Anime is stupid. I mean, that’s the only way I can explain why it’s now that Sengoku Youko is getting an anime adaptation. It would so perfectly have fit the anime landscape of 10-15 years ago – it would have been one of the finest examples of this genre, and likely been a big commercial and critical hit. The manga certainly was (though more modestly on the commercial side). But no, the industry ignored it and Mizukami completely until years later and even then, we got an original series (Planet With). Then an unbelievably trash adaptation of Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer – which also would have been a hit if it had gotten the rumored adaptation over a decade ago.
No, it’s in 2024 that Sengoku Youko finally sees the screen. And while “better late than never” was designed for situations like this, the fact is that anime audiences have pretty much evolved away from the sort of intellectual fantasy that this series personifies. Light novel fantasy has conditioned them to expect generic formula – demand it – and Mizukami is one of the least generic writers in manga. The ones who demand generic are dissatisfied with it because it’s clearly not, and the ones who don’t assume it’s generic because that’s all they see. The series deserves better and so does Mizukami, but at least those of use who know the score are getting something close to a full adaptation.
As to Sengoku Youko itself, it’s a series where structure is awfully important. In effect this is really three series, one cour each. The first is the prologue, and the first three episodes are really a prologue of the prologue. That’s why they were the ones shown to preview audiences – the series proper (the first one) really starts now. Think of it as a karuta player positioning his cards before the start of them match, and what happens from here on out as the match itself. Three matches, in a sense.
The flashbacks we see in this episode are a big part of that. Mizukami has something of that Noda Satoru thing where even supporting characters have the air of protagonists, though it manifests a little differently here. In order to understand their actions you have to understand who these people are, and how they got that way. Shinsuke is a poor peasant chafing at the rampant injustice of the Sengoku Period, furious at his inability to change anything. Tama is a katawara who was lovingly raised by a human, and came to love them. Jinka is a human who was lovingly raised by a katawara, who was killed by foolish humans – humans Jinka came to hate. And this mismatched trio – with the star-crossed Shakugan – has been thrown together by circumstances to face this cruel and violent world.
Another thing about Mizukami is that he trusts his audience. And that poses challenges, especially to an anime audience unfamiliar with him and used to series that expressly don’t. We don’t know who all these characters are yet – Yazen for example. Not well enough to know why they do the things they do. But nobody in a Mizukami series does stuff randomly just because the plot demands it. Sometimes we learn things later which explain events we’ve already seen, and he’s relying on us to have been paying attention.
As for Jinka, when he blows through the Dangaisyuu temple he reveals his true motivation to Inga (who’s kind of earned his respect). He wants the research Yazen has conducted for himself, because he wants to “complete” his own transformation to katawara. The temple monks are no match for him, but when he gets to the aforementioned research castle Yazen is waiting for him. And said castle (Yazen later refers to it as Taizan) pulls a somewhat surprising move, rising up on its haunches and punching Jinka’s lights out. Yazen thoughtfully shows up (in shikigami form) to check on him, and offers that he’ll be sending assassins to eliminate Jinka now that he knows too much.
Yazen has also sent one of his monks to recapture Shakugan – and kill the ronin and “child” accompanying her. Shinsuke does his best to try to protect the others in Jinka’s absence, and it’s a case where one has to look past the obvious to see that he’s actually being rather noble here. Yes, he’s acting the coward and the fool – because he’s made a realistic calculus that he’s not strong enough to stop this modified warrior from doing what he says. Unfortunately, seeing Shinsuke about to be killed causes Shakugan to partially transform. “Unfortunately” not in the sense that she saves him, but that this causes her to remember everything – and most of everything is pretty terrible in this case.
Shinsuke is nothing if not determined, and he’s determined not to leave Shakugan to suffer alone for what she was forced to do. And so all these loners are outcasts are thrown together, each with their own motives and all with a bounty on their heads, to face a Japan that even in the real world in this period was a brutally dangerous and heartless place. The first three episodes have all been about getting us to this moment – and this whole premise is really only a preamble to the larger story. For those who have the patience to follow Mizukami at his own pace the rewards will be ample indeed.