Happy 10th birthday, Senran Kagura

Senran Kagura, one of the most beloved ecchi series out there, turns ten years old today; its first installment, Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows, released on September 22, 2011.

While there are still a few questions over the future of the series following the difficulties last mainline installment Burst Re;Newal had on PlayStation platforms, it seems that Marvelous Japan and Honey Parade Games, series creator Kenichiro Takaki’s development company, are celebrating nonetheless; a brand new (and, for the moment, Japanese-only) 25th anniversary site has launched today.

The celebratory site features a special anniversary video, a brief history of the series and voice messages from the cast of Hanzo National Academy and Homura’s Crimson Squad (formerly the Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy) — including Hebijo teacher Rin and Hanzo senpai Daidouji.

Senran Kagura is beloved by many with good reason; it’s much more than just the fanservice it is so widely known for — and for which it has drawn such scorn from certain quarters in the west. It is an inspirational series about an ever-expanding cast of girls who are learning to understand their place in the world, how they can make use of their own distinct abilities and knowledge — and how they can help one another when the time is right.

Skirting Shadows, which was the game we’re celebrating the anniversary of today, never saw a western release for a few reasons. Firstly, back in 2011, the western games industry was quite a bit more hesitant about heavily fanservicey titles than it is today — though on platforms such as the PS3 and the Vita (which released in late 2011) a lot of these games ended up getting localised.

More significantly, though, the “sequel” to Skirting Shadows, which released the following year, was actually more of an expanded version, and thus this is the version that got localised in 2013; while Skirting Shadows just followed the story of the “good” shinobi of Hanzo academy, placing Homura and her friends firmly in the role of antagonists, Senran Kagura Burst, as the follow-up was known, allowed players to experience the complete story from both sides. And one of the series’ most interesting aspects became clear: the matter of “good” and “evil” is far from simple, despite how black-and-white many people would like it to be.

Senran Kagura

In the world of Senran Kagura, “good” shinobi are those who are hired by various official agencies, and who do what they are told. They behave with honour, do what is expected of them and do not cause harm to those who are not involved in the jobs for which they have been hired. “Evil” shinobi, meanwhile, hire out their services to the highest bidder and will, in theory, do pretty much anything; this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad people, however — it just means that they’re a little less discerning about who they will work for.

In fact, this distinction is highlighted specifically in several installments of the series, and the “evil” side of things is actually positioned as somewhat more progressive than “good” in some ways: after all, you can be too evil to be good, but being too good to be evil is impossible. Evil excepts and embraces all, regardless of their background; good requires certain prerequisites that some, born without the appropriate privileges, might never be able to attain.

The original Skirting Shadows did well on its home turf; on its week of release it took the top spot in the 3DS charts with its limited edition, and third place with its standard edition. Not only that, its strong commercial performance alongside Vanillaware’s Grand Knights History contributed to Marvelous having a spectacular reversal of fortune, as reported by Destructoid: their original forecasted net loss over six months of 185 million yen was revised to a net profit of 192 million yen — about $2.5 million or so in 2011.

Senran Kagura

Destructoid’s piece suggested that a localisation of Senran Kagura was a definite possibility, but nothing happened immediately. That’s not to say there was no interest, however; speaking with the same publication in May of 2013, Xseed’s boss Ken Berry noted that he and the team knew “the demand [was] there as lots of fans [had] asked [them] about it”, but also admitted that he found it a “scary proposition due to the subject matter and difference in attitudes between Japanese culture and the more conservative culture in the United States”.

And indeed, Berry was right to be skeptical; after Xseed had released Senran Kagura Burst via the Nintendo 3DS eShop in North America at the end of 2013, the UK’s Official Nintendo Magazine posted a spectacularly ill-informed screed about how the game was “damaging the industry” and “how to stop it”. Writer Chris Rooke described the game as “fundamentally degrading” and argued that people “shouldn’t buy it or support it in any way.”

His arguments, inevitably, were about sexualisation supposedly driving women out of the industry and, as is depressingly predictable with this sort of thing, made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to engage with the game’s actual narrative, themes or characterisation. This is abundantly clear from the number of factual inaccuracies in the piece, which are far too numerous to itemise right now; go check the archive link above if you really want to give yourself an aneurysm.

