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Page 1:
Intro
Development
Structure

Page 2:
Sakura Taisen
Atsuki Chishio Ni

Page 3:
Sakura Taisen 2
Sakura Taisen 3

Page 4:
Sakura Taisen 4
Sakura Taisen V

Page 5:
Hanagumi Tsuushin
Hanagumi Taisen Columns
Steam Radio Show
Teigeki Graph

Page 6:
Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2
Ohgami Ichirou Funtouki
Sakura Taisen GB
Kinematron Hanagumi Mail
Sakura Taisen GB 2
Sakura Taisen Online
Sakura Taisen Monogatari

Page 7:
Sakura Taisen V Episode 0
Dramatic Dungeon
Legacy
Influence
Resources

By William Van Hecke, November 2012

Introduction

Sakura Taisen is the quintessence of the Japanese cult-hit video game franchise. It began with a poetic vision cultivated by a dream team of accomplished creators, it survived tribulations as it took double its scheduled development time, and then it sold out within hours of its release. From there, it spawned stacks upon stacks of sequels and side games, anime series, manga, albums, and books. As if the mountains of media were not enough, Sakura Taisen musical stage shows went on regularly from July 1997 to August 2006, and a dedicated Sakura Taisen shop and cafe in Ikebukuro operated daily from June 1998 to March 2008. This was no ordinary game franchise, and its devotees were no ordinary fans. Despite the admiration and dedication it earned in Japan, it remains largely unknown elsewhere - this article aims to communicate some small part of what the fuss was all about.

On the surface, Sakura Taisen is a series of hybrid bishoujo visual-novel and tactical mecha combat, set in alternate-history 1920s Tokyo, Paris, and New York, with masterpiece-level writing, voice acting, art, and music. It follows several troupes of (nearly) all-female robot pilots who fight against demons and evil magic, all the while working undercover as musical theater performers. Its worldview embraces absurdity, sentimentality, and nostalgia. Its prime mover, its raison d'être, and its pride and joy have always been its characters. Its unapologetic Japaneseness has made it simultaneously aloof and exotically fascinating to audiences outside of that country. If any of this sounds intriguing to you, please come along... for Taishou cherry blossoms and a storm of romance!

Development

The story starts in 1994, with a phone call from Shouichirou Irimajiri, VP at Sega, to Ouji Hiroi, a well-regarded writer and producer and the founder of game developer Red Company. Irimajiri wanted to fill the adventure game gap in Sega's first-party lineup, and thought Hiroi & Red Company had the sort of creative talents needed for such a project. Hiroi agreed and the two started collaborating at a furious pace, building up a mountain of ideas. Hiroi's first contribution was a scroll of his own calligraphy, a poem to set the tone of the project. (That is just the sort of grand-concept, creative guy Hiroi is.) They dreamed up characters, then imagined scenes for them. Upon seeing a tabletop wargame being played in the office, they decided to add tactical combat to their adventure concept. Anything was possible, and inspiration was everywhere.

Early on, they recruited legendary comic artist Kousuke Fujishima (of Aa Megami-sama! fame) to lend his sentimental style to the character designs, and famous anime composer Kouhei Tanaka (of Gunbuster fame) to provide an especially impassioned score. Tanaka finished the theme song early, and it served a similar purpose as Hiroi's calligraphy, giving the team an evocative symbol to take to heart. Fujishima brought aboard animator Hidenori Matsubara to help with the massive amount of in-game art and animated sequences. Futoshi Nagata provided the iconic, retrofuturistic mecha designs.

Continuing the all-star recruiting, writer Satoru Akahori (of Bakuretsu Hunter) was brought on board to start on the scripts. Because Akahori felt most comfortable writing anime scripts, he simply wrote in an episodic format, to the degree that at the end of each episode there was a preview of the next one. A process developed: as Akahori wrote, Hiroi edited, to make sure the script fit into his perfectionist vision of the game world. This led to the creation of four games' worth of scripts, which were then aggressively pruned down to the very best material.

Development took double the planned amount of time, and the game was not released until September of 1996. What had at times seemed like a hugely over-ambitious project, doomed to failure, ended up being a huge hit, selling out on the morning of its release.

