Spoilers for Nobunagun
Content Warning: Discussion of sexual harassment and assault
You never know when a series you watch on a whim will turn out to be one of your favorites. That’s how I discovered Nobunagun: I just plopped it onto my Crunchyroll queue after seeing my favorite voice actress, Asakawa Yuu, tweeting about it.
The plot of this 2014 science fiction series is as generic as it gets: super-powered reincarnations of famous historical figures known as “e-gene holders” save the world from aliens called “Evolutionary Invasion Objects” (EIO) by using “AU weapons” created from the genetic material of their former lives. Ogura Sio discovers that she is the e-gene holder of everybody’s favorite warlord, Nobunaga Oda, after the EIOs attack her class trip to Taiwan and she taps into Nobunaga’s powers. Shortly after, she’s discovered by DOGOO, a secret organization of e-gene holders that fights the EIOs.
Funnily enough, I wasn’t immediately enamored with Nobunagun, even though it does contain many elements I enjoy: a female lead, flashy fight scenes, cool superpowers and historical figures. Still, many of the early story beats felt average and fairly predictable, save for a wonderful heart-to-heart scene in the second episode where Sio opens up to her friend Asao Kaoru about her very real, relatable fears about suddenly becoming someone else for the sake of a cause she doesn’t fully understand. It isn’t until she finally begins to interact with her fellow e-gene holders and grow into her newfound role that the show really took off for me, as it really allowed Sio to shine as herself.
Sio’s growth throughout the series is one of its highlights; female characters that have significant character development aren’t a rarity anymore, but Sio’s quirks and personality made it all the more memorable. To begin with, she’s a geeky, self-proclaimed military otaku. She’s a high school girl who’d happily flip the pages of a fighter plane magazine during lunch or geek out and take pictures of DOGOO’s military vehicles.
The best part is, this obsession of hers is never framed in a negative light; sometimes the other characters raise an eyebrow or gently poke fun at her, but they never ostracize or condescend her for it. She may be the class outcast, but she’s never shown being bullied or suffering for it. Her friend Asao Kaoru admits she’s always admired Sio for walking her own path and being herself, even if it meant becoming a social loner. That’s a big deal, as Japanese social norms still discourage individuals from sticking out.
Like many otaku, Sio admits she’s a social noob and finds it difficult to communicate with others. As the show advances she becomes more confident, which is reflected during the climactic battle: after hearing DOGOO’s initial plan to storm the enemy stronghold, Sio knows it won’t work and immediately heads for Command’s headquarters.
She’s intimidated by e-gene holder Vidocq, who originally concocted the plan, but holds her ground. She ends up impressing not only Vidocq but the entire council with her new strategy, which proudly showcases her deep knowledge of tanks, as only a specific model has the right equipment to penetrate the enemy’s defenses.
Here, her passions that ostracized her aren’t something to be ashamed of but rather something that can help save the world. Her growing confidence is also reflected in her interactions with her new squadmates as part of DOGOO’s Second Platoon. At first Sio hesitates to voice her opinions, but by the end, she literally calls the shots in the final operation.
Unfortunately, not all of Sio’s interactions are positive. Though it happens rarely compared to similar shows, Nobunagun has a nasty habit of violating the heroine’s boundaries for the sake of other characters’ comedic “quirks” or for cheap titillation, often both. Many times, Sio is forced into uncomfortable situations where she has little or no control: during an early training session with e-gene holder Robert Capa, he creates busty clones of Sio and not only threatens to strip one, but later takes swimsuit gravure shots and distributes the photos among the soldiers without her permission or consent.
When she meets her squadmate Isaac Newton for the first time, Newton greets Sio with a deep kiss. This gets played off as a quirk that Newton does to everyone, male or female. Similarly, in the last episode Newton and Cyx, another e-gene holder, grope Sio’s breasts and then drag her off to the showers.
What makes these moments offensive, aside from being unnecessary, is they’re framed as something Sio just has to put up with. Not once do the offending characters ever consider her consent important. It’s a nonissue for them. It’s like saying, “yeah sexual harassment sucks but that’s the price you pay joining a military organization, deal with it. That’s just the way it is.”
It nastily reflects real-world debates and conservative rhetoric about women in the military in real life. Not to mention that the harassment is always framed in a comedic manner, as if it’s okay to violate people’s boundaries if it’s played as a joke. As long as it’s not malicious, no harm is done… which is about as far from the truth as you can get.
The infamous tentacle scene is the worst offender. Like most anime with ominous tentacle monsters, during the final battle Sio gets molested by a squid-like EIO for no reason other than humiliating fanservice. The scene serves no plot purpose and only detracts from the seriousness of the fight; if the EIO was trying to restrain Sio and use her as a human shield, it could’ve easily done so. In fact, the show played this trope straight in an earlier episode, where her entire body is wrapped up and immobilized without fanservice. But here the camera leers at her breasts and crotch as tentacles snake all over and squeeze into every single crevice.
Still, for all the uncomfortable situations she gets put into, Sio always finds a way out. She’s determined and resourceful, and won’t just sit back and wait to be rescued. As extreme and sexualized as the tentacle scene was, by the next episode Sio considers her options and concocts a plan to free herself. Throughout the series, she impresses her peers not just with firepower but her strategic intellect. Oftentimes, it is Sio who comes up with the winning move at the critical part of a fight; and the best part is, her peers recognize and respect her for it.
Her fellow e-gene holder and eventual love interest, Jack the Ripper, admits that not only is he impressed with what “that voice in [her] head” says, but he’s willing to trust his life to her strategies. Similarly, their teammate Mahatma Gandhi says the same: “When she gets that certain look in her eyes, you can’t help but trust her.”
In early battles, Sio’s inexperience tends to get her into trouble more often than not, but she never gets sidelined and instead fights equally alongside everybody else. Even in the last episode, although Jack the Ripper saves her from a fatal blow, they work together as a team to defeat the final boss.
When I watched Nobunagun for the first time, I was so enamoured that it was easy to shrug off the uncomfortable parts. Now, a couple years and rewatches later, I’m happy to say that, even though I’m more aware of these problematic issues, Nobunagun is still one of my favorite series. Just having such a badass female lead who also does not try to hide her geeky side is such a rare combo, and makes her much more relatable.
I’m also happy to realize that, in viewing Nobunagn through a feminst lens, the show did a lot of good things that I hadn’t been aware of: the cast is 50-50 gender-balanced, women are shown to be equal in position and power to men, and heck even the character designs, especially their uniforms, are mostly practical without any weird cutouts.
Sio’s love interest, Jack the Ripper, is actually a decent guy–he may be rude towards her in the beginning, but looking back, he’s also one of the few people who never harasses or violates Sio’s boundaries. He also respects her for both her skill and intellect, and supports her decisions. Needless to say, I definitely screamed when they kissed at the end.
If you, like me, love to watch shounen-action shows with female leads, I’m always happy to recommend Nobunagun. It’s definitely not without caveats, but I believe the show’s strengths are strong enough to overcome its flaws, if you give it a chance.