Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rotating Volleys of Merchandise: The Battle of Nagashino as Pop Culture Phenom

A few years ago we ran an article about the ‘Selling of Sekigahara’-how battles from Japan’s past were a popular subject for merchandising and found their way into all sorts of pop culture venues. It’s not unusual to see them featured in tabletop board games, video games, models, figures, toys, dioramas, TV programs, movies, and even weapon reproductions. Recently the SA podcast ran a feature on a battlefield archeology conference where the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 was a subject of one of the presentations, so we thought it a good time to run a similar feature on the merchandising of that famous battle that we’ve had in waiting for several months. We’re sticking to Japanese-produced items here, so you’ll have to read about GMT’s interesting depiction of the battle in their tabletop wargame ‘Samurai’ elsewhere (as well as similar efforts in Brian Bradford’s ‘Killer Katanas’ and ‘Total War: Shogun 2’). Likewise, we’re not going to discuss much in the way of books on the battle as they fall a bit outside of pop culture merchandising (although many of them are indeed pop culture efforts). With that in mind, here are some of the products fired the way of shoppers by the soldiers of corporate Japan. 

In passing, we’ll mention several sims/wargames dealing with the battle that have been released over the years. From the 1980’s is “Oda Teppotai (Oda Gun Corps)”, a hex-based rudimentary electronic game that’s beginner friendly, being on the difficulty level of early Avalon Hill games. A step up in complexity is “Nagashino: Shitaragahara Kassen (Nagashino: Battle of Shitaragahara)”, found in War Game in Japanese History #7. It’s a European-style game with area movement and card play that adds specific events and randomness to the proceedings. Finally, there’s Game Journal #23’s “Namida No Shitaragahara (Tears of Shitaragahara)” (one of two games found in this special Nobunaga Senki issue, the other being Anegawa). This hex based effort is the most detailed, accurate, and complex of the three listed here. Since we’ve covered all of these in varying degrees of detail on the Samurai Archives Forum, we’ll just refer you there for more details (particularly the Japanese history war game thread). 

Next up is the recent 90 page mook “Nagashino no Tatakai (Battle of Nagashino)” from Gakken (publishers of the popular pop culture history series “Rekishi Gunzou”). While at first glance it appears to be a pretty standard examination of the battle, the volume’s gimmick appears just inside the back cover. There’s a 3D four-panel fold-out map of the battlefield with troop positions along with a set of 3D glasses for your viewing pleasure. The 3D is of the old-fashioned blue/red 1950’s comics variety and truth to tell, the effect isn’t very good. However, the rest of the book is. Like most Gakken books it’s loaded with maps, charts, biographies, photos, and artwork. Particularly nice are several double paged spreads that show three/quarter bird’s eye views of the area at different points before, during, and after the battle. There are maps for every level-strategic, operational, and tactical, along with more detailed topographical maps. In-depth breakdowns of the armies and the types of unit tactics, weaponry, and defenses employed are shown. The entire campaign is examined with the climactic battle earning expanded coverage. Biographies of most of the major commanders present are given along with their actions during the battle (as expected, Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Takeda Katsuyori get the lion’s share but even their less famous vassals such as Hara Masatane get mentions). As a bonus, there’s also some nice material on the earlier battle of Migatagahara. Modern day photos explore the battlefield as it appears today. The history is a bit outdated (for example, the barricades are shown as being placed along the entire length of the line as well as having advanced redoubts-see Thomas Conlan's "Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior" for why this probably wasn't the case, or check out the excellent video tour HERE), but overall it’s a solid effort. Other volumes in the series include other of the ‘big four’ battles of the Sengoku- Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka. 

Looking at a 3D battlefield is one thing, but building your own is much more fun. For those interested in giving that a try there’s “Nagashino no Tatakai (Battle of Nagashino)”, part of Facet’s “Sengoku Kassen (Warring States Battles)” papercraft line of products. This inexpensive and entertaining kit gives you everything you need to replicate and bring to life a famous painted screen of the battle. You get a base of the terrain and two sheets of various types of soldiers, sashimono, barricades, and castle sections. Punch them out and bring the battle to life! Enterprising miniature enthusiasts could even build a war game around it. Sure, it’s non-scale, but so much fun you won’t mind a bit. 

