Senran Kagura: An Almost-Comprehensive Look at Gessen’s Use of Classical Music

The Gessen girls, introduced in Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus on PlayStation Vita and pretty much a fixture ever since, are certainly a distinctive lot.

Taking a rather different approach to being “good” shinobi than Asuka and friends at Hanzou National Academy, the students of Gessen Girls’ Academy learned everything they know about the world from their adoptive “grandfather” Kurokage.

And that includes their musical tastes, which is reflected in the games’ soundtracks; Gessen girls’ themes make extensive use of Western art music. So I thought that might be interesting to take a closer look at.

Yumi

As the “leader” of the Gessen crew — and, if you listen to some people, the new “face” of the series having shunted Asuka aside — Yumi cuts a striking figure with her alabaster skin, her piercing icy blue eyes… and her obsession with cuteneth, puri.

While her narratives in Shinovi and Estival Versus helped her come to terms with her grief over the loss of Kurokage, she still clearly carries great sadness around in her heart. Which, naturally, is reflected in her music.




For Master Kurokage from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

Her theme from Shinovi Versus, “For Master Kurokage”, is based on the Dies Irae movement of Mozart’s famous Requiem — widely regarded as one of the most powerful, mournful compositions ever created. And even more so given the context: Mozart died at the age of just 35 before he was able to complete it, though the work was completed a year later by German composer Süssmayr.

 

Dies Irae from Requiem by W. A. Mozart

“Dies Irae” translates to “Day of Wrath” or “Day of Judgement”, and is thus eminently fitting for Yumi’s outlook on morality and that of the Gessen girls in general, at least at the outset of Shinovi Versus. While the Hanzou girls always make an effort to understand their opponents — which leads to them developing an initially uneasy but subsequently very close and genuine friendship with their rivals in Hebijo/Crimson Squad — Kurokage taught the Gessen girls the rather Biblical lesson that evil is evil and should be destroyed at all costs, regardless of consequences.



Grandfather's Wish from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

Yumi’s Estival Versus theme actually combines two pieces of music together: firstly, there’s another extract from Requiem, in this case the Lacrimosa, but this is also combined with the “Aquarium” movement from Camille Saint-Saëns The Carnival of the Animals.



Lacrimosa from Requiem by W. A. Mozart


Aquarium from The Carnival of the Animals by C. Saint-Saëns

The Lacrimosa, like Dies Irae, comes from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass and continues the theme of “judgement”. Rather than wrath, however, Lacrimosa (which translates to “weeping”) is a more mournful affair that tends to be associated with Mary, mother of Jesus. This is, once again, very suitable for Yumi, who, despite appearances, occasionally shows herself to have deep sorrow in her heart.

As for the addition of Aquarium from The Carnival of the Animals to the mix, there are a few main reasons for this. Firstly, all of Estival Versus’ character themes are associated with the concept of “festivals” in some way — the game itself is set during a twist on a traditional Japanese bon festival, after all — and this is particularly true for Gessen’s themes. “Carnival” is another word for “festival” — pretty simple stuff.

However, there’s another layer to it; Yumi’s mastery of ninjutsu is associated with the ice element and, as any good scientist will tell you, ice is made of water. Also pretty simple. But when put together we have a nice combination of musical factors that reflect Yumi’s history and personality rather nicely.

Shiki

Shiki is an interesting character — and obviously presented a significant challenge for XSEED’s localisers when bringing Shinovi Versus and its follow-ups West! This is because rather than using standard, formal Japanese, she speaks in a vernacular typically associated with the fashion-conscious, heavily made-up gyaru subculture, which doesn’t have a direct analogue in English. What is pretty close, however, is the stereotypical “Valley Girl” accent and dialect as popularised by American popular media, so that’s what she’s stuck with in the English localisation.

On top of that, it seems that while Kurokage was still part of the Gessen girls’ life, he wanted Shiki to learn English in order to appear more “fancy” — and perhaps to tone down her gyaru-ness. In the English translation, this was switched to her learning French — a common swap when localising this sort of thing — though if you listen to the voices you can clearly hear her bellowing various phrases in broken English on occasion. She is, after all, pretty Japanese ninja.



