“Tits are life, ass is hometown.” So runs the catchphrase of Senran Kagura creator Kenichiro Takaki, and the unofficial tagline for the series as a whole.
While Takaki’s sentiments are refreshingly honest in a world of increasing political correctness — indeed, supposedly the only reason Senran Kagura exists at all is because Takaki wanted to see breasts on the glasses-free 3D screen of the Nintendo 3DS — in a way it’s a bit of a shame that so much emphasis has been placed on this aspect of the series. Not because fanservice-heavy media is inherently bad, of course — on the contrary, Senran Kagura represents a good example of how fanservice can be used to create a very distinctive look, feel, style and overall personality — but because for those less familiar with the series, that’s all they see.
And there is one hell of a lot more to Senran Kagura as a whole than just “life and hometown”. So let’s take some time to explore exactly what it is that makes this remarkable series tick, and why you should check it out if you’re not already a fan.
Senran Kagura’s overarching plot concerns the secret world of shinobi in modern-day Japan. Shinobi are divided into “good” and “evil” groups — “good” shinobi do work for the good of all, while “evil” shinobi take on work for the highest bidder, regardless of what it is.
The narrative concerns all the characters, with each undergoing their own personal story arc, conflict and rivalry with someone from the “other side”.
A key theme in the series as a whole is what, exactly, “good” and “evil” really mean, and if it really is possible to divide the world up into such simplistic categories. You probably don’t need me to tell you that no, of course it isn’t, but it’s the in-depth exploration of this theme that makes the Senran Kagura series as a whole particularly interesting.
The first game, Senran Kagura Burst, came out on Nintendo 3DS. Combining visual novel-style storytelling sequences with side-on, 2.5D brawler sequences that bring to mind classic arcade games such as Streets of Rage, Final Fight and their ilk, Burst introduced the rivalry that has been core to the overall narrative from the very beginning: the clashing ideologies of Hanzou National Academy — a regular-looking school that secretly harbours trainee “good” shinobi — and “evil” ninja school Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy.
The Senran Kagura series as a whole makes a point of telling its story — well, more accurately, stories, since there are numerous interweaving threads going on at any given time — from multiple perspectives. While Asuka and Homura (the respective leaders of Hanzou and Hebijo’s Elite classes) are generally positioned in marketing material as the protagonists of the series, the narrative concerns all of the characters, with each undergoing their own personal story arc, conflict and rivalry with someone from the “other side”. This is true both within an individual school, where each character gets roughly equal time in the limelight over the course of a playthrough, and in the games as a whole, which allow you to play as members of every group in a conflict, not just the “good guys”.
Burst handles these multiple perspectives by telling its overall story both from the perspective of the five Hanzou girls (which the game recommends players play first) and then the Hebijo girls. The two perspectives end up exploring the core themes with a markedly different tone, but ultimately end up in the same place from two different angles, reflecting the two sides having come to understand one another despite supposedly being on complete opposite sides of the morality spectrum.
Gessen’s story is a more melancholy affair, concerning how they come to terms with the shades of grey through which the world actually works.
This concept of understanding people who are different to you is further explored in Vita-based follow-up game Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus, which, in gameplay terms, abandons the 2.5D brawling in favour of open 3D arenas somewhat akin to a cross between Koei’s Warriors series and Final Fantasy fighting game Dissidia. The theme is explored in somewhat more detail thanks to the addition of two additional groups: Gessen Girls’ Academy (another “good” shinobi school) and the new Hebijo Elite class who replaced Homura’s group after they became the renegade “Crimson Squad” at the end of Burst.
What’s particularly interesting about Shinovi Versus is the very different tone and feel to each of the four stories told in the game. Hanzou’s story, for example, is upbeat, lively and positive in nature, reflecting the energetic nature of the girls and the things they learned about themselves over the course of Burst, but it also explores each of their pasts — their reasons for turning to the Path of the Shinobi — in greater detail than Burst did.
Gessen’s story, meanwhile, is a more melancholy affair. Each of the Gessen girls was adopted after a tragic event in their past, so they all have shared pain to deal with, and all are “damaged” in some way. These circumstances, combined with their somewhat sheltered upbringing as a result of their adoption, led them to take a very simplistic view of morality, and their story concerns how they come to terms with the shades of grey through which the world actually works.
Contrast with Hebijo’s story, which concerns pride, both in what you represent and in your own individuality. Despite being based around an “evil” school — and those inverted commas I’ve been using throughout this piece are deliberate, since “evil” is a very loaded term indeed — Hebijo’s story is very much about understanding one another, accepting people for who they are and letting go of ill-considered grudges. One of the most interesting core themes of Senran Kagura’s overall view on morality is that “good” can turn people away for “not being good enough”, while “evil” accepts everyone unconditionally; this philosophy is very much explored in Hebijo’s story.
A variety of relatable themes are explored in detail, including depression, bereavement, social isolation, imposter syndrome, femininity, self-expression, self-confidence, body image and maturity.
Finally, Crimson Squad’s story, which can’t be played until the previous three have been beaten unless you input an old-school cheat code, serves as a suitable wrap-up to all the themes that have been explored over the course of the other stories. Homura and her team learn the truth behind the good-evil divide and why shinobi seem to be perpetually in conflict with one another, even as they themselves have come to understand those on the “other” side. Elements of traditional Japanese mythology — specifically, a particular interpretation of yōma, or demonic monsters — are incorporated into the narrative having been introduced in the latter moments of Burst and hinted further at in Hebijo’s story. But even among all the chaos going on, Homura and her friends don’t forget about what’s become really important to them — companionship, friendship, understanding and even, it’s strongly implied, love.
