‘Sengoku BASARA’: History in the Details

Game cover for the very first ‘Sengoku BASARA’

WARNING!: We will be talking about certain aspects of the games: Sengoku BASARA, Sengoku BASARA 2, Sengoku BASARA 3, and Sengoku BASARA 3: Utage. A spoiler warning is now in place.

In 2005, the video game company Capcom released Sengoku BASARA, a hack-n-slash that takes some of the biggest names of the Sengoku Jidai and places them in a historical fantasy setting.(1) This game series is one of the most popular games in Japan today, still going strong almost twenty years later. While it does fall more into the fantasy category, the beauty of Sengoku BASARA is that there is so much history in the small details of this game.(2) Since I no longer have my PlayStation 2 or 3, I will be giving a general review of the series from its beginnings to Sengoku BASARA 3: Utage. Much like my anime reviews, I do not look at the quality of the games; a lot of people have already reviewed the games in that fashion. I want to look at some the hidden historical “Easter eggs” that can be found in these older games.(3)

Sengoku BASARA takes place during the Sengoku Jidai and some of the era’s major names and battles are included within the game series. Each adaptation of the game deals with each of the Three Unifiers: Sengoku BASARA (2005) focuses on the reign of Oda Nobunaga, Sengoku BASARA 2 (2006) is the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and of course, Sengoku BASARA 3 (2010) which is a fantasy version of the Sekigahara Campaign with Tokugawa Ieyasu being one of the main characters. While the characters remain the same for every game, the storyline changes for every game. This means that the history behind the game is hidden in its details. Let us look at a few examples.

The Poster Boys

Date Masamune and Sanada Yukimura in ‘Sengoku BASARA 4″

Every video game series has their iconic character, or the poster boy (or girl). These typically are the main characters for the game and when it comes to the Sengoku BASARA series, that honor goes to Date Masamune and Sanada Yukimura. This is a surprising choice to have these two daimyō as the poster boys of the game rather than having any of the Three Unifiers (at least for the first few games). These two men are also rivals in the game, which is also surprising considering that they only met in battle once.(4) Despite the unusual rivalry, Capcom makes it work and this is mostly due to their contrasting personalities. Masamune, while a cocky man, tends to be very cool headed about things compared to Yukimura, who is very energetic and impulsive. Their views on fighting battles are completely different as well. Masamune sees battles as parties, while Yukimura holds the views of a traditional samurai when it comes to war. 

Looking at Date Masamune first, players will notice that he actually speaks some English in the game. While this could be a reflection of the only foreign language that is taught in Japanese schools, it could also be a reflection of the foreign influences that came about during the Sengoku Jidai. There are only a couple of other characters that have some English mixed in with Japanese: Ōtomo Sōrin and Xavier (the game’s personification of St. Francis Xavier who brought Christianity to Japan). Historically, Masamune was open to foreigners and even allowed foreigners into his city of Sendai.(5) This acceptance of foreigners historically might be another reason for Masamune’s broken English throughout the game. Masamune’s weapon of choice in the game are six katanas, known as the Dragon Claws. This is in reference to his nickname of “Dokuganryū”, or “One-Eyed Dragon”. Even the color of his outfit is similar to historical records which state that his army wore blue or green colored armor.(6)

Sanada Yukimura’s historical details are a little different. First, Yukimura never served Takeda Shingen personally. The Sanada clan did serve the Takeda clan, but the leader of the Sanada clan at this time was Yukimura’s father, Sanada Masayuki. Once the Takeda clan fell in 1582, the Sanada clan became independent.(7) Yukimura served under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but within the Sengoku BASARA series, he does not serve him but fights against him. He does side with Ishida Mitsunari when the Sekigahara Campaign becomes the main story in Sengoku BASARA 3. While true historically, the reasons for siding with the Western Army are different.(8) The coins that Yukimura wears around his neck are historically accurate. They were on his helmet and they make up the Sanada clan mon (crest). The coins represent the ready payment to cross the bridge into hell once they died.(9)

East vs. West

Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari in ‘Sengoku BASARA 3’

The next two characters that have risen in popularity since Sengoku BASARA 3 are Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari. In fact, they become the poster boys for the third installment in the franchise especially since they are the two most influential figures of the Sekigahara Campaign. These two men are night and day, literally. Ieyasu is represented by the sun while Mitsunari is represented by the moon. They meet at Sekigahara for the final battle, which is symbolized by a total solar eclipse.