Hiroi's inspirational calligraphy

Red Company

Sold out on day 1

Setting

Sakura Taisen takes place in a romanticized alternate-history version of 1920s Tokyo (and later, other cities of the world). On the imperial-era-based Japanese calendar, the Taishou Era roughly corresponds to the time between the two world wars; Sakura Taisen makes frequent reference to its era, but uses slightly different kanji (太正 instead of 大正) to indicate its divergence from actual history. After World War I, Japan enjoyed increasing importance and recognition in international affairs. Its urban citizens became more prosperous, cultured, modern, socially-aware, independent, and cosmopolitan. This optimistic, romantic "Taishou Democracy", to Hiroi, represented the starting point for an ideal future for Japan. He wished to rewind to that moment in history before the loss of innocence in the tragedies of WWII, to a time when Japan was an eminent member of the world community on its own terms, just as much as America and the European cultures. Especially in the teito (帝都), its bustling Imperial capital.

Everything Sakura Taisen is infused with that Taishou-Era flair. Text in the scene is written right to left, as was the custom of the day. The game manuals themselves are printed with their spines on the right, as left-spined books did not come into vogue until later decades. All numbers, even when they would normally be written with the more modern Arabic numerals, are written in kanji. This Taishou aesthetic pervades the design, typography, music, dialogue, and even the little steam-powered onscreen UI elements.

Nothing says Taishou Democracy like a Western-style musical theater interpreted with a Japanese sensibility. The Teikoku Kagekidan (帝国歌劇団), "Imperial Revue" is the musical theater troupe that serves as the main characters' cover while they are pursuing secret military missions. It is very heavily inspired by the Takarazuka Revue, a real-life theater troupe that has been performing in Kansai for the past century. Both perform spectacular, Broadway-style musical theater. Both are all-female, with some women specializing in male roles. Both are divided into sub-troupes including a hanagumi, (花組) "flower troupe"; this is the division the main characters belong to. That flower theme pervades the series, with all of the main characters being named after flowers, floral imagery appearing in most graphic designs, and so on. (Even the series title, decided early on by Hiroi, shows it: Cherry-Blossom Wars.)

So you have the mostly-authentic Taishou Era setting. Now add absurdly advanced steam-powered machinery and reiryoku (霊力), "spiritual power". This is the "alternate" part of the alternate history setting. The steam-powered technology in Sakura Taisen is already in some ways more advanced than modern electronics in the real world; adding the supernatural gets you combat robots that could hold their own in any mecha anime. The main purpose of these robots is to fight off demons who have already attempted to invade the human world once, and are about to do so again...

ST1: Ueno Park

ST1: Ginza

ST1: Koubu, the steam-powered mecha.

Voices

Securing a top-notch voice acting cast was crucial to the Sakura Taisen project. Because music and stage performance are central to its theme, Hiroi Ouji scouted many of the cast by going to live music performances and looking for women who could really sing, rather than just going through voice-acting agencies. He also sought out people who could "speak as if they were singing"; that is, people who had a lyrical quality to their voices even when talking normally.

The importance placed on the voice acting is evidenced by the precise synchronization of the onscreen portraits' mouth movements with the actual phonemes being spoken — this is something still not done in many games today, and frankly it's mysterious how they did it in 1996. (Sometimes I imagine some poor intern, doomed to program the timing of every mouth-flap for every syllable of voice recording throughout every ST game.) Another testament to the voice acting talent is the way that the voice-acting cast became just as idolized by fans as the characters were, and were even conflated with the characters in the live stage shows.

Voice actors on stage

Structure

As mentioned above, Sakura Taisen games unfold like an anime series, each divided into about ten episodes. An episode typically starts with some day-to-day situation in the theater, presented in a cutscene style that should be largely familiar to anyone who has played a JRPG or visual-novel. These scenes use Sakura Taisen's trademark LIPS system, described below. The daytime scenes are generally a way to get to know the theater cast as a group, the way they behave professionally and as friends.

Next comes an eyecatch, just like when a televised anime is going to or coming back from commercials. The eyecatch serves as a milestone in the chapter, gives the player a chance to save, and shows off a piece of character art.

At night, the player is given some time to roam around and find more LIPS scenes for specific characters, each of whom tends to hang out in certain areas around the theater. These evening rounds are limited in time, so you only get to see a couple out of all the possible scenes on a given night. The night scenes are usually one-on-one, and give you a chance to see the more personal side of each character; this is when secrets are confided and promises are made.

After the night rounds, some sort of crisis is guaranteed to occur and the squadron is ordered to sortie. You get another eyecatch, for a chance to save your game and check your squad members' yaruki (やる気), "motivation". This statistic is based on how satisfactorily the player has been handling your interactions with the squad members. Now you get to see yet another side of your troupe, under pressure and in the heat of battle.

