Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal: Within the Depths of Shadow

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The very first release in the Senran Kagura series — one we didn’t get here in the West — focused exclusively on the Hanzou girls’ narrative, which we discussed in detail last time.

It wasn’t until the expanded rerelease Senran Kagura Burst — which we did get in the West, and which forms the basis for Burst Re:Newal — that we got the opportunity to see things from the “other side” by spending some time among the Hebijo girls.

It’s this particular character arc — along with the two optional DLC stories that involve Gessen’s Yumi and Miyabi of “New Hebijo” respectively — that we’ll be exploring in depth today.

“Every light casts a shadow,” reads the opening narration to the Hebijo arc. “That is the basic principle of Yin and Yang. And yet, even within the depths of shadow, there is still both darkness and light.”

This concept is absolutely a guiding principle of the whole series, and it all started with these narratives in the very first game. Despite using terms like “good” and “evil” that are typically regarded as absolutes, the world of Senran Kagura is very much one filled with shades of grey; “good” and “evil”, as several of the girls comment throughout the narrative of Burst Re:Newal, is more a matter of who employs you rather than what you’re actually doing in most cases.

This is particularly apparent when it comes to Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy, home of Homura, Hikage, Yomi, Mirai and Haruka at the outset of Burst Re:Newal. The school was, we are told, founded upon the principle that “where good favours few, evil accepts all” and, despite being a school singularly dedicated to raising evil shinobi, actually ends up being the last refuge for those who have nowhere else to go; those who have, as the opening narration puts it, “turned their backs to yang”.

The Hebijo arc opens by introducing several of the main characters. Haruka is positioned as someone who has been in the school’s Elite shinobi programme since before the story began, but as we proceed through the opening episodes we witness the arrival of Hikage, Yomi, Homura and finally Mirai. Each of them have their own reasons for having ended up at Hebijo, though they don’t necessarily become immediately apparent.

Interestingly, some of this context isn’t made explicit in the Hebijo arc because it’s commented upon in the Hanzou story. Probably the most notable example of this is Homura’s background; in the Hanzou story, we learn that she hails from a family of good shinobi, but she was turned onto the evil path by the fact she almost murdered an evil shinobi who was posing as her tutor. In the Hebijo arc, meanwhile, we see the result of that: an initially rather stern, seemingly bitter young woman who is keen to seek power above all else, and who is somewhat prone to pushing everyone around her away.

It actually doesn’t take Homura long to realise that she doesn’t need to be that defensive, though. After proving her worthiness to be in the Elite class and recognising the talent of her peers, she softens somewhat, and naturally settles into the role of the group’s “leader”; while Haruka has the most seniority in terms of both age and experience, Homura’s natural charisma and self-confidence make her an eminently suitable figure for the group to rally around when required.

Much of this is down to the fact that despite her somewhat dark past, Homura is pretty at ease with who she is. She recognises the circumstances that brought her to this point and, rather than mourning the situation in which she finds herself and the “evil” label with which she is lumbered, she embraces the opportunity to test her strength and continue to grow in power alongside people who have similar drive to succeed behind them.

Mirai, meanwhile, describes her arrival at Hebijo as being “where she’ll be reborn”, and is mildly frustrated by the fact that she arrives on a nice spring day, the wind caressing her cheek and making for a “pretty lame opening for the legend of an evil shinobi”. Although filled with hope for her new beginning — much as any youngster is on arriving at a new school or a new stage in their life — she quickly finds herself intimidated by and scared of her new peers.

“I’m always on edge when I meet new people,” she explains upon encountering Homura for the first time. “Does she want to be enemies with me? Or allies? Schoolmate or not, a stranger’s a stranger. I always have to find out where we stand, right off the bat.”

Mirai is a good case study for a core theme of the Hebijo arc as a whole, which is learning to accept both yourself and the people around you. This might sound like a strange topic for an “evil” arc to focus on, but remember: in the world of Senran Kagura, good and evil are more a matter of who hires you than anything else; the shinobi themselves are just people who happen to find themselves arbitrarily placed on a particular “side”.

Mirai is initially taken aback by how “stacked” (her words) her classmates are, and this is one of the many reasons she feels intimidated. She has such a complex about her flat chest and childlike figure that she assumes everyone is making fun of her behind her back, even when that’s absolutely not the case. This complex stems from her reasons for turning up at Hebijo in the first place: she was ruthlessly bullied, and sought revenge on her tormentors.

