The anti-hero’s journey – discussing Soukou Akki Muramasa

装甲悪鬼村正
https://vndb.org/v2016
Opening

Soukou Akki Muramasa, also known as Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, has a bit of a reputation in the eroge scene. Written by Narahara Ittetsu (Hanachirasu) and developed/published by Nitroplus, Muramasa is considered by many to be one of the greatest greats of its genre, a work that stands as a shining example of complex, meaningful storytelling through the medium of visual novels. It’s a game that tackles powerful themes and proceeds to explore them in breathtaking detail with the help of a large cast of multifaceted characters; Narahara’s tale is one of politics and warfare, justice and vengeance, sin and penitence – and it’s the kind of eye-opener everyone needs to experience at least once.

This is a work that excites me and ignites my passion in ways few other things can, and if I’m able to convey at least a tiny fraction of that excitement through this post, I will have succeeded in what I set out to do.

Confession time: I’ve actually been meaning to post something Muramasa-related ever since I finished my complete re-read of the novel last summer, but every time I opened up WordPress and typed up a paragraph or two, I looked at what I’d just written, let out what I can only describe as a dissatisfied grunt, deleted the entire thing and went on to do other things. In other words, to say this post is long-overdue would be a colossal understatement. But with the 10th anniversary of the VN’s release fast approaching (and with Nitroplus itself having just turned 20 years old earlier this month), I figured now would probably be the best time to briefly return to the world and characters Narahara so masterfully created and discuss, as well as celebrate, all the things that make Soukou Akki Muramasa an outstanding piece of fiction worthy of the highest accolades.

Fascinatingly enough, and without any sort of exaggeration, I could pretty much sum up the entire novel for you with a single phrase. Or more specifically, with four kanji characters. I don’t want to reveal what it is here, but suffice to say that everything comes down to that singular idea, that one core tenet. Part of Muramasa’s beauty lies in how it takes that idea and explores it with the kind of relentless tenacity that’s seldom seen elsewhere. And it does not hold back at all. It does not shy away from saying what it needs to say or showing what it needs to show. This level of commitment is nothing if not admirable, and once you finish the entire novel, with its meaty common route and three gargantuan heroine chapters – each of which could stand on its own as a separate visual novel – it’s hard not to be in awe of just how much Narahara poured into this thing. And although the VN’s core messages transcend its own narrative context and individual characters, the story it ultimately tells is both undeniably personal and deeply moving.

Honestly – and I realize this is probably going to be a bold statement – I consider Muramasa to be the perfect visual novel. Period. I’ve yet to encounter another VN where everything coalesces as perfectly as it does in Muramasa; it’s almost like this massive melting pot made up of a myriad different things, yet without any unsavory side effects that would tarnish the impact of its themes. Everything is there for a reason, everything is a cogwheel in this grand machine, and every element of the story works in concord to realize Narahara’s vision, creating one of the most complete and thematically consistent VNs I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. What’s more, it also lends itself very nicely to repeated readings, as knowing the characters’ complex backstories and motivations in advance will make you appreciate all the subtle ways in which Narahara sets the stage for what is to come later.

In terms of setting, Muramasa takes place in an alternate post-WWII Japan where fantastical elements have been injected into what you may know from the history books, essentially creating an alternate timeline that resembles ours, but is nonetheless very, very different in numerous, significant ways. If you’ve played the Shadow Hearts series, it’s a bit like that, except in a Japanese setting and with flying cyber samurai warriors. And that brings me to my next point. The most notable difference in Muramasa’s world is the existence – and predominance – of supernatural suits of armor called Tsurugi (劔冑), and the so-called Musha (武者) who wield/wear them. The lore surrounding them is explained in detail in the game itself so I won’t dwell on it too much, but if I wanted to put it in layman’s terms, I’d say they’re like talking samurai mechas with a consciousness of their own. What’s also really interesting about them is that they’re normally used to fight in the air and there’s even like a whole artistry to mastering this unique form of aerial combat, with its own rules and requirements and what have you. Yes, you heard me right. FLYING MECHA SAMURAI SWORDFIGHTING. Like, with special moves and shit. It’s insane. You’ll love it. Probably. Anyway, it’s also worth noting that Tsurugi are forged through the blacksmith sacrificing their own life in order to infuse themselves into the armor, thus becoming an immortal Tsurugi. Mass-produced Tsurugi (数打劔冑) also exist and in their case, no sacrifice is necessary, but these are obviously inferior in power to those forged the traditional way (真打劔冑).