For Serious from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

Shiki’s theme in Shinovi Versus is based on the first movement, Allegro non molto, from Winter, the fourth of Vivaldi’s cycle of violin concerti, The Four Seasons. The connection here might not be readily apparent, since the gyaru subculture is, you might say, not particularly associated with the more “artistic” or “cultural” side of things… but read on.



Winter from The Four Seasons by A. Vivaldi

In order to understand why Shiki’s themes in general tend to have something to do with seasons, one need only look at the kanji that make up her name: 四季 (shi ki), which translate directly and literally to “four seasons”. Pretty straightforward. And the choice of Winter specifically in Shinovi Versus may be a reference to both her classmate Yumi’s ice association — or the fact that some of the levels in that game are covered in snow. Or perhaps it’s just a cool theme whose energy fits Shiki nicely.



Cookin' is a Piece of Cake! from Senran Kagura Bon Appetit

Shiki’s theme in Senran Kagura Bon Appetit follows the “four seasons” rule again, but this time rather than drawing from Vivaldi’s famous set of concerti, it instead makes use of one of Mendelssohn’s collection of solo piano pieces, Songs Without Words. This was an ongoing project throughout Mendelssohn’s life and career, and ultimately ended up consisting of eight volumes of six “songs” each.



Spring Song from Songs Without Words by F. Mendelssohn

Shiki’s “song” here is based on Spring Song, the sixth song from Mendelssohn’s 62nd opus, and a melody sometimes known as Camberwell Green after the area of London where it was composed. The cheerful major key of the melody fits Shiki’s personality to a tee, though Bon Appetit’s interpretation is rather more energetic than the fairly sedate original!



Je Suis La Ninja Japonaise from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

The original source for Shiki’s Estival Versus theme was tricky to track down, but we had some clues and patterns to go on. The combination of “four seasons” and “festival” leads to one piece of music in particular: Tchaikovsky’s February from his The Seasons cycle of piano pieces, which is also known as Carnival.



February - Carnival from The Seasons by P. I. Tchaikovsky

This is another piece that fits rather nicely with Shiki’s overall style and personality; its loose association with late winter is a callback to her Shinovi Versus track, while its energetic, chaotic nature reflects her somewhat unpredictable, joyous personality. It’s perhaps not as well known a piece as her other tracks, but it’s definitely very fitting.

Murakumo

Murakumo is a study in contrasts. When masked, her voice is deep, ominous and imposing; when unmasked, it is high-pitched and squeaky as her true, shy personality comes to the fore. Her musical themes reflect the harsh, aggressive front she puts up to the world in an attempt to keep herself safe — and also the fact that she is passionate about her hobby of drawing action-packed manga.



Masked Princess from Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus

In Shinovi Versus, Murakumo’s theme is based on Prokofiev’s Dance of the Pagan Monster from his Scythian Suite. The suite as a whole was originally intended as a score for a ballet, but when it was rejected, the composer reworked it into a self-contained orchestral suite, creating a spectacular and influential set of instrumental pieces in the process.



Dance of the Pagan Monster from Scythian Suite by S. Prokofiev

It’s a dramatic piece that most certainly calls to mind the monstrous ogre mask that Murakumo almost perpetually hides her face behind, and reflects the fact that she does her best to intimidate her enemies through her Sengoku-inspired attire in general. It gets to a point where everyone is wise to this, however, but most people respect Murakumo’s anxiety and desire to remain masked for the majority of the time; removing Murakumo’s mask against her will is one of the most shocking things you can do in a Senran Kagura game!



I Got It! -Fusion of Sci-Fi and Cooking- from Senran Kagura Bon Appetit

Murakumo’s theme in Bon Appetit reflects both the intimidating facade she tries to maintain with her mask, and her personal narrative of attempting to come up with a new twist on a science fiction story for her latest manga. What better way to blend these elements than with Holst’s Planets suite?