“From up on my vantage point, I stare down at the town,” she muses, having fled her daily training after an embarrassing incident. “I hate the people who live there. People who make fun of me, who make me look like a fool. I have to get my revenge. My family are all good shinobi, but I had to choose to be an evil shinobi in order to get that revenge. Good shinobi can only act under orders, but evil shinobi are free to use their power as they see fit. One day, when I become a full-fledged evil shinobi, I’ll be able to use that power all I please.”

With all this in mind, Mirai quite naturally assumes that her classmates having a good giggle at the ridiculous sight of her tearing her skirt and revealing her rather childish bear panties is the bullying starting up all over again, so her flight is an attempt to remind herself why she’s doing this. But she’s rather surprised to discover that this time around, she misread the situation rather drastically.

“What you look like doesn’t affect your strength as a shinobi,” Homura tells her. “I have a childish side, too. So you shouldn’t be embarrassed about your boobs or your panties.”

Following Homura’s lead, Mirai’s other classmates all show up and offer her similar reassurances in their own… unique ways, leaving her somewhat at a loss; she feels like she’s never experienced someone caring so genuinely about her, and isn’t quite sure how to deal with that.

“We’re both comrades from Hebijo,” continues Homura. “No juniors or seniors here. All Hebijo students are here because they want to do something. Whatever our circumstances, we all ended up here. You’re the same, aren’t you, Mirai? You’re here because there’s something you want to accomplish?”

“She’s so kind. So generous,” muses Mirai, on the verge of tears by this point. “The kindest, most generous evil shinobi ever.”

Homura’s kind and generous nature is also exhibited in the first instance of a running gag for the series as a whole: her obsession with physical comedy, and the fact that she’s not very good at it. Initially introduced as an attempt to get the self-professed emotionless “cicada husk” Hikage to try and smile, Homura’s attempts to impersonate a crab and a shrimp by making creative use of her six swords fall completely flat, but she does her best; she believes in herself and is willing to at least try, even if the distinct possibility of failure is there. And this is something she continues to exhibit throughout the remainder of the series.

Hikage is actually a good example of this, too. She initially claims that she “has no emotions”, but over time she comes to recognise that this isn’t quite accurate; rather than not having any emotions at all, she simply has great difficulty in recognising them when they arise, and in expressing them when she does recognise them.

During a sequence where Mirai has a crisis of confidence in her own abilities and attempts to flee the group, Hikage finds herself thinking back to her time on the streets when she ran with a gang — and the time she discovered the dead body of the gang leader Hinata, whom she had come to rely on, trust and perhaps even love. She recalls the feeling of “rain falling inside her” as she gazed on the young woman’s mutilated corpse — and experiences exactly the same feeling when she discovers an ashamed Mirai playing dead in a dumpster. Moreover, she initially does not understand why the tears keep coming when she finds out that Mirai is just fine — but this time around, she has people to explain to her that tears can be happy as well as sad.

The various scrapes that the Hebijo girls get into over the course of their narrative allow each of them to explore their attitudes towards friendship and comradeship. And these things are truly put to the test when Hibari from Hanzou arrives at Hebijo, claiming to want to transfer. In the Hanzou arc, we know that this is because she’s ashamed at having lost the school’s Super-Secret Ninja Art Scroll to Hebijo, but her motivations aren’t quite so clear this time around. Whether this is down to events actually unfolding slightly differently in the Hebijo arc or if we’re dealing with a case of unreliable narrator is a matter of interpretation, but the fact is, Hibari causes significant waves upon her arrival.

Haruka develops a particularly close bond with Hibari, for starters, and this is the catalyst for several of the other Hebijo girls to start questioning whether or not there actually are any differences between “good” and “evil” shinobi, much as Hibari herself did back in the Hanzou arc. From there, both Yomi and Hikage find themselves developing their own bonds with Hanzou students; Yomi comes to understand Ikaruga rather better after learning to accept the folly of prejudice, for one thing, while Hikage admires Katsuragi’s unrestrained enthusiasm and sees her as a good opportunity to learn how she might express herself a bit better.

This ultimately leads to a major disagreement between the various members of the Elite class, with some believing that “friends just get in the way of growing stronger”, while others believe that friends actually bring you strength.

