Nobunaga the Fool.
So, Leonardo da Vinci meets Jeanne d'Arc, and the two of them take a spaceship piloted by Portugese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to the Eastern Planet that their own Western Planet is paired with, where they encounter Oda Nobunaga, Akechi Mitsuhide, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
By piloting a giant robot, Nobunaga proves himself to be Jesus, thus earning the ire of King Arthur, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and others, and the allegiance of shaman queen Himiko.
Hannibal of the Carthaginians is a French woman in a BDSM relationship with Charlemagne.
Schrodinger's Box is a pocket dimension in which the land of the dead overlaps with the realm of the living, protected by the Gordian Knot.
At no point in writing this so far have I made any jokes. At all. Ever. Nor have I exaggerated, drawn inference, or applied my own interpretation to events. These are just a few of the literal facts of this anime, laid out bare, to make a point.
Which is that you should watch this anime, because nothing like it will ever be made again.
It has plenty of other virtues I could extol. It's very well-animated, it has an excellent soundtrack, the mechanics of making an impressive looking and sounding series are all there. On a technical level, it's worth checking out, just for a very good example of a very high quality production where a lot of care was clearly taken to make something very beautiful.
As far as character, storyline, all those things we really watch something for, it is – it is … Okay. Okay. The above facts make it sound ridiculous, and it is. Nobunaga help me I cannot deny that the premise is totally absurd. But those facts also make it sound like a very shallow series, a flashy spectacle whose main selling point is that it's so out-there and ridiculous in that very anime way that people tend to use when they want to decry an entire nation's cartoon industry.
It's a series driven very much by theme, and message, rather than spectacle or sales – and given how slowly paced many of the episodes are, someone tuning in for an action drama will come away very disappointed, as many people did. The beginning of this series' conception was clearly an ideal, not a sales pitch.
|Thank you, Arthur.|
The story is a meditation on religion, faith, doubt, destiny versus free will, inevitability, dichotomies of nature versus circumstance versus expectations: Which makes the usage of a mish-mash of historical characters make a lot more sense, especially since the characters we see are meant to be reincarnations of their historical selves, something that is referenced both in the opening scene and in the ending.
How much of these characters' lives were due to their nature, the series asks, and how much due to the circumstances they were born into. What would happen if they met? How would they influence each other?
Here's the key problem with that, though: The writer isn't very good at characterising his cast as actually being at all like the historical figures they are meant to be.
Take the title character. In history, Oda Nobunaga was a peacemaker and modernist whose circumstances forced him into war. While he was brutal in war, he also set aside land for Christian settlers to build churches, attempted to create a political authority free from religious influence in a very early example of separating faith from state, freed a black slave from Dutch Jesuits and appointed him to a high-ranking position, promoted people based on meritocratic ideals, opened trade unions to the peasantry, built roads, opened trade. His ruthlessness and brutality was extraordinary, not just to modern minds but to the time he lived in, but he was not a man ill-suited to peace. He was, in fact, a liberal futurist with a keen interest in science, the arts, and the economy.
So while Fool!Nobunaga's characterisation as a stoic, unpredictable, chaotic warrior whose violent and destructive nature is so inherent to his person that he literally cannot exist in a peaceful world is consistent throughout the show, and narratively provides a great contrast to his allies and his main antagonist, it is utterly inconsistent with the man we know Nobunaga was in history.
|Put the evil aura away, Nobunaga.|
Or take Jeanne d'Arc – or Ranmaru, as the show also has her as the reincarnation of Nobunaga's sandal-bearer and lover, a young man who Nobunaga did have genuine affection for (and who, in a nice touch, the series shows in its very first scene). Jeanne in history was certainly a pious figure, although whether by belief or by strategy it's entirely unclear. She was also ruthless, and an expert at psychological warfare and propaganda: She once sent a letter to her enemies ahead of her arrival, saying she was coming, and that everyone who had stood in her way so far were dead or imprisoned. She listed their names. She would ride into battle with a banner instead of a sword often, but not because bloodshed was somehow anathema to her, but because she recognised her power as a symbol and because, if worst came to worst, you can gore a man on a banner.
Jeanne in the show is very – gentle. She is set up early as someone who is willing to go into battle, but who is a fundamentally gentle and pure soul committed to the defence of innocents. Her peaceful nature is meant to contrast with the Nobunaga's fiercer and more warlike persona. In real life, it would probably be the other way around.
|You can also kill them. Do that.|
Or take Leonardo da Vinci. In real life, visionary polyglot, artist, weapons designer, scientist. In the series, undeniably my favourite character, but also a Machiavellian (ironically, as Machiavelli is in this series) manipulator and prophet figure armed with a deck of tarot cards.
|Potentially the most diabolical man in the series.|
Leonardo's deck of tarot cards provides one of the main thematic thrusts of the series. Every episode, someone draws a card from his deck, with himself drawing last. The card summarises the events of the episode and its meaning, while also often providing a new angle through which to view them. It's one of the most well-executed themes of the series, and it serves the general idea of a conflict between destiny and free will very well, especially as both Jeanne and Leonardo are imperfect prophets: Leonardo misinterprets his cards several times, or else hands off interpreting them to somebody else, while Jeanne repeatedly denies her own visions.
The series' commitment to its theme does sometimes cause it to struggle narratively. I mentioned that it has several very slowly paced episodes earlier, and it's true, it does. It also often seems to forget that it is a seinen anime, and in the same way that if I'm writing a young adult novel I might endeavour not to dwell too long on my philosophical quandaries before cutting in some action to keep the reader happy, the show could have done with splicing in more action into its navel-gazing.
It's a shame that it doesn't, because the more action heavy episodes are often the best ones, both on a narrative and a thematic level. Episode 23 is probably the best episode of any anime I've seen all year, and it's an episode which is almost entirely action: But it manages to keep an excellent pace, is beautifully animated, has more emotional punch than probably any of the other episodes, and manages to impart the same amount of philosophy much more concisely than either the episodes before or after it.
It's a twenty-four episode series, and 23 sets up a lot of expectations for a finale that was very – thing. Very thing. It was twenty-two minutes of thing. Stuff happened. People were eaten. Things were said. Sometimes people had arms, and other times they walked places. Animals did appear, on occasion.
|As did giant drinking containers.|
I sound like I'm making a joke, but I have watched that finale twice now and I cannot marshal any coherent thoughts about it. It's – there. But thematically, it's confused and tangled, and narratively it's unsatisfying, and while it's a very pretty spectacle, it is almost overwrought in its beauty. I cannot decide if I like that finale or if I hate it. I can't decide anything about it.
But taking the series as a whole, the narrative is inconsistently paced, confused, comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end, and often seems to just tug new plot points out of nowhere and fling them haphazardly into the wind. Thematically, the series raises interesting questions, but its attempts to answer them are at times bewildering, and it finds itself let down by a lack of historical fidelity.
I adore this series. I really do. I will unreservedly recommend it to everyone, and I will defend its worth as an artistic endeavour. But that having been said, I can't pretend it's not a failure at almost everything it tries to do. An admirable failure, but a failure nonetheless.
Oh, also, it's based on a play.
Just – process that for a while.
|He, Gaius Julius Caesar, is also in the play.|
(Anyway, for anybody interested, Nobunaga the Fool does have an officially licensed sub, which can be found for free at Crunchyroll.)