Mars from The Planets by G. Holst

One of the most recognisable parts of The Planets that can be clearly heard in Murakumo’s Bon Appetit theme is Mars, Bringer of War. This dramatic, stirring piece of music was extremely influential on a lot of modern soundtrack composers — fans of John Williams’ work in particular will recognise a lot of distinctly Star Wars-esque harmonies in this!



Jupiter from The Planets by G. Holst

Almost as recognisable is Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity — or more specifically, the latter section of that piece, which is perhaps better known as the hymn I Vow To Thee, My Country, which Holst also composed by excising this specific section and tweaking it slightly to fit the lyrics of a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice. One can easily interpret Murakumo’s adoption of tradition Sengoku-era dress in her Shinobi Transformation form as being patriotic — and I Vow To Thee, My Country is regarded as a highly patriotic song, particularly associated with Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom.



My Vow from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

Murakumo’s theme from Estival Versus was a little trickier to pinpoint the source(s) of than her previous tracks, since the melodic lines are a little harder to pick out. It seems to be commonly agreed to be based at least partially on Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, a dramatic and terrifying orchestral piece made particularly famous by Disney’s Fantasia, but the opening harmonies and dramatic chords are straight out of Sibelius’ patriotic celebration piece, Finlandia.



Night on Bald Mountain by M. Mussorgsky


Finlandia by J. Sibelius

Of these pieces, Finlandia is the most in keeping with the “festival” theme of Estival Versus, since it was literally composed for a “celebration” of sorts — or more accurately, an event called the Press Celebrations, which was actually a covert protest against the encroaching censorship of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Finland, it seems, had its fair share of problems with Russia, so in revenge they developed a language that consisted entirely of consonants and umlauts to deter further invasions.

Once again, we can make a tenuous link to patriotism here; Finlandia is a composition filled with national pride, and a section of it was later adapted into a patriotic hymn that remains one of the country’s most important national songs to this day. Murakumo, of course, knows little of Finland’s struggles, but it’s clear that somewhere beneath that mask, she’s deeply proud of her Japanese heritage.

Yozakura

Yozakura is the “mother” of the Gessen group; she tries her best to be the most responsible, and is often depicted taking care of them by doing housework, chores and cooking. Indeed, her primary motivation in Bon Appetit is simply to be able to feed her friends and keep everyone happy.



Floral Freedom from Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus

Her Shinovi Versus theme is probably one of the most recognisable: it’s very, very obviously based on Beethoven’s incredibly famous “Moonlight” sonata for piano — specifically, its iconic first movement.



Adagio Sostenuto from Sonata Quasi Fantasia by L. V. Beethoven

This is, in many ways, the perfect Gessen piece, since it reflects the sadness present in all the girls’ hearts at the loss of their adoptive grandfather and the fact that they have been left in a hostile world to find their own way and determine how best to approach the fight for “good”. For Yozakura specifically, it’s very appropriate because her name’s kanji (夜桜) translate to “cherry blossoms at night”.



My Ultimate Feast from Senran Kagura Bon Appetit

Yozakura’s Bon Appetit track might not immediately appear to have any particular influences from Western art music, instead sounding somewhat more like a Latin dance party — with perhaps a hint of one of the themes from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2, though not enough for me to feel confident saying that as a fact. But let it proceed into its distinctive third segment and you’ll hear a very famous piece of music: Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite of piano pieces.



Golliwogg's Cake-Walk from Children's Corner by C. Debussy

The term “Golliwogg” tends not to be used these days due to its racist implications, but one could argue its inherent political incorrectness can be seen as a reflection of how Yozakura has a tendency to slip into foul-mouthed Kansai dialect whenever she gets mad or flustered. She doesn’t get outright racist, mind you, but she still comes out with a few things that might make you blush.

Instead, it’s perhaps better to focus on the larger work that Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk is part of: Children’s Corner, a set of six piano pieces that Debussy wrote in order to reflect various aspects of childhood. Looking at it in this way, we can interpret Yozakura’s adoption of this theme as an attempt to enjoy the childhood she never really got to have fun with — and the way that she, in many ways, sees the other Gessen girls as her “children” at times.



