Originally published in Japanese print publication Sakura Wars Serenade in July 2021.
For gamers around the globe, the year 1996 is fondly remembered as a time of revolution and change. It was the year in which Sega of America bade farewell to Tom Kalinsky, who led the company to glory with the Genesis, while Nintendo offered their vision of the future with the Nintendo 64 (23/6/1996). Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 23/6/1996) defined 3D Platformers with its massive worlds and open vistas, while Yuji Naka’s NiGHTS Into Dreams (Sega, 7/2/1996) tickled imaginations with visions of what could be.
It seems only fitting, then, that this would be the year which would introduce Sakura Wars to the world. Released on September 27, 1996, Oji Hiroi’s opus transported fans to an alternate version of the Taisho era, where everything from the trains that roll down the tracks, to the street lamps that light up the night sky are powered by steam. In Japan’s Imperial capital, hawkers bark out their specials in the streets clad in comfortable yukata, while businessmen rush toward their next meeting, clad in their finest western-styled suits.
It’s in this realm that the Imperial Combat Revue plies its trade. To much of the world, they are a celebrated all-woman theater troupe, bringing light to the hearts of people with brilliant stage productions. Beneath the façade, though, the Revue serves as a bulwark against an encroaching demonic invasion. With the aid of spirit-powered armor known as Kobu, the Imperial Combat Revue fights tirelessly to banish the darkness that threatens humanity.
Since that day in 1996, Sakura Wars has gone on to become a cherished jewel in Sega’s crown. Anime TV shows, OVAs, more than a dozen stage shows, and even a cafe in Ikebukuro’s Sega GIGO game center saw the world of the franchise expand to reach audiences from all walks of life.
In the west, the Sakura Wars franchise has long been seen as a blip; more of a curiosity than a cultural landmark. Deep within the western fan subculture, though, a small but dedicated fanbase has been boosting the franchise since its very earliest days. Some have worked as evangelists, spreading the word of the Combat Revues far and wide. Others work as translators, opening doors to access for those who are unable to read Japanese. No matter the role one takes, if any, it’s impossible to deny that every single fan is part of a family, united by their love of all things Sakura Wars.
The Early Fandom
In its earliest days, the western Sakura Wars fan community could barely live up to its namesake. The smattering of Usenet and BBS posts, peppered with an occasional fansite amounted to a mere handful of individuals, who had discovered the Imperial Combat Revue’s inaugural adventure. “I just wondering are there anyone out there doing a website about
Sega Saturn’s Sakura Taisen?” asked user The Helper Goddess, for example, on rec.arts.anime in November 1996. (Helper Goddess, 1996)
More often, users would find information on the franchise via imported books or periodicals. “I read about [Sakura Wars] in the [December] 1997 issue of NewType,” recalls, Jocelyn Bordador-Putnam, who adds that she was “intrigued by its 1920s setting […] the steampunk-dieselpunk robots, and the idea that those robots would be piloted by an all-female crew masquerading as a Takarazuka Revue-type theatre troupe.”
It’s from these seeds of interest, though, that the greater Sakura Wars fandom would begin to take root. In December 1996, GameFan magazine published the first western articles on the first Sakura Wars. The publication raved about the game, proclaiming that “every aspect of the game […] is fantastic, with great storylines, tons of cool little bonus games, [and] great character artwork.” (Sakura Wars, 1996)
By 1998, the first of many fan efforts to spread the word had begun to bear fruit. Two translation guides had made their way to online walkthrough repository GameFAQs, offering a means to finally understand the magnificent story of psychic song girls and super robots. Among these was the first of a series by a user known only as “Kayama”, which offered an English script for the first episode of the original Sakura Wars. (Kayama, 2001) The guide was an immediate hit, earning high praise for its overall quality and exhaustive citations.
In the months and years that followed, Kayama would go on to release translation guides for the first four games in the series. The documents quickly became a gold standard for fans new and old alike, elevating the mysterious author to near folk-hero status among the greater fan community. And though Kayama vanished as silently as he had appeared, the mysterious author still retains many thankful fans to this day.
