Saturday, March 11, 2017

Senran Kagura 2 Story Analysis: Chapter 4

In a parallel to the previous chapter, chapter 4 opens with another glimpse to the origins of Kagura.  Since by this point we have a better idea of who she is, there’s no need for a cryptic scroll to tell us.  The game lets us see for ourselves as Kagura looks into a river and vague memories from her past go through her head.

For over 900 years Kagura has been reincarnated several times and has known many people that have traveled with her on her youma-slaying quest, but she only vaguely remembers them in bits and pieces.  She can’t even remember their names.  She has had to say goodbye to many people she’s cared for and can only grasp fleeting memories of them, a fate that will apparently happen with Naraku as well.

The only particularly consistent memory she has is of someone smiling at her in total darkness, but she doesn’t let any of it get to her and interfere with her mission.  She knows what she was born into the world to do.  Supposedly, at least.  Without even knowing, Kagura sheds a tear as she thinks about her friends, showing that no matter how dedicated to her cause or how detached she looks, she’s still a person and can feel lonely.  Her immortality is ultimately a curse, accelerated further for her because of this mission she must do.  It is a very well-done visual novel segment that establishes the kind of life this tragic figure has had to live.

It shows the player that perhaps she’s not as bad as she comes off and there may be a way to reason with the side of her that cares about other people.  That’s a good perspective to have because Yomi, Hikage and Mirai are all open to the idea and are upset at their rival’s assassination orders for the same reasons Homura was.  The way Kagura and Naraku trust no one and are being targeted by the youma reminds Homura’s team of themselves before joining Hebijo, and like Hebijo gave them a chance, they want to give Kagura and Naraku a chance.

To be fair, the Hanzo girls are trying to think of other ways they might be able to reason with Kagura and Naraku, but as Naraku said in chapter 3, they still have to do their missions and the shinobi council may not spring for whatever they come up with.  They aren’t ones to understand emotional connections with targets when it comes to dangerous missions.  The Crimson Squad still insist the Hanzo students think for themselves, resulting in a straight-up fight between Yomi and Ikaruga as well as Hikage and Katsuragi at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

Like with Homura and Asuka, they can’t agree with each other and go their separate ways for the time being.  Both of them understand the other’s positions, but can’t compromise theirs.  Because of their different paths they aren’t always going to see eye to eye, but they do think about each side’s perspectives to broaden their views.

After both teams go back to their hotel rooms, Hibari asks Kiriya if he can tell them about Kagura so that they can better understand the mission, but he very harshly says no.  It’s still a strictly need-to-know basis and they don’t need to know who they’re killing just to feel better about themselves.  It’s part of being a shinobi and they need to get used to it.  It’s an aspect that up to this point has not been very touched upon, but is a harsh reality of their jobs.

I kind of feel like part of the reason Kiriya doesn’t tell them is for their own protection.  If he tells them who she is, they might get too sympathetic, which could result in them hesitating and getting killed or failing the mission.  Remember that the last time he helped a student, she went off and got “killed” and he blamed himself for it.  He wants to make sure the Hanzo girls are ready for the life ahead of them.

He has so much character and yet through all these conversations he is always offscreen!  I think he gets more dialogue in this game than in Shinovi Versus and even there he showed up onscreen!  This isn't a Zero Escape game!  There is no reason for it!

You used to have a face!
In Homura’s room, her team contemplates that maybe they forgot what it meant to be shinobi after becoming renegades.  They’re free from shinobi duties now, but if they were still shinobi they would have to be following orders too.  On the other hand, the reason they’re renegades is because they were betrayed by the people giving them orders, so they also realize the dangers of blindly following them.  They understand the importance of individualism and thinking for themselves better than Asuka’s team.

It would also be stupid to fight on top of a speeding train.

Both teams decide to think on it with some leisure time on their vacation, starting with some training with their wooden dummies right in their hotel rooms to clear their minds.
It doesn’t contribute to the plot, but I don’t mind these brief training missions, nor did I mind them in Senran Kagura: Burst.  Shinobi have to train all the time, so just a few missions experiencing that without having to fight youma or enemy ninjas gives them the slice of life feel the games are so good at.

Before the Crimson Squad’s actual vacation time really begins though, Haruka comes in, having recently been negotiating with a bunch of people with power and influence.  She doesn’t specify who, but I’m going to guess local ninja authorities or the mayor.
Whoever they are, she brokered a deal with them to officially hire their team as professional youma slayers.  Their benefactors are willing to pay 5 million yen (about $45,000) for every youma they kill, a bonus for bigger ones and they’re covering living expenses until they’re done.  Homura’s Crimson Squad officially has their first paid mission, and unlike their missions as shinobi, they had the freedom to negotiate it and agree upon it in contrast to what Hanzo Academy is going through.  Free thinking and flexibility has saved the day.

