The Senran Kagura series has a particularly striking aesthetic that makes it instantly recognisable — and this is the work of not only its visuals, but its soundtrack, too.
Combining the distinctive character designs of artist Nan Yaegashi with a delightfully rockin’ (and varied) soundtrack, Senran Kagura clearly has a keen awareness of the fact that successful series consider their identities carefully. While it clearly isn’t on the same scale in terms of budget as today’s most lavish triple-A titles, what it does do within the constraints of its medium, console hardware, game engine and presentation style is a significant factor in what makes it one of the most fondly regarded Japanese franchises out there.
Senran Kagura Estival Versus is the most impressive installment to date — and while it shines on the lovely screen of the Vita, it’s an absolute delight to behold on a big TV thanks to the PS4 version.
It’s between Senran Kagura and Evenicle that Yaegashi seems to have pinned down his most distinctive style of character design.
Character designer Yaegashi is perhaps best-known for Senran Kagura these days, but he’s been rather prolific in the Japanese visual novel business for quite some time, albeit under a number of different pen names. Prior to 2009, much of his work was performed for Da Capo creators Circus under the name Mochi Chinochi. As Chinochi, Yaegashi designed characters for the visual novels Home Maid and Da Capo II as well as working on the art for a number of Da Capo II spinoffs and fandiscs, Japan-only role-playing game Eternal Fantasy and some of Circus’ more “specialised” titles for their Circus Fetish brand.
More recently, Yaegashi worked on a pornographic parody of Ore no Imouto Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai (My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute) in which he was responsible for the art of main female character Kirino, and as a guest character designer on historical RPG Eiyuu*Senki GOLD. His most recent work outside of the Senran Kagura series was as one of three artists on the adult RPG Evenicle for Alice Soft, and it’s between Senran Kagura and Evenicle that Yaegashi seems to have pinned down his most distinctive style of character design.
While sharing some features in common with stereotypical moe character designs — big eyes, exaggerated body features, hair colour and style as a key identifying characteristic, basic personality clearly reflected in the character’s “default” facial expression — Yaegashi’s most recent art is immediately recognisable, and many have commented on the strong similarities between Evenicle’s and Senran Kagura’s visuals.
Yaegashi characters tend to use strong, bright colours, both for their skin tones and their clothing, and these colours contrast strongly with the backdrops on which they’re presented.
The distinctiveness of Yaegashi’s designs is down to a number of visual aspects, most notably to do with colour. Yaegashi characters tend to use strong, bright colours, both for their skin tones and their clothing, and these colours are generally inclined to contrast strongly with the backdrops on which the characters are presented. This isn’t to say that the backdrops they’re placed on are drab and dull, mind you; no-one would look at either Senran Kagura or Evenicle and say that they weren’t bursting with colour.
Rather, both backdrops and foreground characters use bright colours, but ones which stand out clearly against one another. In the case of Estival Versus, the fact that a lot of the action takes place on the beach allows for the deep blue of the ocean to present a strong and striking contrast with the pale white of most of the girls’ skin tones (Homura excepted, given that one of her most striking physical attributes is her tanned skin) and the white swimsuits that they’re presented wearing in the game’s introduction sequence. There are also a number of girls who wear outfits that contrast strongly with their skin tones; Murasaki and Mirai’s black Gothic dresses are the polar opposite of their porcelain skin, for example, while Homura’s default casual outfit of a white T-shirt and blue jeans stands out against her darker skin tone.
Another key aspect of Yaegashi’s designs — and the artwork used in the Senran Kagura series that channels Yaegashi’s work, since the series has a very consistent art style despite using a number of different artists throughout — is the use of shading, or the relative lack thereof. One of the most immediately recognisable aspects of Senran Kagura’s aesthetic is the fact that the characters are mostly flat-shaded, with little in the way of shadow — a strong contrast with more stereotypical moe artwork, particularly for games, which tends to use flowing lines and a wide range of colour tones that blend smoothly from dark to light and vice-versa.
It’s certainly true that the cel-shaded polygonal characters reflect the original style of Yaegashi’s designs remarkably well.
At most, Yaegashi’s characters are presented with a slight flush to their cheeks (and upper side of their bosom, where visible) but otherwise, skin tones are mostly uniform, with shadow used sparingly to denote depth rather than reflect the lighting in a scene. This further enhances the feeling of the characters standing out against their backdrops, particularly in circumstances where the background is darker, and puts the focus squarely on the people involved in the story rather than where the story is taking place — entirely appropriate for Senran Kagura’s narrative structure, which is extremely character-centric.
It’s possible that this style of character design is partly for technical reasons — in other words, to produce a consistent aesthetic between the real-time 3D character models used in gameplay and dialogue sequences, and the 2D artwork used in visual novel segments. Whether or not this is the case, it’s certainly true that the cel-shaded polygonal characters reflect the original style of Yaegashi’s designs remarkably well; coupled with excellent animation and immediately identifiable silhouettes, this allows Senran Kagura to boast a huge ensemble cast of entirely unique characters who look, act and behave recognisably distinct from one another.
Senran Kagura’s distinctive aesthetic isn’t just the work of its visuals, though; its soundtrack also contributes immensely to the overall personality of the series. Broadly speaking, the series makes use of the kind of vaguely Gothic prog-rock that longtime Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane was most famous for — indeed, a number of Senran Kagura tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a Castlevania game, despite Yamane not being involved with the score — but this is a bit of an oversimplification, because the music tracks on display throughout the game also contribute considerably to characterisation and setting.
