Taisen was released on Playstation 2 in 2007. Two games were also released on Nintendo's Game Boy Color: Sakura Taisen GB: Geki, Hanagumi Nyuutai! (2002) and Sakura Taisen GB2: Thunder Bolt Sakusen (2001). Along with Sakura Taisen GB came Pocket Sakura, a virtual pet built on the same hardware as Nintendo's Pokémon Pikachu 2 GS (aka: Pocket Pikachu, 1999). The Sakura Taisen TV series, loosely adapting the first game, was released in 2000. The feature film, focusing on the Tokyo team after Ogami's departure was released in 2001. 2003 saw the OVA prequel to Sakura Taisen 3 and 2004 saw the OVA sequel to it. In 2002, Sumire Kanzaki's voice actress Michie Tomizawa was looking to retire, so a special OVA entitled Sakura Wars "Su~Mi~Re": Sumire Kanzaki Retirement Special was released to commemorate it. It was a testament to the power of the actresses and the live performances to capture the hearts of Japanese fans.

Around this same time, Sega announced the Sakura Taisen World Project, designed to bring the glories of Sakura Taisen to audiences around the world. Sadly, the project never accomplished the lofty goals it set out for itself of rebooting the franchise and re-releasing the original games overseas. A remake of the first game was made for Playstation 2 in 2003, updating the graphics, interface, and using the new combat system developed for Sakura Taisen 3. It became the subject of a longstanding and hilarious playthrough on the Something Awful Forum. The aforementioned manga was published in 2003 as well. The only game in the series to be released internationally was Sakura Taisen V: Saraba, Itoshiki Hito yo (Sakura Wars V: Farewell, My Love), which came out for Japanese Playstation 2 in 2005 and the Nintendo Wii and American Playstation 2 in 2010. The action follows Ogami's nephew Shinjiro Taiga as he works to establish a new Hoshigumi team in New York, with the help of original Hoshigumi leader Ratchet Altair. This was followed by Sakura Taisen V Episode 0: Kouya no Samurai Musume for Playstation 2 in 2004, and the RPG Dramatic Dungeon Sakura Taisen: Kimi aru ga tame for Nintendo 3DS in 2008. Unfortunately, by this time the shine had gone off the franchise. The last of the live action stage shows was in 2006, and in 2008, the Taisho Roman-style Sakura Taisen cafe and gift shop in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district closed after a decade of service (less than a year before my own trip to Japan!).

The most recent appearance of Sakura Taisen's cast has been in the RPG series Project X Zone for Nintendo 3DS. This mega-crossover series, begun in 2012, mixes characters from Sakura Taisen's many incarnations with characters from Tekken, Xenosaga, Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, Mega Man, Virtua Fighter, Ghosts n' Goblins, Captain Commando, Strider, and Phoenix Wright, among many others, in a manic adventure.

Sakura and Segata Sanshiro are reunited in Project X Zone 2 (2015).

Though having the option of buying a Sega Dreamcast and the complete box set of the first four Sakura Taisen games, I opted to purchase a Saturn instead, for two simple reasons. The first is my affection for vintage things, whether talking about Victorian Scientific Romances or retro video gaming. I wanted to play the original games and fan disks, circa 1990's. The second is that, having seen the associated OVA and feature film, I wasn't confident that the third, fourth, and eventually fifth Sakura Taisen games captured what I loved so much about the franchise. Though I am certainly a Francophile, as are many Japanese people, it was the distinctive rooting in Japanese culture that made Sakura Taisen so intriguing. The further it drifted from the purity of the concept, the less interesting it became to me, and apparently, Japan's own audiences.

For the curious person reading this as their first thorough treatment of Sakura Taisen, there is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is that, ultimately, if one wants to thoroughly experience the franchise, one needs to import a Japanese Sega Saturn or Dreamcast and the games. Translations are readily available online, so at least that isn't a problem. The good news is that there is still enough out there to get a sense of the bulk of the story. The Western fan is in a much better place now than I was in 1998, so far as that goes. The OVA are still available, and I would start with that first, as the prequel to the first game. Then one could track down the ill-fated Tokyo Pop manga in stores or online, and possibly even a fan translation of the remainder of the manga, if you're lucky. Though the project has stalled, one intrepid soul has posted English translations of the first game on YouTube, up to the end of episode 7 and the final battle with Tenkai. SakuraProject.info picks up afterwards with chapter-by-chapter summaries of Sakura Taisen 2 and 3.

Though it takes some work, tracking down Sakura Taisen is well worth it. My torch for the franchise is now in its 20th year, and not without reason. It perfectly captures everything that a modern Scientific Romance can and should be, with beautiful designs and interesting concepts deeply rooted in authentic Japanese culture and history. It is a triumph of the genre and a model for anyone working in it.

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