On The Level

Sakura Wars

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (2010)—“Of The People, For The People, By The People”

This idiosyncratic Japanese sci-fi game gets many things about New York wrong, but it gets some important things right.

By Anthony John Agnello • April 1, 2013

I’m not going to tell you Harlem is magical. I lived there for a stretch, in a tenement that smelled of urine and had hallways dotted with rat blood. That’s because people peed in the elevator, and the super’s idea of pest control was a metal bat. Those blemishes don’t fade. It’s just that they’re eaten up in the tide of everything else. It’s Saturday salsa parties all spring beneath the Metro North tracks, the sweet reek of mofongo, and grousing about the weather with Anna from apartment 4J. These moments stick with me the most.

Yes, Harlem can be annoying as hell. I don’t want to hear reggaeton blasting out of ’87 Camry speakers at 9 a.m. That’s why Harlem’s family, though. Just because it has its irritating side doesn’t mean you don’t love it. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love gets almost everything about New York, especially Harlem, wrong. Yet its second level manages to capture that essential love for the neighborhood, even if it does fill the place with steam-powered mechs and filters it through a strange trans-Pacific mistranslation.

Released in Japan in 2005—it took another five years for the game to reach the States—So Long, My Love is actually the fifth game in one of Sega’s more obscure series, a weird collection of games that are part historical science fiction, part war strategy, and part dating game. Sakura Wars takes place during the first quarter of the 20th century, but instead of the Archduke Ferdinand beefing it and kicking off an era of global conflict, the peoples of the world band together to fight demons. Instead of the League Of Nations, there’s an international coalition of small armies that captain giant steam-powered bipedal tanks.

Sakura Wars

These squads are piloted by teams of beautiful young women who are invariably led by a young Japanese man. Naturally. Playing these games is kind of like watching a serialized anime. Most of your time is spent reading dialogue and getting to know characters, making decisions at decisive moments, with each episode culminating in a big robot-on-demon brawl.

Episode two of So Long, My Love, “Of The People, By The People, For The People,” is a disorienting experience for this former Harlem resident. Taking place in 1928, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, a little change in local atmosphere is to be expected. But when the demon fighter Shinjiro Taiga heads uptown for a meeting with his temperamental lawyer teammate, things get weird. Taiga gets chased right out of the neighborhood as soon as he shows up. His pursuers look like a gang of Polynesian punk rockers straight out of Mad Max.

At no point in time was Harlem populated by a gang of Polynesian punk rockers, but really that’s just one of the many bizarre attributes of Sakura Wars’ take on my old home. There’s a jazz club, appropriate for the era, but it’s sandwiched into a graffiti-laden, bombed out neighborhood that looks more like the blighted Bronx of the 1980s. Young Japanese men are chased out of dodge, but fiery redhead cowgirls like Taiga’s teammate Gemini are neighborhood fixtures. Even the aforementioned lawyer teammate is kind of an oddity: She’s a young black woman named Sagiitta Weinberg, for crying out loud. (For the English-language re-release, she was rechristened Cheiron Archer.) It’s not that the game is racist, just profoundly ill-informed at times.

Episode two is very much Ms. Weinberg’s story, and it sometimes drifts dangerously close to parody. She used to be a member of the same gang that chases you out of the neighborhood, but after one of her best friends was wrongly arrested, she devoted her life to studying the law. (Weinberg’s life as a cast member and mech fighter in the New York Combat Revue is really a side career. Oh, did I forget to mention that “Revue” part? These warriors also star in an all-female cabaret at the Lucky Lip theater, a giant playhouse that also transforms into your airship fortress. Try to keep up.)

At the beginning of this episode, Weinberg’s working for The Man, in the form of an evil development company that’s trying to buy up all of Harlem in order to build a shopping mall. Evil development companies back in the day had broader ambitions than just taking down the old community center, it seems. When you confront Weinberg, urging her to stand by her old home, she responds viciously. She says she’s only doing what’s right for the neighborhood. That’s when you challenge her to a mock trial to determine the fate of Harlem.

So Long, My Love could have gone off the rails at this point—if it could ever be described as “on the rails”—tumbling into a quagmire of anime silliness and racial caricatures. Not only does it manage to stay upright, the mock trial ends up as the level’s crowning achievement. In order to beat Weinberg at her own game, you have to gather evidence to prove that the developer is corrupt and that Harlem is worth saving. Some of these side adventures are as sitcom-ready as the “save the neighborhood” premise. You sneak into the Museum Of Natural History, for instance, to catch the evil developer bribing New York’s mayor. Afterward, though, you find yourself sitting down with the owner of a jazz club to talk about music’s role as “the soul of Harlem.” Later it’s just talking with the people that live there about how often they help each other out. None of these smaller moments play as mawkish. The jazz club may look historically out of place, but it’s not supposed to be a landmark. It’s just a good local hangout.

Sakura Wars

The trial itself has you standing opposite Weinberg in the ruins of a demolished building, recapping what you’ve learned about Harlem. Convincing Weinberg is only half the goal, as you also need to keep the crowd on your side. The developers are now boasting, predictably, that the shopping center will bring economic prosperity to the neighborhood. It’s a fight you can’t really lose, but it’s a moment when the silly surrealist parts of the game melt away. What you say to defend Harlem is true: The music, the food, and the neighborhood are all great things worth preserving, and they shouldn’t be threatened for the sake of short-term cash flow. For me, the trial reminded of neighbors I loved. In its awkward and inept way, So Long, My Love manages to capture Harlem. Maybe not its soul, but at least a piece of it.