There are several basic types of music track in Senran Kagura: music for event scenes, music for specific levels and music for specific characters. Of these types, the character themes are the most interesting, because of the variety of styles on display: the themes can be further subdivided according to the several different groups of characters that make up the main cast.
The Japanese cultural influences blend with more modern instruments to produce a sound that is eminently suitable for the girls of Hanzo.
The “good” shinobi of Hanzō have the most traditionally Japanese-sounding music, making use of authentic instruments such as the shakuhachi, koto and shamisen. These Japanese cultural influences are blended with more modern instruments such as electric guitars and drum kits to produce a sound that is eminently suitable for the girls of Hanzō: appropriately respectful of tradition while simultaneously leading a fulfilling life in the modern world.
It’s worth noting that even within these constraints there’s a considerable amount of variety in Hanzō’s soundtrack, though; Hibari’s candy-coloured theme perfectly reflects her bubbly personality, while the somewhat Gothic tones of Ikaruga’s theme are very much in keeping with her rather serious personality and most traditionally “Japanese” appearance in the cast.
Minori’s use of the finale from Carnival of the Animals is perfect; the speed of the main melody and its overall joyful tone reflects her childish personality.
The “good” shinobi of Gessen, meanwhile, have a more traditional Western flavour to their themes thanks to the adoption of numerous Western classical melodies as the base motifs on which their songs are based; fitting due to Gessen’s Western-style uniforms and relatively sheltered, protected upbringing by their adoptive grandfather Kurokage.
Gessen’s base themes have been carefully selected to correspond appropriately to the characters’ personalities, though. Minori’s use of the finale from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals is perfect, for example; the speed of the main melody and the overall joyful tone of it reflects her childish, energetic personality wonderfully. Contrast with Yumi’s use of Mozart’s Lacrimosa as the basis for her theme; the inherent tragedy of the source material fits perfectly with Yumi’s typically serious approach to life, and the fact that behind her façade of strength lies great sadness at the loss of her grandfather.
Crimson Squad afforded the sound team the greatest opportunity to express themselves, since they were seemingly unconstrained by having to make use of traditional elements — much as Crimson Squad themselves are unconstrained.
Many of the themes for Homura’s Crimson Squad are the most obviously “gamey”, featuring electronic instrumentation, modern structures and sounds, and a strong emphasis on catchy melodic hooks. The lack of traditional elements — be they the Japanese instrumentation of Hanzō’s themes or the classical influences of Gessen’s tunes — reflects Crimson Squad’s ostracisation from shinobi society following the events at the conclusion of Senran Kagura Burst: they don’t quite fit in anywhere, but they’re still trying to do what they believe to be the right thing.
It feels like Crimson Squad afforded the sound team the greatest opportunity to express themselves on the whole soundtrack, since they were seemingly unconstrained by having to make use of traditional elements — much as Crimson Squad, as renegades, are unconstrained by the limitations of being “good” or “evil” shinobi. The result of this is that Crimson Squad’s section of the overall soundtrack is, in many ways, the most diverse and interesting part, ranging from Yomi’s relatively relaxed four-on-the-floor dance beat to Homura’s hard rockin’ number, which wouldn’t sound out of place in another game’s boss fight.
The Hebijo girls are, in many ways, set up to be the most tormented and troubled in the cast, which naturally leads to them having the most aggressive, punchy and relentless themes.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack for Crimson Squad’s successors at Hebijo is the most consistently hard rock, bordering on metal territory in places. As the resident “evil” characters, the Hebijo girls are, in many ways, set up to be the most tormented and troubled in the cast, which naturally leads to them having the most aggressive, punchy and relentless themes.
Even the theme for Ryōna who, despite her masochistic nature, is probably the most “light-hearted” (for want of a better term) of the Hebijo characters reflects this, although the comedic aspects of her character are acknowledged with a shift to a major-key melody on synth and lead guitar partway through.
The Mikaruga Sisters’ themes combine energetic taiko drumming with electronic dance beats and synthesised sounds.
Finally, the themes for the Mikaruga Sisters all, like Hanzō, incorporate traditional Japanese influences, with the taiko drums that Renka uses during many of her attacks being the most prominent. This neatly reflects not only Renka’s weapons, but the overall Japaneseness of the three girls in general; their standard outfits are based on traditional miko shrine maiden attire, and Hanabi (whose name literally means “fireworks”) makes use of traditional Japanese fireworks during many of her attacks.
Rather than combining the distinctive Japanese sounds with rock themes as in Hanzō’s case, though, the Mikaruga Sisters’ themes combine energetic taiko drumming with electronic dance beats and synthesised sounds, creating a sound that is modern, in keeping with tradition, and above all, highly representative of the somewhat chaotic, energetic nature of the Sisters’ respective personalities.
All in all then, while Senran Kagura is primarily known for the more provocative elements of its aesthetic, this isn’t a cheap production that has had no effort put into it. Everything about that aesthetic is in service of creating a consistent, distinctive and immediately recognisable look and feel for the series — and that has been the case since the very first installment. Between the games’ always-rockin’ soundtracks, Yaegashi’s character designs, the excellent work the 3D artists have done in capturing Yaegashi’s work in polygonal form and the wonderful, personality-filled animations of said 3D models, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Senran Kagura is a series that is entirely unique in look and feel — and one which I sense we most certainly haven’t seen the last of yet.
More about Senran Kagura: Estival Versus
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Estival Versus is available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.