The Rise of the Anime Realm
1998 would also see ADV Films release the first episodes of Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms (Sakura Wars: Ouka Kenran) to VHS in North America, exposing an entirely new generation of fans to the franchise. “[I] saw Ouka Kenran at anime club,” recalls Rachael, who added that “it was love at first watch.”
It was during this period that the visage of Sakura Shinguji and the rest of the Imperial Combat Revue began to appear on shelves of comic shops, record stores, and video stores across the continent. Though the games and the musicals seemed to elude release in the west, the anime continued to ship to stores like clockwork. The 2000 TV series, 2001’s Sakura Wars the Movie, and Sakura Taisen: Ecole de Paris greeted fans new and old alike. Even 2002’s Sakura Taisen: Su-Mi-Re, which commemorated the retirement of Sumire Kanzaki actor Michie Tomizawa.
Eric Santos recalls finding the Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms “in a bargain bin at Gamestop.” he adds that “the slice of life aspect got me to love the characters and world, which eventually got me to track down and buy the DVDs of the TV series and slowly do research on the series itself […] From there, I saw what would become a series I held near and dear to my heart as I collected EVERY piece of Sakura Wars video media I could find.”
With each new tape, each new show hitting the stores, a fan community slowly began to grow. Some were captivated by the shows, themselves, while others had found themselves lured in by a slick trailer and the series’ iconic theme song, Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan.
So Long, My Love
Despite the budding fandom in the west, an official English release of a Sakura Wars game seemed to be little more than a pipe dream. The series’ absence from anglophone countries wasn’t for a lack of effort, though. In a 2009 interview with RPGamer, NIS America’s Nao Zook explained that “Sakura Wars in the US was the dream of Red, and they haven’t given up on their dream even 4 years after the release [of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love] in Japan.” (RPGamer, 2010)
This idea was corroborated by former Working Designs head Victor Ireland, who explained that he attempted to bring the Saturn entries westward as early as 1996. In a post on the NeoGAF web forum, Ireland stated that “Hojo from Red […] asked me personally to do the game for the USA in that timeframe, but by that point, SEGA was radioactive for us and I had to (very, VERY reluctantly) say it wasn’t possible.” (Ireland, 2009)
For many, though, this couldn’t have been clearer than the morning of July 2, 2002. On that day, reporters from all walks of life gathered in a conference room at the Tokyo and Akasaka Prince Hotel Goshiki, ready to hear the latest from Sega and RED Company about the future of the franchise.
It was here that they pulled the curtain back on the Sakura Taisen World Project: a major multimedia project that introduced a bevy of spin-offs, a new stage show, and new anime projects, and a remake of the original Sakura Wars, subtitled In Hot Blood. (SEGA, n.d.) What stole the show, so to speak, was Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love, and an action-based prequel that focused on Gemini Sunrise as she traveled across the United States.
The newest entries were meant to introduce the world at large to this franchise that had enchanted so many over the past six years. With a new English logo at the ready, Sega seemed poised to bring this world of psychic song girls and super robots to the world at large. (C., 2002)
Sadly, due to reasons that remain unknown to this day, the project was not meant to be. The Sakura Wars video games would not make their way to the west until March 30, 2010, when NIS America and Idea Factory released Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love in English on the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii. The release would be lauded by critics, who praised it as a “strange but addictive blend of Strategy RPG and Graphic Adventure” (Gann, 2010) that’s “quite unlike anything else out there.” (Tolentino, 2010)
Despite NIS America’s efforts, though, the title failed to resonate with the greater market. In an interview with SiliconEra, NIS America president Haru Akenaga explained that the game failed to reach sales expectations, despite its two-year localization cycle. He added that the work was a difficult project, due to the “huge amount of text. It took more than two years to complete the localization. That’s more than the development time of the Japanese version.” (Staff, 2010)
Though the title wasn’t the runaway success that NIS America had hoped, it sowed the seeds for a new generation of Sakura Wars fans. “I saw an ad for the game in Nintendo Power [magazine] and grabbed the PS2 version of So Long, My Love,” recalls a player who goes by the handle “LettuceKitteh” online. She adds that she “loved the character interactions, with each other and with Shinjiro,“ adding that it was like “playing an anime.”