“Our friends might not be fighting with us physically,” argues Haruka, “but they still support us from the inside. That’s what friends are for, after all.”

“The strong don’t need support,” retorts Homura. “Training grants you power and technique, and that’s all the support you should need.”

“To truly resolve a conflict,” Haruka muses to herself, “opponents must clash, and thereby reach an understanding. I could never reach that point with my parents, but my fellow Elites can surely meet me halfway. We should be able to understand each other absolutely.”

Haruka is speaking figuratively here, but in the world of Senran Kagura, the concept of understanding one another through literal physical conflict is very much alive and well, so naturally the argument ultimately boils down to them all beating the shit out of each other until they each come to understand each other’s opinions.

“Once you start caring about your friends, you start fearing the thought of losing them,” thinks Homura after the situation has all been resolved. “Fear inevitably leads to weakness. And what good is a weak shinobi? Maybe that’s why I’ve been so stubborn about keeping my friends at a distance.

“And now Haruka’s taught me something,” she continues. “Friendship and strength are both important. It’s true. I want to be the kind of person who cares about both, equally. And when I think about that, I remember… Asuka said the same thing to me. So then what’s the real difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ shinobi?

Homura’s convictions are put to the test at the climax of the story, when the main villain of the piece, Hebijo investor Dougen, reveals himself to be preparing for the revival of the great youma Orochi. And it seems a key ingredient for the ritual is the sacrifice of several powerful young shinobi.

“To become part of Orochi is to attain power beyond measure,” Dougen sneers at Homura. “Is that not what you’ve always wanted? What you’ve always sought? What being a shinobi is all about?”

Homura is too late to stop the revival of Orochi and finds herself absorbed into the monster along with her friends, but she doesn’t give up hope. She knows that Asuka is outside fighting the creature — and thus she decides to fight her way out from the inside.

“If my friends are there,” she tells herself, “I can stand back up. No matter how many times I fall. This is power. I finally know what it truly means to be strong. Though the light may never shine on us, I’m not afraid, so long as we’re together. Because for us, our friends are the only light we need.”

That’s where the Hebijo arc ends, but it’s worth considering the DLC campaigns centred around Yumi and Miyabi in this context too, since they deal with similar thematic subject matter.

In the case of Yumi, we see her and her Gessen peers — including Ryoubi and Ryouna, who at this point have not yet left to join “New Hebijo” — dealing with the aftermath of Kurokage’s death. Since Kurokage was Yumi’s grandfather, she was hit particularly hard with grief, and finds herself struggling to understand the path she should walk from hereon, as does her peer Yozakura.

“We drown our sorrows in meaningless brawls,” ponders Yumi one evening after yet another street fight against local thugs. “What would Grandfather Kurokage think if he saw us like this?”

“It’s not like I can just get over him being gone,” explains Yozakura. “Fighting’s the only time it doesn’t hurt.”

Yumi initially comes to believe that the idea of “pure righteousness” is what drives her onwards, and that this is her own way of keeping Kurokage’s spirit alive inside her, but defining exactly what “pure righteousness” really is comes to be something that bothers her a great deal.

Throughout our previous encounters with the Gessen crew, particularly in Shinovi Versus, we come to learn that their approach to being “good” was quite different to that of the Hanzou girls. In Yumi’s arc in Burst Re:Newal, we get a feel for where that came from.

Initially, Yumi sees things in absolutes: she witnesses street thugs committing crimes, so brands them as absolutely evil. Something inside her stops her from delivering an absolute punishment, however; she spares them and presents them with a merciful opportunity to, as she puts it, “straighten what is crooked inside you”.

Yozakura doesn’t understand this at all, being even more set in her ways than Yumi is. She doesn’t understand Yumi’s hesitance to completely wipe out — in other words, kill — the group of thugs when they catch them seemingly committing further crimes, but Yumi gradually comes to discover that there is often a lot more to a situation than there initially appears to be.

It’s around this point that we start seeing a more recognisable Yumi from later in the series: cool, calm, collected and rational. When Ryoubi and Ryouna challenge her to a battle as part of their initiation to Hebijo, she graciously gives them her fan — an heirloom from Kurokage — as proof that they beat her, even though she was the actual victor of that encounter. She develops an understanding that everyone has their own personal circumstances that have brought them to their current situation — and to judge things purely on face value is often unfair to the complexity of those circumstances.