Tokugawa Ieyasu is a cheerful man who wishes to bring total peace to Japan after Hideyoshi’s death. This is where the creators of the game play with history, for in the game, Ieyasu kills Hideyoshi because he went mad with power and Ieyasu did not support Hideyoshi’s rule anymore. While this is not historically accurate, it is accurate in another sense. After Hideyoshi died, Ieyasu began to take over the Toyotomi rule by himself, ignoring the wishes of the deceased Taikō who wanted his most trusted generals to work together to rule the country until his son became of age.

Meanwhile, Ishida Mitsunari feels betrayed by Ieyasu because he killed his lord. Again, going back to actual history, this is not too far off base, but it is different. Mitsunari was loyal to Hideyoshi and the Toyotomi clan as a whole, something that is reflected in the game. There is a major difference between the historical and fictional relationship that Ieyasu and Mitsunari had. Historically, there was bad blood between the two of them going back to the Korean Campaigns, which were only made worse after the death of Hideyoshi.(10) In the game, the two seem to be friends, and Ieyasu even mentions this in the dialogue during the Battle of Sekigahara. No matter how hard Ieyasu tried to rectify the situation between him and Mitsunari, he does not listen and only wants to kill him for his wrongdoing.

The Main Bosses

In most games, you have your heroes and then you have your villains. If one needed to pin down who the villains are in the Sengoku BASARA series, look no further than Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 

Oda Nobunaga resurrected in ‘Sengoku BASARA 3’

Oda Nobunaga strikes a frightening figure in Sengoku BASARA. The creators really focused on the “Demon King” nickname when bringing Nobunaga to life. It has been hinted that he is not really human at all and that he is an actual demon. When it comes to his appearance, it is pretty historically accurate. His armor is definitely more Western in fashion, meaning more European.(11) The sawed-off shotgun in his hand reflects how he embraced Western technologies, specifically, the arquebus. In the game, Nobunaga is killed by Akechi Mitsuhide, but is resurrected by a monk who looks very similar to Mitsuhide. This brings up a couple of points from history. The first is that the Oda clan did not entirely disappear after Nobunaga’s death and they tried to reestablish the clan.(12) As for the monk, this brings up the legend that Mitsuhide did not perish at Yamazaki, rather escaped and became a monk named Tenkai.(13)

Toyotomi Hideyoshi in ‘Sengoku BASARA 4’

Toyotomi Hideyoshi does not arrive to the video game series until the second installment in the franchise, which makes sense considering that he is the second of the Three Unifiers. It is unusual to see Hideyoshi being thrown into the role of a villain, yet Capcom has made him that way. Looking at history and then the game, it is easy to see how Hideyoshi can be portrayed as a villain. First there is notorious appearance. He was given the nickname of monkey due to his appearance and this has been carried over into the video game.(14) He is also a giant compared to other characters in the game, save Honda Tadakatsu. This might have to do with the size of Hideyoshi’s ambitions. He wanted to expand outside of Japan, looking to take on the whole world, to create an empire. His enormous size reflects how big his dreams for conquest really were. Hideyoshi is a man who values strength above all else, which again, mirrors his historical counterpart. He allied himself with the strongest that Japan had to offer while destroying those who were weak. Hideyoshi wanted a land under warrior rule, and he almost had it.