Indeed, fans new and old alike were entranced by the game’s bombast, from its vibrant cast to its quirky take on New York. “I loved the setting so much,” recalls Bella Blondeau, who explained that “it’s not every day you see a game take place in old New York Broadway, or let you fight demons at the Statue of Liberty.”
A fan who goes by Mike echoed a similar sentiment, explaining that he liked Shinjiro’s characterization, as “It really gave the whole ‘I’m here on my own for the first time and I’ll do my best to make it’ feel.” He elaborated, adding that “it really did engross me as a player to kind of feel that type of way like starting a new job or new school that its hard in the beginning and once you get the ball rolling it starts to kind of get better.”
A Crossover for the Ages
Just three years after the western debut of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, the Sakura Wars received a second shot in the arm, with Bandai Namco’s release of Project X-Zone. For the uninitiated, the title was a strategy game, which served as a celebration of the icons created by Capcom, Bandai Namco, and Sega. Amid the star-studded roster, which included icons like Street Fighter’s Ryu and Tekken’s Heihachi Mishima, stood the faces of the Sakura Wars franchise. Indeed, Ichiro Ogami, Sakura Shinguji, Erica Fontaine, and Gemini Sunrise took up arms alongside other legends, as they fought to bring balance back to the universe.
The title, which outsold Namco Bandai’s expectations tenfold in the west (Brian, 2014), proved to be an effective gateway for Sega’s historic franchise. “I bought a used copy of Project X-Zone years ago because I wanted to burst out of my Nintendo bubble,” explains Guilherme Nascimento, who adds “out of all the characters in the game, Gemini was my favorite; and out of all tracks in the game, my favorite was Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan. […] Then, early this year, I saw some Gemini [Sunrise] fanart on Twitter and I thought ‘I really liked this character back on PXZ, why don’t I try her game?’”
A user who goes under the handle of Skeith offered a similar experience, explaining that her first exposure to the franchise came from Bandai Namco’s crossover title. When describing her initial exposure to Sakura Wars as a franchise, she noted that “I fell in love with the gaming history in X-Zone and decided to play every game series included in it. Eventually I made my way to Sakura Wars and instantly fell in love with it.”
A Grand Revival
Following the release of Project X-Zone and its sequel, which shipped to overseas retailers in 2016, the landscape became quiet once more. Though Sega had announced that a new Sakura Wars project was in the works on April 18, 2018 (Ferreira, 2018), the publisher remained coy about its details. The small communities that had been built up over the years were abuzz with speculation.
“How will the battle system evolve from So Long, My Love?”
“What would Fujishima-sensei’s character designs be like this time?”
“Which Combat Revue will they focus on this time?”
And so on.
The speculation continued to ramp up as English-language trademarks Sakura Wars popped up in filings with the Japanese patent office. (Ferreira, Sega Files English “Sakura Wars” Trademark, 2019) Few could have predicted what would come about on the evening of March 29, 2019. At the height of Sega’s annual Sega Fes event, Sega CEO Haruki Satomi closed his keynote presentation with just “one last announcement.”
The lights dimmed, as a screen on the stage came to life. A haunting string melody began to play, as cherry blossom petals drifted against a glimmering full moon.
“Year 29, Taisho Era… 10 years since the previous Combat Revue was lost…”
Discord servers and subreddits erupted with excitement, eagerly discussing every new detail that seemed to pour from the two-minute teaser. It seemed like there was nary a moment to breathe before Sega’s global Twitter accounts posted an update in unison, all of which proudly proclaimed that the newest Sakura Wars would be released across the globe. (Ferreira, Shin Sakura Wars Gets First Trailer, Cast, Staff, Western Release on PS4, 2019)
The days ticked by, one after another, the die-hard fans tuned in for each streaming event, each trailer, each scrap of information. On the morning of December 12, 2019, PlayStation 4 consoles across the western hemisphere booted up in unison, as players hopped onto their Japanese accounts to download the latest newest Sakura Wars adventure.