More in scale and of interest to miniaturists is Aoshima’s “Nagashino no Tatakai” plastic model kit, part of its “Japanese History Sengoku Battle” series. Aoshima produced a popular series of 20 samurai kits, each themed to a specific type of soldier, an individual leader, a defensive/offensive work, or even a subset of five kits dealing with Chushingura. As the years passed they would produce themed packages encompassing several of these kits along with additional items to make a diorama. There were the battles of Kawanakajima, Sekigahara, Migatagahara, a couple for Osaka, Shimabara, Odawara, an ‘Edo Elegance’ effort, and several kits showcasing the Date, Sanada, and Takeda clans. There was also the one we’re looking at, Nagashino. It was comprised of kits 4 (spearmen), 5 (arquebusiers), and 10 (Oda Nobunaga). A plastic unpainted base was included along with ‘grass’ to sprinkle on it, dowel rods and twine to construct barricades, and paper curtains to construct Nobunaga’s headquarters along with several flags. Ahead of its time, the kit was careful to show a mix of spearmen with the gunners rather than the masses of firearm toting samurai as seen in Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha”. The kits, while issued years ago, are regularly reissued and can be found cheaply on auction sites. 

But by far the best item featuring the battle to date is Videre/Oshiro Diorama Restoring Shops’s “Mikawa: Nagashino Castle”, the initial entry in their ‘Shirorama’ series of Japanese castle dioramas. This package has as its centerpiece a 1/1500 scale of the grounds and buildings of Nagashino Castle, the Tokugawa structure under siege by the Takeda whose relief precipitated the battle. Featuring an attractive 3D prepainted base, modelers can paint and add the included fences, walls, watchtowers, and buildings scattered about the several enclosures (‘maru’) of the castle. While most castle kits focus on the tower ('tenshu') of the castle (often the only part that has survived to the present day-or been reconstructed)-and for castles that never saw combat at that-this one is much more representative of the type of fortresses that were actually used in the Sengoku. Noted castle historian Fujii Hisao has overseen the development of the kit and the reconstruction is as accurate as possible. However, as well done as the diorama is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what’s included. 


There’s also an excellent 66 page book that details the history of the castle along with the battle itself. It’s loaded with maps, photographs, charts, and period artwork. The history of the castle contains the most up-to-date information, including the results of several recent digs. The battlefield history also contains much of the most recent scholarship, although it too presupposes barricades all along the line. Detailed painting and assembly instructions are given for the diorama. And since my wife told the retailer she was buying it for an English speaker, they included an excellent 68 page English translation by Ninomiya Hiroshi. It reflects the better scholarship also and among its sources are several excavation reports conducted by the local education system. There are quite a few interesting secondary sources used as well. It’s probably the best published English language treatment of the battle to date, being much more reliable than Stephen Turnbull’s outdated Osprey effort. 

Also included are two reproductions of antique maps of the castle, making for a nice wall poster-as well as being useful when putting the diorama together. There’s a great overhead shot of the castle and its environs that comes into play with a feature we’ll talk about in a bit. And-get this-there’s even a SOUNDTRACK CD. How cool is that? Yes, while building the diorama, you can chill out to several tunes specially written and performed for this set by Japanese guitarist Yamada Koji (best known for ‘Passport to Heaven’). 

And the coolest feature isn’t included in the box, but is rather downloaded through Itunes. It’s the Shirorama Nagashino Castle App. If you don’t own the diorama set, then the app does absolutely nothing-you’ll just see whatever you point your device at. But point it at the well done box artwork, or the aerial photo we talked about in the last paragraph, then the Sengoku comes to life. An animated AR version of the castle is superimposed upon the art/photo, featuring soldiers, rivers with running water, and a 3D rendition that can be examined from any angle. The app even challenges you to find the castle’s commander, Okudaira Sadamasa, squirreled away somewhere in the maze of defenses. It took some time, but we managed to ferret him out. Mikawa: Nagashino castle is the complete package, blending together several disparate elements to create a whole that is interactive, entertaining, and educational-showing once again that pop culture is an excellent way to bring history to the public at large. 

So that’s a good note to end on. There are other notable examples, such as the “Briefcase Diorama” of the battle that has over 50 miniature figures and opens up to a detailed prepainted layout of a section of the battlefield. There was a popular “Romance of History: Battle of Nagashino Bullet Revolution” series of plastic candy toys produced by Furuta that allowed buyers to build their own versions of Takeda Katsuyori’s army and their Tokugawa/Oda foes. And there’s the excellent full sized arquebus replica made out of wood and metal that was included with the premium edition of Koei’s “Nobungaga’s Ambition” 30th anniversary set. But this short sampling has given you a taste of the rotating volleys of merchandise that Japanese retailers have laid down on consumers looking for a taste of the battle of Nagashino-and the attraction that it continues to exert on the popular imagination over 400 years after it was decided.

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