Within each of these overall stories, too, as I previously mentioned, the individual characters each get some time in the limelight. And over the course of their own personal story arcs, a variety of relatable themes are explored in detail, including depression, bereavement, social isolation, imposter syndrome, femininity, self-expression, self-confidence, body image and maturity. And many of these themes are explored in further detail through the standalone — and often somewhat more light-hearted — “Shinobi Girl’s Heart” stories found in Shinovi Versus; these are set apart from the main narrative and each focuses exclusively on an individual character over the course of five episodes. Each character is well and truly put under the microscope.
So we’ve established that Senran Kagura’s story is much more than dumb pretty girls with large breasts kicking the shit out of each other for no discernible reason. But it’s worth acknowledging and addressing the sexual aspect, too, because Senran Kagura does explore sexual themes, though not necessarily in the way you might expect it to from the statement “tits are life, ass is hometown” — and not, I’d argue, in a way that is necessarily “problematic”, as progressive types love to say.
Senran Kagura takes a down-to-earth approach to sexuality that is firmly in keeping with its overall narrative themes of accepting people for who they really are.
I’ve already mentioned how the fanservicey aspect of Senran Kagura is embraced wholeheartedly as part of the game’s overall aesthetic, and indeed after playing the game for a while it becomes one of those things that is simply such an indisputable part of the overall experience that you almost stop noticing it. In much the same way as Bayonetta embraces its overt sexuality with provocative poses, camera angles and suchlike, so too does Senran Kagura.
In fact, one could argue that Senran Kagura explores sexuality in an even more interesting way than Bayonetta. Or, more accurately, a somewhat different way. Bayonetta is rife with symbolism, much of which is drawn from religious iconography and mythology, but tends not to get too literal or explicitly acknowledge its sexual aspects in its dialogue. Senran Kagura, meanwhile, takes a much more down-to-earth approach to sexuality that is firmly in keeping with its overall narrative themes of accepting people for who they really are. Not everyone is the same; not everyone likes the same things; not everyone dislikes the same things.
The exploration of sexuality throughout Senran Kagura takes a number of different forms. The most subtle angles come from the implied romantic (or, in a couple of cases, sexual) interest between several different members of the all-female cast. Rather than being treated as an OMG two girls like each other this is MASSIVE sort of situation, in most cases these are handled sensitively, even delicately. Yagyū’s interest in Hibari, for example — and the reasons for it, which are revealed during Hanzou’s story in Shinovi Versus — is downright touching at times, while the perpetually unresolved romantic tension between Asuka and Homura will have many players yelling “JUST KISS HER!” at the screen by the end of Shinovi Versus. (I may or may not have been one of them.)
The perpetually unresolved romantic tension between Asuka and Homura will have many players yelling “JUST KISS HER!” at the screen by the end of Shinovi Versus.
At the other end of the spectrum are characters such as Haruka from Crimson Squad and Ryōna from Hebijo, both of whom don’t so much as touch on S&M themes as jump headfirst into their fetishes. Haruka wears her “older sister” personality well and leverages this when she’s being dominant — though in contrast to the extremely submissive, masochistic Ryōna’s sadist sister Ryōbi you always get the impression that she’s being… well, it sounds strange to say this, but nice about it. (Ryōbi, meanwhile, is sadistic not so much in a sexual sense, but more in a remorseless, angry, violence-inflicting sort of way.)
Ryōna and Haruka develop something of an understanding over the course of Crimson Squad’s story in Shinovi Versus, with both coming to mutually respect one another and their tastes. Ryōna even goes so far as to thank Haruka for understanding and accepting her fetish — she explicitly calls it that for the first time in the whole game at this point — and Haruka, in turn goes on to promise that she’ll “play” with Ryōna whenever she wants, but that she should keep looking for that special someone who will accept and love every part of her unconditionally, without wanting her to change. In other words, what appears to start as simply provocative fanservice, again, turns out to be a rather touching moment.
Senran Kagura is packed full of moments like these, and the remarkable effect it has is that by the end of their stories you’re left with a thorough understanding of who these characters are, where they came from, what they’re aiming for and what it might be like to spend time with them. Each and every one of the 20 main cast members introduced throughout Burst and Shinovi Versus is explored in great detail — including their motivations, interests, tastes and one or two interesting, surprising facts. Not one character is there simply for “eye candy” purposes, even those designed in the most explicitly provocative manner. Not one character is “surplus to requirements” in narrative terms. And I defy anyone to play through these games and not come out of the other end with at least one “favourite” character — and at least one character that challenges them and their prejudices in some way, even if that leaves them with the feeling that they “dislike” them.
“Tits are life, ass is hometown”, then. These may be the words most readily associated with Kenichiro Takaki and Senran Kagura, and they may suggest a superficial, shallow interest in little more than the beauty of the female form. But spend some time among all that life and hometown and you’ll see a very different story: some of the most interesting, intriguing, flawed and relatable characters in gaming — all of whom are female, to boot — and some strong, compelling evidence that Takaki and his team have the utmost respect for these characters, what they represent and who they are, even when they’re in the most ridiculous, outlandish situations.
Isn’t that the sort of thing we should be celebrating in modern gaming?