It felt so unreal at the time. A decade and a half had passed. In that time, people grew up, found careers, made families. But, like it was in 2005 and 2010, a new Sakura Wars game was waiting for fans everywhere.
“Seeing the imperial theater rendered in 3D brought tears to my eyes,” remarked a fan who goes by Jose. “The constant callbacks to the history of the series show the new producers/writers have respect and fondness for what has gone before.”
Kyuu, another fan, echoed the sentiment, explaining that the title “looked like it was a labor of love,” adding that “It hit all the notes on what a good anime game should be. Fun, flashy, with quirky humor and a sense of heroism and adventure.”
The Western Fandom Today
The Sakura Wars fan community has changed immensely since its earliest days when it was just a loose collection of importers who shared a few words on now-forgotten BBSes. In a survey of seventy-one fans, it was found that just six respondents (8.6%) had found the series before the year 2000. Of those, just two (2.9%) were there from the very beginning.
On the contrary, the greater fan community is relatively new, with more than 58% of respondents joining the fray within the past six years, and 28.3% of the fans surveyed finding the series in the past one to three years.
No matter whether they were from day one or just picked up a copy of the newest Sakura Wars adventure, though, few deny that they occupy a niche that’s been carved out in a larger landscape. Of the seventy surveyed, fifty-two (74.3%) responded that the franchise was not popular when they discovered it.
Of those who responded, more than 80% were between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, with 44.3% being in the 18-24 age group, 40% being between ages 25 and 34. Those under eighteen and over 34 were both outliers, with individuals aged 35 and older representing 12.9% of the population, and those under age eighteen making up just 2.9% of those surveyed.
Though much of the western Sakura Wars fan community found the franchise somewhat recently, their experience with the overall body of work is extensive. Of those surveyed, 73.9% had played the newest Sakura Wars title, which hit overseas retailers on April 20, 2020. Fifty-eight percent (40 individuals) meanwhile had played Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love, which shipped to overseas retailers in Spring 2010 for Sony’s PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Wii.
More than 65% (45 respondents) noted that they have played the original Sakura Wars, whether it was in its original incarnation or the In Hot Blood remake. And of the total population, 50.7% (35 respondents) stated that they played the 2019 fan translation of the first game.
“[The patch] was fantastic,” raved Max Morton, who added “As someone who does subtitles for Discotek [Media’s] Blu-ray releases and knows Japanese, I’m very hard on poor translations, but here, it’s very good. Most fan translations and fansubs are either direct translations with little editing and feel stilted, or they’re over localized and take too much meaning away. […] The team who did the 2019 fan translation did a damn good job balancing it out. Plus, the sheer feat of it is incredible. I thought that Policenauts on Saturn was the best that could happen, and I was proven wrong. It’s just as good, and on a technical level it’s insane. That there are so many gameplay/display modes fully with English text is good enough, but to have the cutscenes fully subtitled is just the cherry on top. 100% worth playing if one can play Saturn games and/or owns a copy of the game.”
Of those who responded to the survey, 24.3% (17) noted that their first exposure to the franchise was through the anime series. An overwhelming majority of 79.7% (51) report having seen 2000’s Sakura Wars anime TV series by Madhouse. The majority of respondents also stated that they had seen 2020’s Sakura Wars the Animation (38, 59.4%), 2001’s Sakura Wars the Movie (38, 59.4%), and 1997 OVA Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms (36, 56.3%).
In describing their draw to the 2000 anime series, Guilherme Nascimento explained that “I know it greatly differs from canon, but that’s what made it interesting to me.” Jocelyn Bordador-Putnam described the show as “a great, if grimdark, retelling of the story, even if the visuals were not the best.”