The Catalyst: The Villain of the Warring States

Matsunaga Hisahide (center) crashing the Battle of Sekigahara in ‘Sengoku BASARA 3: Utage’

In every game, and every historical event, there is a moment that sets into motion everything else that is set to come. For the Sengoku Jidai, this is actually hard to pinpoint, but most historians agree that it is the Ōnin War. Despite this, Sengoku BASARA points the catalyst to be Matsunaga Hisahide, known in the game as “The Villain of the Warring States”. Looking at Matsunaga from a historical standpoint, it seems unclear as to why he is given this title in the fictional game, yet, we can find a plausible cause within the finer details.(15)

Despite his first appearance being in Sengoku BASARA 2 Heroes (2007), Matsunaga finally became a playable character in Sengoku BASARA 3: Utage and his popularity matches the likes of Date Masamune and Sanada Yukimura. It is revealed in this game that he is the cause fo the entirety of the Sengoku Jidai (in the game). His story mode explains that at one point, Matsunaga met Hideyoshi in battle once and defeated him. This led to Hideyoshi’s obsession with strength and he would eventually murder his wife, Nene, for he saw love as a weakness. Hideyoshi’s actions caused Ieyasu to betray him which resulted in Hideyoshi’s death. This led to Mitsunari seeking vengeance which ultimately led to the Battle of Sekigahara. Matsunaga even had a hand in the resurrection of Nobunaga. Matsunaga wiped Mitsuhide’s memory, turning into the monk known as Tenkai, so that he could bring Nobunaga back from the dead. The only reason Matsunaga wanted Nobunaga brought back from the dead was so that he could kill Nobunaga himself for the destruction of his precious tea kettle.(16) Claiming that Matsunaga Hisahide is the catalyst for the Sengoku Jidai is not such a far fetched idea. Historically, Matsunaga did lead a coup against Ashikaga Yoshiteru which resulted in the shōgun’s death. This gave Nobunaga the excuse he needed to take the capital, all in the name of restoring the shogunate. After Nobunaga’s death, Hideyoshi took over and thus caused problems between him and Ieyasu because of Hideyoshi’s power grab. To top it all off, after Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu took over, resulting in Mitsunari calling him a traitor and leading to the Battle of Sekigahara.

Sengoku BASARA has been doing well as a franchise for almost twenty years. While it has not really caught the attention of Western audiences all that well, it is the huge popularity in Japan that keeps it going. With each game that comes out, players are introduced to new characters and new storylines. Yet, hidden behind the flashy colors and fantasy elements lies a hint of truth to the characters and their stories. The history of the Sengoku Jidai has not been forgotten in Sengoku BASARA. It has just been hidden within the finer details to help create their fictional realm.

Sources

  1. Sengoku BASARA”. https://sengokubasara.fandom.com/wiki/Sengoku_BASARA, (last viewed 5/10/2021)
  2. Sengoku BASARA has been in made into an anime, which will be reviewed soon, and for the review on the anime film, click here.
  3. Any Sengoku BASARA games that became available for the PlayStation 4 will be reviewed individually at a later date.
  4. They did not personally meet one another, but their armies met one another at the Sieges of Ōsaka Castle in 1614 and 1615. 
  5. Sharpe, Michael. Samurai Leaders from the Tenth to the Nineteenth Century (2008). p. 31
  6. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000). p. 33
  7. “Sanada clan”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanada_clan, (last visited 5/10/2021)
  8. Sanada Yukimura’s wife was Ōtani Yoshitsugu’s daughter. Yoshitsugu served under Mitsunari, which is most likely the reason for Yukimura’s allegiance to the Western Army.
  9. “Samurai family emblem—Sanada clan”, https://steemit.com/samurai/@crazycatuncle/samurai-family-emblem-sanada-clan, (last visited 5/10/2021)
  10. It was mainly a distrust. Ieyasu was slowly gaining more power after Hideyoshi’s death and Mitsunari tried to stop him, usually in the form of assassination attempts.
  11. “Oda Nobunaga”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oda_Nobunaga, (last visited 5/10/2021)
  12. “Oda clan”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oda_clan, (last visited 5/10/2021)
  13. “Tenkai”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenkai, (last visited 5/10/2021)
  14. “Toyotomi Hideyoshi”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyotomi_Hideyoshi, (last visited 5/10/2021)
  15. I will be covering this in more detail in an upcoming article.
  16. “Matsunaga Hisahide”, https://sengokubasara.fandom.com/wiki/Matsunaga_Hisahide, (last visited 5/10/2021). For more information of Matsunaga Hisahide and his favorite tea kettle, Hiragumo, check out this article.