“Life’s not fair,” explains Hikage, showing up a little late to deal with the situation — because the gang of thugs in question turns out to be the one she used to run with prior to Hinata’s death. “Your destiny’s pretty much decided on the day you’re born. There aren’t enough winning lottery tickets, and anyone who doesn’t get one gets shuffled off to the sidelines in places like this.”

“That’s ridiculous,” retorts Yozakura. “Plenty of people live in bad places, bad situations, and they never get their hands dirty.”

“And those people are smart. I admire them,” replies Hikage. “But I wonder how many of them were able to do it alone. To grow into maturity alone. Maybe they had others to help them along.”

We know by this point that Hikage certainly had that in her life, before it was cruelly snatched away from her — and that since joining her friends at Hebijo, she has since rediscovered it. Yumi recognises this, and understands that “at times, those in need deserve help, evil though they may be… is that not pure righteousness?”

This is just another perspective on the core lesson both the Hanzou and Hebijo girls learn in their respective story arcs: the fact that labels don’t define someone, and that being on opposite “sides” on paper doesn’t mean you have to be enemies.

“I cannot save only the good and not the evil,” Yumi explains to a furious Yozakura. “I will assist whoever is in need. That is pure righteousness to me.”

“One woman’s justice is another woman’s evil, depending on their points of view,” she muses to herself. “Justice and righteousness are not always absolute. One might say there are as many definitions of righteousness as there are people in the world.

“What is built can one day break,” she continues. “All that lives will one day die. Nothing in this world is permanent… with the possible exception of belief. There may not be a true definition of righteousness, save that to which your own beliefs can guide you. I believe that is what Grandfather Kurokage wanted to help us understand. Hold fast to your ideals. And through them, continue to strive for an answer of your own. That is pure righteousness.”

Miyabi’s arc builds on this idea somewhat. As we join her, she is staunch in her beliefs that if she can annihilate all youma from the world, she will be able to finally be at peace with the death of her mother. And in order to do that, she needs to seek out ultimate power.

If you know your Senran Kagura lore, you probably already know that this doesn’t end well; specifically, it ends up with Miyabi having to kill Ryoubi and Ryouna’s sister Ryouki due to her possession by a youma — which in turn sets Ryoubi and Ryouna on their quest for revenge seen starting in Yumi’s arc and finally being resolved in Shinovi Versus — and Miyabi breaking her mind, body and spirit through use of an Anathematic Ninja Art known as Blood Riot.

Miyabi is, in many ways, a reflection of how Homura could have easily ended up had she not quickly come to the realisation that her friends are important to her — and as much a source of her power as her own physical strength. At the outset of Miyabi’s arc, we see that she has previously enjoyed a close relationship with Imu, but that she is trying to push her away as she pursues her quest for revenge on the otherworldly beasts that claimed the life of her mother.

“Shinobi have no promise of a ‘someday’,” she says. “And so, the weak have no business speaking of the future. Are you strong enough now, or not? Nothing else matters.”

Miyabi’s pursuit of absolute power causes her to lose sight of the things that are really important — and of Imu’s unwavering belief in and love for her. She is aware of this on some level, however; following her unleashing of Blood Riot against the youma-infected Ryouki, she lapses into a coma and finds herself dreaming of a fierce battle against her “Abyssal” self; one that has been completely consumed by the forbidden Ninja Art and allowed a youma’s power to seep into her. It is only by accepting both sides of herself — the one that seeks power, and the one that wishes to protect the people important to her — that she is eventually able to learn to control the deadly power she has allowed into her heart.

“A blade without a heart behind it is fragile,” she muses. “That kind of power can fade in an instant. The proof is in my mother’s smile. That smile continues to reside in my heart. My drive for revenge is not what made me stronger.”

Ultimately, every cast member in Burst Re:Newal has an important lesson to learn, and that is that true power comes from acceptance and understanding — both of yourself, and of others around you. It’s a lesson that everyone can learn something from, be you an Elite shinobi student or just some fat bloke who types things in on the Internet in the hopes that people might read them.

Believe in yourself, and believe in those who are important to you. It’s a long and difficult journey for most of us to reach that stage consistently and reliably — but once you get there, you’ll be unstoppable.

Until then, keep on fighting, growing stronger — and accepting that both light and shadow are a natural part of life, and both should be embraced when the time is right.

More about Senran Kagura

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