In the first two games, battles occur in a straightforward tactical robot combat simulation system, with the addition that at times you are also expected to have meaningful exchanges with your squad members on the battlefield. ST3 debuts a new system with its own contrived acronym, ARMS. The battle systems are described in detail below.

After the battle is a concluding victory scene (assuming you are victorious), including the absolutely essential victory pose. All of the characters that played some part in the battle gather together and call out in unison, shouri no po-zu... kime! (勝利のポーズ...決めっ!), roughly "victory pose... go!" The resulting group shot (whom they are posing for is unclear) serves as a final, celebratory image for the episode, and reinforces just how character-focused these games are.

Following the victory pose is the preview of the next episode. Yes, each episode within each game has a short clip of scenes from the next episode, with a voiceover exhorting you to tune in! When Akahori said he was most comfortable writing for anime, he meant it. The voiceover is provided by one of the characters, and ends with the catch phrase Taishouzakura ni roman no arashi! (太正桜に浪漫の嵐), "Taishou cherry blossoms and a storm of romance!" Roman, meaning romance, is yet another a key concept in Sakura Taisen. That's the philosophical meaning of romance, by the way - while the series certainly is about love, in Japanese the word mainly means an optimistic, idealized view of the world, which Sakura Taisen exhibits proudly.

This pattern repeats, chapter after chapter, game after game. Gradually getting to know the characters around you, from all of these different angles, and coming to care about them over the course of dozens of hours, is the core of the Sakura Taisen series' appeal.

ST1: Eyecatch.

ST1: Motivation status.

ST1: Victory pose!

The Adventure Part

Sakura Taisen officially calls these more mundane scenes the "adventure" portion of the game, because of the random and nearly meaningless nature of Japanese game genre naming. The bishoujo (美少女), "pretty-girl" game subgenre, focusing on interactions with charismatic female characters, originated in the 1980s as a niche largely comprising pornographic PC titles. For the most part, it happened to make use of the text- and still-image-based template of the "adventure" genre. The breakthrough of bishoujo games into the mainstream was Konami's 1994 title Tokimeki Memorial - originally for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM², and eventually ported to a slew of other systems including PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Tokimemo pioneered the dating simulation subsubgenre, which focuses on time and stats management, and proved that bishoujo games (or "gal games") could appeal to a wide audience, and could be clean and wholesome. It demonstrated that there was a market for games focused on relationship cultivation, even without the erotic hook.

Sakura Taisen was part of the barrage of console bishoujo games that followed in Tokimemo's wake. Most were straightforward interpretations of the same contemporary high-school dating theme, with NEC Interchannel's 1998 title Sentimental Graffiti being the most successful. But Sakura Taisen fused the bishoujo and dating sim tradition with a mélange of other concepts: tactical RPG combat, a retrofuturistic setting, and a dramatic, musical theme. And Sakura Taisen always reinvents everything that it borrows, so of course it implements its own unique dating-sim system: LIPS.

LIPS stands for Live & Interactive Picture System. It includes several types of interaction between the protagonist and the rest of the cast. The most basic of these is the typical visual-novel multiple-choice question, in which the player is asked to decide what to say or do next. But most of these decisions are accompanied by a unique countdown timer; if you don't make a choice in time, your character will either keep quiet or blurt something inevitably worse than any of the presented choices. This adds tension and consequence beyond the ordinary, static visual-novel decision point.

Another basic LIPS scenario is a bust portrait view of a character in which you are given control of a cursor. You can move the cursor around the screen to interact with the character in various ways. Hover over the character's eyes, hair, clothes, possessions, and so on to turn the cursor into an eye, and press the button to look. Sometimes this yields an internal monologue from the protagonist on the qualities of the clicked feature; sometimes it yields a brief conversation; sometimes it yields a "quit staring at me" from your interlocutor. Hover over the mouth for a talk icon, and push to continue the conversation. You can similarly knock on doors, pick up objects, or leave via exits. And yes, there is a blushing, glancing-sidelong icon for when you hover over a female character's bosom. (But I have never engaged it, so I can't report on what happens.)

Depending on your answers and actions, you may positively or negatively affect your relationship with the characters present; these effects are indicated by a rising, major-scale jingle and a falling, minor-scale jingle, respectively. Throughout the series, Sakura Taisen masterfully trains the player to have a Pavlovian reaction to these positive and negative reinforcements - every good jingle is a victory, every bad jingle a tragedy. A bad jingle with your favorite heroine? Utmost shame. Occasionally, you have no choice but to harm your relationship with one character in order to better your relationship with another. Other times, you may have the opportunity to improve the trust level of all of your teammates at once. During the adventure part, though, your trust level with each heroine is kept secret; you need to wait until the eyecatch to check on their motivation levels. Because the trust your squad members have for you directly affects their motivation in battle, your understanding, kindness, and values in the LIPS parts are crucial to succeeding in the combat parts. Later games in the series introduce further variations on the LIPS system, which will be covered in the individual games' sections.