It’s great for them of course, but it goes to show how dire the situation is that the government is so desperate for help that they’re employing renegades, who are supposed to be targeted by good and evil shinobi alike, and for such an absurdly high pay rate.  They get all that money for just one youma, no matter how small, so after a few dozen (like they’ve already killed) they could have the equivalent of half a million dollars.

I can’t help but wonder how their benefactors are supposed to be verifying how many they’ve killed.  Shinobi fight in barriers where they can’t be seen and it’s established that youma crumble away after they die.  I guess they have a non-combat scout that can traverse barriers and keep tally or something, but clarity would be nice.

Upon their first youma hunting mission, Homura comes across Naraku and Kagura again.  Naraku went off and got herself injured, so since they still sympathize with her, Homura’s team offers to help patch her up so she doesn’t die.  Naraku, as usual, refuses their help, but allows it when Kagura tells her to so she doesn’t bleed out.

Once again Kitajima shows his skill in showing and not telling, where after just one scene he already says a few things about the characters.
First, Kagura doesn’t actually know people can die from blood loss until Homura tells her.  It’s implied that her true form is maturing and she still needs to learn about the world again after her reincarnation, which Naraku helps with.
Second, for the whole game Naraku has been putting Kagura first.  Even if she hates shinobi and doesn’t want their help, she will happily do whatever Kagura asks of her with no questions asked.  She is a dedicated bodyguard and thinks of nothing but her duty, paralleling the Hanzo students and their duty as good shinobi and Kagura’s youma slaying mission.  This was also seen in chapter 3 when the young Kagura kept having to tell Naraku to be nice.  After seeing the Hanzo students and Kagura’s misgivings about the roles they’ve been assigned, it makes you wonder how Naraku really feels.

After dealing with some nearby youma, including a new crab woman youma, Homura gives Naraku Haruka’s false dimension device.  Yeah, that thing that hasn’t been used since the brief training at the start of chapter 2.  Apparently Homura’s squad brought it along in case they wanted to keep up with their training before the whole youma invasion happened.  If Naraku uses it right, she can hide to recover.  Homura’s rationale for helping them is that Kagura isn’t a problem to them until she’s fully awakened and they don’t necessarily want Kagura to die when they’re still not sure what they should do about her.  I hope Haruka made that device user-friendly because Homura does not explain how it works.

With Naraku and Kagura now hiding and both teams still thinking of their next move, it comes time for the obligatory Senran Kagura relaxation segment.  Similar to the bullet train hijinks, this is the break from the action where characters get to be themselves.  The setting here is the Kyoto hot spring (onsen) resort, similar to the hot springs they all stayed at in the Hebijo story of Burst.

As I mentioned in the chapter 3 article, hot spring resorts really are one of the most relaxing places in the world, at least from what I’ve heard.  My Japanese language teacher in college talked about them before.
Japan’s natural geothermal heat from the “Ring of Fire” has made its hot springs a major attraction for rejuvenation, with the hot water bath and cold water rinse allowing the pores to totally open and close up, respectively.  From what I understand they’re also communal.  They’re usually sex-segregated, but there’s a Japanese view that communicating with someone else when they’re both naked is a form of showing trust and that neither of them have anything to hide and are willing to be vulnerable to each other.

I’ve read a theory that says the idea of being bare for mutual trust applies to Senran Kagura’s clothing damage mechanics.  An interesting theory, and it fits with the themes of friendship and respect, but I think it’s just battle damage.  You could argue it for the friendly fights to settle differences, but I don’t think anyone is communicating with the youma.

Senran Kagura 2 doesn’t show any of them naked, thankfully.  They wear their swimsuits and wrap towels around them as the clothes to be damaged.  Hot springs are explicitly neutral zones when it comes to the duties of shinobi, but each Hanzo student fights their Crimson Squad rival in the hot springs bath house for very silly reasons.

Ikagura gets into a fight with Yomi because Katsuragi is an extremely bad influence, but they call a truce after hearing an uncomfortable voice from behind the wall that sounds familiar to Ikaruga (and fans).

Katsuragi fights Hikage after finding out she has the last bottle of strawberry milk.
Drinking cold milk after a bath is apparently a common thing to do in Japan and resorts have vending machines of them in different flavors.  I think it’s to soothe and expand the stomach after being in the heat, which can make room for the food the resort provides.

Builds strong bones.
On a side note it’s also common for bathhouses to have ping pong sets to stretch the muscles with exercise.  That was already shown in Burst, but Asuka’s DLC weapon in this game is a pair of ping pong paddles explicitly stated to be for after baths.

I love the way the transition to Katsuragi’s silly fight is executed.  Hikage says she has the last one, Katsuragi says “what” (“nandatte”) and it loads the battle, during which she tells Hikage that the springs are only neutral ground for good and evil shinobi and that milk is another issue entirely.  This implies she didn’t give any kind of warning to attacking her.  She just went right in.  She needs that milk dammit!