It’s only after Weinberg comes to her senses, recommitting herself to the neighborhood and her friends, that the level loses its balance and descends into insanity. A witch in a golden thong shows up on a giant robot dragon, so you and the rest of the Combat Revue have to beat her up, at first in the streets and then in the subway system. Naturally. In that way, Sakura Wars can be a lot like Harlem. Right when it shows you its sweet side, it does something obnoxious. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, though.

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  • SisterMaryFrancis

    “Hey, sorry for asking this, but is that lion organic and raised locally? I prefer riding local lions over those cheap African ones, where you don’t know what they put in them.”

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

    News posts are always sincere Holkins. Even though he credits it to his fake name, the posts are not meant to be taken from the point of view of the strip character. 

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    “He knew he was in a bad neighborhood.  A hot wind blew trash around him as shadowy figures loomed from dark alleyways.
       A menacing sedan slid slowly along the street, tinted windows rolled down just enough to allow the telltale growl of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original cast recording of Cats to blare from the speakers.”

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    It’s probably because I just rolled away the stone and emerged from the thesis-tomb where I was buried under complex writing littered with five-dollar-words, but I found the paragraph pretty straightforward to parse.

    You’re definitely right that he never comes out and says what he thinks John’s use of “tyrant” says about him, and not knowing much about Andrew Ryan, it’s hard for me to suss out exactly what that is.

    My guess is, if Ryan is truly a laissez-faire capitalist/Objectivist/libertarian leader, then Holkins is asserting that that is the denotative opposite of tyranny, and that John’s calling Ryan a ‘tyrant’ betrays some sort of inherent political/philosophical bias.

    As @Mercenary_Security_number_4:disqus points out, though, that is a weird little niggle to harp on, especially since it doesn’t really relate at all to the “curmudgeony” criticism of Infinite, and its consequent controversy, that seemed to be Holkins’s initial reason for even bringing up the review.

  • Enkidum

    So there’s this thesis I’m supposed to be writing. What should I do?

    EDIT: And congrats!

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    @Enkidum:disqus : I’m sure @Fluka:disqus would agree – you should take a nap, have a wank, and play some Mass Effect. I’m pretty sure if you do that your thesis will finish itself of its own accord.

  • Fluka

    @paraclete_pizza:disqus and @Enkidum:disqus :

    Paragon option: FINISH YOUR THESIS

    Renegade option: FINISH YOUR THESIS

    What I’m trying to say is, your choices don’t matter.

  • Citric

    @paraclete_pizza:disqus  I keep thinking of that ad for drugs where the kid goes “I LEARNED IT FROM YOU!”

    I think it’s problematic as well, but it’s clear that it’s based primarily on the images they’re getting from western entertainment, so to say they’re doing something wrong is to also admit that the images western culture is exporting are not the best representation of a culture. It’s a funhouse mirror Mr. T or minstrel show, but it’s also a funhouse mirror of our own depiction of black people in our own entertainment.

    This also reminds me of how old people I knew were nervous around black people due to American entertainment even though all the black people in my severely rural town in Canada were doctors from South Africa.

  • http://hoyvinglavin64.livejournal.com/ rubi-kun

    Because it’s all based on stereotypes in our media, it’s one of those weird Japan things where America’s heavily to blame, like how our imposition of censorship of regular porn in Japan is heavily to blame for tentacle porn’s resurgence.

  • Enkidum

    “smelt it Delft it” = fantastic. This is why we can have nice things.

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

    John Teti Brisket: Coming soon to the Digest. 

  • djsubversive

    Yeah. I was going to mention this. It’s Holkins/Tycho. “It rained today” would be a rambling, three-paragraph, pseudo-philosophical screed with as many four-syllable words that he could think of, and there would be perhaps one actual use of the word “rain.”

  • uselessyss

    Man, I thought “spergy” meant something completely different.

  • PaganPoet

    If not sober, I’m at least ambulatory presently.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-John-Agnello/1362601810 Anthony John Agnello

    One of my best friends actually came home from a one year stint in Japan the day the rat bashing began in earnest. He was walking down the hall to my apartment, fresh off the plane, when he saw my super Peter just smash a rat into the wall. Apparently his first thought was, “Man it’s good to be back in New York.” That stain was on the wall from April 2006 to when I moved out in August 2010. Awesome.

  • Citric

    @google-ad11b5fc6e812fcfddafc59b953591fe:disqus  It was mostly that the story was grounded so deeply in a rulebook that’s mostly foreign to me, so his struggles to be a good man according to his faith couldn’t connect to me. I had no idea what the requirements actually were, which made me constantly question whether he was reacting to his faith or was just kind of a pushover in general. If I knew the rules – which would mean knowing really anything about Jewish tradition – I could have probably made sense of the movie and enjoyed it more.

    I did like the tooth story and how it kind of ends on a weird ambiguous note, and how that relates to the film as a whole, which ends on a weird ambiguous note.

  • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

    I am liking this for so many reasons.

  • uselessyss

    After experiencing the many delights of a Japanese bakery, it’s hard to go back to that poorly-lit section in the back corner of Safeway where my only options are plain bagels or cinnamon raisin bagels.