On the flip side, respondents were quick to offer criticisms of Madhouse’s 2000 series, primarily in regard to the show’s decision to change character traits from the games. “[The] characterizations felt off,” explains a fan who goes by Ryan. He adds that “Sumire was literally mean to be mean, and […] Sakura felt like a whole different character.“ Piero Reyes offered a similar sentiment, noting that “it works it fulfill his purpose, but as an adaptation of Sakura Wars, I don’t like the change of personalities of some characters, [specifically] Iris and Rasetsu.”
The Stage Shows
Though the stage shows have long been a popular facet of the greater Sakura Wars franchise in Japan, they remain a niche part of the overseas fanbase. Just 35.4% of all respondents (25) reported seeing one or more of the plays, and only one cites them as their first exposure to the franchise.
Still, it is difficult to deny that there is an allure to the events, which were a universe unto themselves, far removed from the world-saving affairs of the other formats. “I adore the Kayou Shows,” explains Maggy, a fan of more than twenty years, “and really love the emphasis on theater/slice-of-life and de-emphasis on the sentai aspect.”
Indeed, each show is a wonderland of flashy, sparkling bombast and song, and adds new layers to a growing stratum of in-jokes and character quirks. One fan, Anna-neko explains that she was drawn to the sheer campy vibrance of the shows. She explains that she adores the “over-the-top, sparkly outfits. Plus, unlike [the Sailor Moon musicals] – the original actresses are right there, so hearing Sakura[‘s actual voice] coming out of Sakura’s mouth is a treat.”
Continuation of a Dream
In many respects, it feels as though RED Entertainment’s of bringing Sakura Wars to the world has become a reality. The Imperial Combat Revue’s community of enthusiasts grows by the day, and there is a building excitement that seems to come with each new project, whether it’s the 2019 fan translation patch, the 2020 anime series, or smartphone game Sakura Revolution.
Even today, the subculture buzzes with hopes for the future, whether it’s a desire to see a sequel to Sakura Wars 2019, discussions on potential spinoffs, or just a desire to see new toys to make their way westward. Some want to see the series return to its strategy roots, and others would like nothing more than a promise of more stage shows.
Out of all the desires within the community, though, a collective yearning for a chance to play the prequels runs particularly strong. Of the seventy-one surveyed, a vast majority expressed a desire for ports or remakes of the original five games, localized into their native languages. “I know people in France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy and other places who want to play these games in their native languages,” explains Max Morton, who urged Sega to consider Inbound Games, who localized the Yakuza series and Sakura Wars 2019, to take up the task once again.
Patrick Gann, meanwhile, envisioned a possible case for “HD 2D art (think latter Atelier games cel-shading) remakes of I through IV, localized.”
In addition to remakes and remasters, Sakura Wars fans chomped at the bit for ports of the latest installment. “I would be interested to see if Sega tests the waters by porting Sakura Wars to the Switch or Steam,” notes Jonathan, who adds “Maybe, if it’s possible, a port of [Sakura Wars: So Long My Love], since that [already] has an English Version, and people can use it as a jumping point.” To sell their appeal, he urges Sega to “Look at the success of [Persona 4: The Golden] on Steam. It sold more in [one] month on Steam than it did in its entire life on Vita. Porting the games gives it a bigger audience.”
No matter what form the series takes going forward, it’s impossible the steps that the western fandom Sakura Wars has taken to get where it is today. That small coalition of die-hards who formed friendships on Usenet has blossomed into a vibrant community of dreamers, gamers, otaku, and theater geeks, who found a fellowship through SEGA and REDs steampunk series. Though it’s impossible to predict what the next twenty-five days will bring, let along the next twenty-five years, one can be truly certain that the western Sakura Wars fandom will be there, sharing that same infectious sense of optimism that runs through SEGA’s fantastic world of psychic song girls and super robots.
So let’s sing, ah a song, and the dream will continue. Because “We’ll meet again,” we’re not saying goodbye.
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