Unfortunately, Hikage is surprisingly spiteful and drinks it all.  Katsuragi’s mood quickly shifts from despair to mania and then excitement after Hikage tells her about the Kyoto-exclusive Ujumatsa green tea-flavored milk.  Yuu Kobayashi is such a phenomenal voice actress.  She gets across the hot-blooded intensity in every one of Katsuragi’s lines and her being so genuinely over-the-top about something so mundane is so silly I can’t stop myself from smiling at it.  It’s because of voice acting like that I don’t mind that the game isn’t dubbed in English.  I would choose the Japanese voices anyway.

Katsuragi's hyperactivity is funnier with Hikage's stone-faced stoicism.

Mirai mistakes Yagyuu’s comments about their rivalry as something completely different and fights her in a fit of rage, a conflict that isn't really resolved.
Hibari gets along with Haruka, but after Yagyuu attacks Haruka to protect Hibari, she slips on a bar of soap and dies.

Not really, but Hibari sure acts like she did and assaults Haruka to avenge her, recounting all the happy memories she’s had with Yagyuu the whole way through.  It’s funny seeing Hibari act this way because it implies that Yagyuu’s overprotection may have been somewhat mutual and that Hibari can lose her cool wanting to protect Yagyuu.

In the end Yagyuu gets up and they all decide to forget the misunderstanding and just relax together.  Yagyuu and Haruka have their disagreements, but they still like to be with Hibari.  Them setting their differences aside to just relax in good company is kind of adorable and being genuinely adorable through meaningful characterization is part of what makes Senran Kagura so captivating.

Like other rooms fights take place in, the bath house has all the details to feel like a bath house.  It has the shower, buckets, a big soaking bath and behind the glass doors is the hot spring itself, complete with steam and some falling leaves from the nearby trees.

Even the music sounds like it belongs in a bathhouse.  It has sort of an echoing, more relaxed feel to go with the fast-paced rhythm of battle.

This is also the section where the music gets a lot out of the series traditional “silly” music.  It’s the music used when characters are having a casual conversation, be it normal (by their standards) or silly.  I think the first game had a better one, but SK2’s fits the main story’s setting a little better.

Asuka and Homura get into a fight when someone seems to be touching them in the spring.  They blame each other at first, but after a shinobi-style battle argument they realize neither of them was doing it.  At first Asuka thinks that it might be a ghost.

She's almost as badass as Ragna the Bloodedge.

But no it turns out to be Kagura.  She was hiding in the bath at Naraku’s instructions.  I guess they really didn’t know how to use that false dimension doohickey.

Her screaming was her battle cry, no doubt inspired by Hideaki Kobayakawa.
Because of the hot springs being a neutral zone, Kagura has the opportunity to talk with the shinobi one to one, girl to girl, without any worry of their missions.  It’s part of the idea behind communal bathing, after all.

Kagura is curious about how Homura and Asuka communicate with each other through battle.  Even they admit there isn’t an easy answer.  Like I said, it’s a special kind of communication and bonding they don’t think very hard about.  It’s just something they do and they have a sort of synchronization.  Naraku intervenes before Kagura can think too hard about it, but Asuka leaves her with one final explanation before the two go: they may not have a conventional relationship, but she and Homura are friends.

Something about the idea of friends brightens Kagura’s mood for the first time and she is interested to know more, meaning perhaps there is a way to work things out with her instead of having to kill her.  It’s another glimpse into her character.

The chapter ends afterwards with Kiriya telling Asuka and Homura to gather their teams.  It has finally come time for a big reveal.  In the next chapter.
It’s not the best way to end the chapter, I admit, but the opening to follow it fits better into the structure and the promise of exposition for exactly what’s going on hooks the player.

Chapter 4 is largely one of character interaction.  The youma generals and Naraku’s vendetta against shinobi is largely put to the side to let the characters converse with one another as well as reflect on their positions and relieve the tension with some Senran Kagura silliness.

It’s called pacing.  A story with bombastic action every second gets tiring and lacks meaning without properly conveying characters in natural settings.  Every Senran Kagura game knows how to give some time to characters in these natural settings to show how relatable they and their relationships with the others are.  While this overstays its welcome in the most recent game, Estival Versus, Senran Kagura 2 keeps it short and sweet with some missions in the hot springs that wrap up with some meaningful dialogue with the story’s biggest plot driver that couldn’t normally happen without that relaxed setting.

It’s a calm before the storm that is chapter 5, where the story reaches its epic climax on multiple fronts.  It is so big and long I may need to split it into two parts.  Break time is over!  It’s time to answer questions, fight the bad guys and move forward to solve this mess!

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