The adventure parts form the heart of the series, unfolding at a slow, deliberate pace, gradually building up the player's willingness to identify with the protagonist, and gradually deepening the protagonist's relationship with the rest of the Teikoku Kagekidan. And of course, at a crucial point in the story of each game, you will be prompted to choose a heroine to pursue a special relationship with - the nature of this relationship is chaste but very meaningful, and can be developed over the course of several games.

The idea of intertwining visual-novel/bishoujo game conventions with traditional combat systems made its way into other titles. In the 1990s, this included RPGs like Thousand Arms and Langrisser III, where the protagonist's romantic relationship with one of several female cast members affected the storyline. Atlus's Persona series adopted a relationship system in its colossally popular third and fourth installments, with deeper relationships leading to more powerful summons in combat. Gust's Ar tonelico series fundamentally incorporates a visual-novel relationship system with an RPG combat system. And Sega's own Valkyria Chronicles is arguably the most Sakutai-influenced game of all. See the Legacy section of this article for more.

ST1: A typical adventure-part scene.

ST1: A LIPS dialog.

ST1: Patrolling the theater at night.

Combat System

When Sakura Taisen was conceived, tactical RPGs had a long tradition on consoles going back to the 8- and 16-bit eras: notably, Nintendo & Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem series, Koei's Nobunaga no Yabô series, Masaya's Langrisser series, and Sega's own Shining series (just to name a few). But the tactical combat system in Sakutai was supposedly inspired not by such console games, but instead by tabletop wargames.

Battles are fought with Koubu (光武), "warrior of light", steam- and spiritually-powered robots manufactured by Kanzaki Industries. Each character has a Koubu of a distinctive color, with a distinctive weapon. The squad members pilot their Koubu against robotic and demonic threats  in turn-based combat; in Sakura Taisen 1 and 2 this happens on an isometric grid similar to that of Front Mission. This system is replaced in Sakura Taisen 3 by the more advanced ARMS system, described below in that game's section.

The original, isometric combat system allows each unit to perform two actions per turn, from a menu with options such as Attack, Defend, Move, Deathblow, Charge, and Heal. Each unit has a hit points gauge and a kiai (気合い), "fighting spirit" gauge. When moving, the eligible destination squares are highlighted in blue. When attacking, the shape of the character's attack area is highlighted in pink - making use of the various shapes of attacks possessed by your characters is a key part of mastering the combat system. Ohgami and Sakura's katanas can only reach one square in any direction; Sumire's naginata can attack two squares away; Maria's guns can fire several squares away in four directions, and so on. The kiai gauge can be spent to perform deathblows, attacks that invoke a full-screen animation effect and deal lots of damage. When you have reached the moment of truth and chosen the heroine you like best, a gattai (合体), unity technique becomes available in which the two of you team up to deliver an especially dramatic and powerful attack.

ST1: Grid combat.

ST1 ACN: ARMS system.

Long Day Mode

Upon completion of the game, each Sakutai game offers a new mode, called Teito no Nagai Ichinichi (帝都の長い一日), "A Long Day in the Capital". In this mode you roam around the theater, which has bonus activities located in various areas. You can see any of the movies or still event images you have unlocked, listen to music, play minigames, and so on. As the series goes on, these bonus materials get more elaborate, to the point that you can almost spend as much time with the post-game experience as you did with the game itself.

<<< Prior Page    

    Next Page >>>

Page 1:
Intro
Development
Structure

Page 2:
Sakura Taisen
Atsuki Chishio Ni

Page 3:
Sakura Taisen 2
Sakura Taisen 3

Page 4:
Sakura Taisen 4
Sakura Taisen V

Page 5:
Hanagumi Tsuushin
Hanagumi Taisen Columns
Steam Radio Show
Teigeki Graph

Page 6:
Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2
Ohgami Ichirou Funtouki
Sakura Taisen GB
Kinematron Hanagumi Mail
Sakura Taisen GB 2
Sakura Taisen Online
Sakura Taisen Monogatari

Page 7:
Sakura Taisen V Episode 0
Dramatic Dungeon
Legacy
Influence
Resources