Ready to Say Goodbye from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

Yozakura’s Estival Versus theme, meanwhile, leans hard on the festival angle with an energetic piece one can imagine a tightly choreographed — perhaps even ritualistic — dance unfolding to. And, indeed, it is based on a piece quite simply called Ritual Fire Dance.



Ritual Fire Dance by M. de Falla

The piece was popularised by composer Manuel de Falla’s own piano arrangement, but it was originally an orchestral piece composed for a ballet called El amor brujo (or The Bewitched Love). The scene in which the piece appears sees a young girl haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, and her performance of a ritual dance in order to reveal and exorcise him.

This is, essentially, what the plot of Estival Versus as a whole is all about: each of the girls are carrying around the pain of someone important that they have lost, and the overall aim of the event that they find themselves participating in is to allow them to let go of this grief from the past.

Minori

Finally, we come to Minori, the most childlike member of the Gessen cast — and a character who plays host to some of the most recognisable, memorable themes in the series.



Let's Play! from Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus

Minori’s theme from Shinovi Versus is immediately recognisable, even if you might not be able to actually name it immediately. If it’s on the tip of your tongue, let me put you out of your misery: it’s the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite.



Russian Dance from The Nutcracker Suite by P. I. Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker suite is home to some of the most memorable themes in all of Western art music, and is very strongly associated with the Christmas period. Given Minori’s child-like behaviour and love of playing, this is eminently suitable for her personality, since it brings to mind mental associations of traditional toys and joyful, innocent play — certainly a far cry from the world of shinobi.



3 Minutes of Hustle and Bustle Cooking from Senran Kagura Bon Appetit

Minori’s Bon Appetit theme was driving me nuts because it’s one of those pieces I know the sound of really well, but wasn’t sure I’d ever actually really known the name of. It turns out I was correct in that regard; I was completely unfamiliar with both the composer and the original name, even though I could happily sing along with this joyful little tune. To once again put you out of your misery, it is known as Parade of the Tin Soldiers by Leon Jessel.



Parade of the Tin Soldiers by L. Jessel

Leon Jessel was a German composer who ended up tortured and killed by the Gestapo because he stood up to the Nazis in the late ’30s and early ’40s. So that’s a nice and cheery thought. However, this piece — by far the most well-known of his compositions — is very much associated with Christmas, so if you don’t think too much about the “tortured and killed” part, it’s a rather jolly little number that fits Minori very well.



Watch Me! from Senran Kagura Estival Versus

And appropriately enough, the last piece for today — Minori’s theme from Estival Versus — is based on the Finale movement from Camille Saint-Saëns The Carnival of the Animals, providing a nice bookend to what we’ve looked at today after Yumi’s theme also incorporated elements of this delightful cycle of tunes.



Finale from The Carnival of the Animals by C. Saint-Saëns

The Finale of Carnival of the Animals is a wonderfully joyful, energetic number that brings the whole thing to a dramatic close while incorporating elements of most of the preceding movements. Whether played by full orchestra or piano duet, it’s a masterpiece of organised chaos — and few would say it’s not a fitting way for us to wrap up today’s exploration of Gessen’s themes and their links to Western art music.

There. Hopefully that puts all that to rest. Although if anyone can figure out what — if anything — Yumi’s theme in Bon Appetit is based on, I’m all ears!


More about Senran Kagura

The music used in this article remains the copyright of its respective owners, and is included here for the purposes of analysis and explanation.

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3 thoughts on “Senran Kagura: An Almost-Comprehensive Look at Gessen’s Use of Classical Music”

  1. This is a fantastic post and I like it a lot! (I’ve read a few of your posts and I always enjoy them, as someone who is sometimes tangentially into the kind of games you cover but has never got properly into them, but I feel compelled just to let you know that I really enjoyed this one.)

    Liked by 1 person

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