"All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl," Jean-Luc Godard is reputed to have said. Nobunagun has the gun and the girl, but they couldn't stop there. It's an overstuffed pastry of a show, where for every one good idea there's a bad one, an underdeveloped one, and one that comes completely out of left field. The real crime of this is not that the show can't do justice to its own ideas, but that ideas it ought to do justice to — genuinely interesting and troubling ones — drift on just out of reach.
It must sound like a self-contradiction to think less of a show because it tries to be too creative instead of not creative enough. But too much creativity comes with its own hazard, a corresponding lack of focus and selectivity. Instead of doing one or two things well, you end up doing six things badly, or at least sloppily. When this show tries to be League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by way of the Starship Troopers movie or maybe Pacific Rim, I didn't feel giddy or amused; I felt bewildered, like someone had mistakenly gone to production with the brainstorming documents instead of the show's actual outline. There's a good show here, and even a fun one, but it emerges only intermittently from its own murk, and with so many caveats attached, that it got tiring trying to keep up.
A bullet for the general
The premise ... actually, I can't even say that there's any one premise, because there's something like four or five premises inside Nobunagun's skin, all cagematching for supremacy. But the main one concerns high-school girl Shio Ogura, a closet military buff who's been having strange dreams about Oda Nobunaga, the warlord who managed to conquer a whole third of Japan in the Warring States era. None of that is a tenth as life-changing as when Shio goes on a class trip to Taiwan, only to have her fun interrupted when the world is attacked by insectlike aliens — and when she manifests a massive gun out of thin air and begins mowing them down.
Shio, as it turns out, won the genetic lottery. She is the possessor of an "E-Gene," a something-or-other in her biology that ties her to a past historical figure, and allows her to draw super-powers from it. In her case, the figure in question is Nobunaga, and she gains not only a super-gun but his ferocity in combat and even his capacity for tactical thinking in battle. Her power set is no less cinematic or absurd as the other E-Gene holders she meets — e.g., "Jack the Ripper", a snide Brit whose powers manifest as a giant scythe, or "Mahatma Gandhi", with giant hands that can be used as shields. (The dub version of the story equips all of these characters with irritating regional accents, one of those things done with English dubs that seems simultaneously obligatory and stupid.)
The story derived from all this is about what you'd expect. Shio is recruited into the ranks of the E-Gene holders, has one of those obligatory fumbling pseudo-relationships with Jack (the sort of irritating thing where they'd play 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" in the soundtrack if it were a Western production), and learns to master her powers to lay a beatdown on the aliens. On top of this, the show lays one digression after another — e.g., flashbacks into the past to show how the original E-Gene holders were all recruited into this war.
That's frustrating, because while that material's ostensibly there to give the show depth and background, it ends up serving a different function: it reminds of us how this could have been a better show. Look at it this way: the body of the show being taken up with humdrum procedural stuff about How To Kill The Monsters and silly side bits about Shio in a bathing suit, while off in the cracks and corners we're being told with a straight face (which is part of the fun) that Florence Nightingale was the one who killed those prostitutes in Whitechapel back in 1888, to keep them from spreading a deadly affliction. Which one of those two stories would you rather watch?
Missed targets, missed opportunities
The biggest consequence of this toss-it-all-in storytelling, though, is the way the truly interesting ideas well within the reach of this material never bubble to the surface.
Most action movies are explorations of the idea of how an audience can vicariously enjoy murder and destruction without being made to feel too guilty about it. Nobunagun does this by way of a time-honored strategy: make the enemy into something barely a step up from a force of nature, so neither the characters nor the audience have to do a great deal of thinking about whether or not it would be better to talk about who is being killed rather than what.
There are costs to this approach, and most of the time, the cost is simply not having a better story. Robert Silverberg once wrote a short story, "Sundance," about the lengths human beings go to avoid thinking about other sentient organisms as, well, sentient. In it, a man of Sioux descent is part of a mission to liquidate creatures not widely believed to be intelligent, but he comes to understand that they have a culture and a civilization of their own — one most people choose not to see. The cost of knowing you have been responsible for killing not something but someone is too much for most people. For indulging in this heresy he is forcibly reconditioned into changing his mind by his cohorts. Nobunagun tells the exact opposite of that story, one where someone learns how to kill a great many aliens, gets very good at it, gets rewarded for it, and where the potential sentience or sapience of those aliens is never in question.
That all this is not the professed story's intention only makes my point all the more: if it was part of the story's focus, we would arguably have had a better story, one demonstrably more curious about its material. The show already has elements of that curiosity — the flashbacks to how historical figures get involved could, again, easily be its own show! — but little of it ends up being reflected in Shio's development. It's not that Shio doesn't change during the course of the show; it's genuinely fun watching her apply her obsessions about military gear to the tactics they hatch. But that the changes she's put through are a reflection of the show's lack of real imagination about itself, and mostly amount to her becoming a better soldier.
At the very least, the show looks good; it's got a gloriously garish color scheme and some enjoyably experimental animation that give it a trippy, hallucinatory flavor, especially in the early episodes. But there's not enough of that to make it into a story about its style, either. Here we have a show that could have been about any number of other things — from goofy to truly grave — and in the end what we get is a story that's mostly about a girl who learns to suck it up and shoot straight. Talk about settling for less.