Naturally, such a virulently negative response to a new game that had already garnered a passionate fanbase had the exact opposite effect that Rooke intended; it did more to promote the game than anything Marvelous or Xseed could have deliberately set in motion. People who might not have bought the game bought it to make a point — quasi-Puritanical finger-wagging from some white dude who had never played the game he was so furious about wasn’t going to stop them from enjoying something that sounded cool.

Speaking with some British pervert on USgamer in 2013, Brittany “Hatsuu” Avery, who was working as a production assistant at Xseed at the time, had a lot to say on the subject. Prior to speaking with me, she’d already torn the Official Nintendo Magazine piece a new one on Twitter — sadly this particular rant appears to have been lost to time — but was keen to say more.

“Despite the first impression it gives,” she told me, “Senran Kagura Burst is a complete story with fully developed characters. It’s about accepting those who appear to be different from you based on the surface. Some of the girls are relatable with their problems; I identified with certain personality quirks Katsuragi had, but other girls might identify with Mirai’s self-esteem issues, Asuka’s interest in self-improvement as an independent person over romance, or Yagyuu’s unrequited feelings. Each girl is quite different.”

Senran Kagura

I asked her directly about the Official Nintendo Magazine piece, and how she felt about the title she had worked on being described as peddling “insultingly misogynistic and degrading atrocities”.

“I don’t necessarily think anyone’s opinion is wrong,” she said, demonstrating admirable restraint. “It’s a matter of whether they like or dislike the features. But I do think a lot of the people who disagree with how the girls are presented aren’t aware of the game in its entirety, so I feel it’s a personal mission to educate them about every part of the game.

“If you feel it’s important to discuss the 10 per cent of the time there’s girl talk involving boobs,” she continued, “I feel it’s important to also discuss alongside it the 70 per cent of the time when they’re struggling with the concept of what it means to be a shinobi and how they should really be perceiving their enemies, or the 20 per cent of the time when they’re just being normal girls doing normal things.”

Senran Kagura

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and Senran Kagura managed to cement its fanbase in the west with its localised release. And from there, the series just went from strength to strength, with only occasional half-hearted attempts to object to it every so often from outrage-peddling games journalists who needed to fulfil their clickbait quota for the day. The series went on to provide us with eight computer, console and handheld games; two highly successful (but sadly unlocalised) mobile games; five runs of manga; an OVA prequel; several anime series; and lots and lots of merchandise. Definitely a solid achievement for such an “atrocity”.

Creator Kenichiro Takaki has remained unapologetic about creating exactly the sort of thing he wanted to create; he once noted that “the world is full of stuff people will think is fun to them; it just seems so pointless to waste your time on things you don’t like or can’t understand”. In other words, if you like Senran Kagura — great! Welcome to the fold. If you don’t, bugger off and stop bothering the people who do, because oddly enough people get quite angry when you accuse them of being sexual deviants purely because of the video games they like.

Because, as anyone who has spent any time with Senran Kagura knows, that fanservice aspect is just one part of the experience as a whole, and to focus entirely on it is to do a massive disservice to the wonderful world and characters Takaki and company have created over the course of these games — not to mention the varied, challenging themes that the various narratives have taken on.

Senran Kagura

Perhaps most noteworthy is how the series has explored matters of female sexuality in its myriad forms — straight, gay, bi, dom, sub, asexual and more, they’re all covered here. Some installments even cover matters of gender identity — though to date it’s stopped short of incorporating a full-on trans character — and, as a consequence of all this, the series has found itself picking up a strong following not just among straight men, but also among gay and trans women. This fantastic piece from martial arts instructor “Atma Weapon” is a perfect example.

Sadly, we’ve not seen a mainline installment in the series since 2018, raising some serious questions over whether or not Senran Kagura 7even, which teasers suggest might act as something of a “grand finale”, will ever be with us. The series isn’t dead, mind you; Neptunia x Senran Kagura Ninja Wars will be with us in October, and from there… well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Until then, if you’re yet to catch up on the many and varied stories of the world’s favourite shinobi gals, I suggest you get hacking and slashing in celebration of the series’ anniversary — there’s a ton of fun to be had.

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Pete Davison
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