Narahara cuts no corners whatsoever when explaining the intricacies of his world: be it through literal history classes, political discussions between Shogunate leaders, or the protagonist outright lecturing his frustratingly inexperienced opponent on the basics of Tsurugi combat, Muramasa does everything it can to completely immerse you into its fascinating universe. And that’s not even mentioning the highly detailed background art, the absolutely gorgeous character sprites, or the moody, somber soundtrack and stellar writing. This is a game that goes so in-depth with its shit that it even teaches you about the exact area on a blade that is considered the most effective for cutting down an opponent, and includes a katana duel that consists of the MC and another person literally standing still and staring each other down for God knows how long as the former mentally cycles through all the potential strategies he could use to overcome his opponent. Oh, and Tsurugi battles are often shown from a first-person perspective and you sort of see the “cockpit” around you while flying around in the air, which is super cool. Anyway, I’m starting to ramble. You get the idea. The bottom line is that you could practically cut this VN’s atmosphere with a knife and its rich setting / 世界観 is one of the best I’ve ever seen in eroge.

Similarly worthy of note is how the game doesn’t constantly wallow in angst, despite its often pitch-black tone. Muramasa is certainly more than just mindless popcorn entertainment, but it’s not doom and gloom all the time, either. It finds a perfect balance between the serious and the comical, weaving just enough humor into some of its scenes to give the reader quick breathers between all the dramatic and outright tragic things happening non-stop in the narrative. To put things into perspective, Muramasa has some of the funniest gags I’ve seen in a visual novel, but it’s also a game that came dangerously close to actually, legitimately making me break down in tears. Yes, I’m talking about the final scene of Maou-hen, for those of you in the know.

Back to the history lesson. At the start of the game, the Rokuhara Shogunate keeps the island of Japan (Yamato) under its tyrannical control, having previously betrayed the country during the war in order to curry favor with the Western superpowers. In exchange for selling out their homeland, the occupying forces of the GHQ allow the Rokuhara to do as they please and function as the de facto rulers of the land. There’s more to it than that, of course, and political machinations driven by hidden agendas do indeed make up a decent chunk of the storyline, but I’m trying my best to tiptoe around spoilers here.

Amidst all this, the Ginseigou (銀星号), a mysterious Tsurugi clad in silver armor soars across the skies of Yamato, leaving senseless, indiscriminate violence and mountains of corpses in its wake – no one knows the Ginseigou’s true intentions, but the mayhem it unleashes ends up drawing the attention of the Shogunate and the GHQ alike, resulting in both factions viewing it as an unknown threat that needs to be dealt with. This is where the VN’s protagonist, Minato Kageaki, comes into the picture as a man whose sole mission seems to be stopping the Ginseigou at all costs; to accomplish this, Kageaki wields the titular Muramasa, a crimson Tsurugi whose bloodline has gained notoriety over the years for reasons that are explained later in the storyline. This is about all I can reveal without delving into spoiler territory too much, but trust me when I say that there’s a LOT more to Muramasa than what you’ve just read in this post. It’s seriously mind-numbing. So much stuff happens in the plot and its routes – to say nothing of the game’s dense lore and world-building – and the characters grow and evolve to such an extent that going back to the first chapter after having finished the true route will feel like revisiting your old high school as an adult who’s already graduated college, started working a full-time job and had two divorces. Weird analogy, I know, but still.

Kageaki, by the way, is a terrific VN protagonist, and his development throughout this monster of a novel is nothing short of brilliant. He’s careful and practical. He struggles, hesitates, makes mistakes and even retreats when needed. And although the years spent chasing after the Ginseigou have made him somewhat more hardened than the average Joe Shmoe (plus, he does also have a solid grasp of Tsurugi warfare), he’s by no means a master tactician or an ultra-overpowered MC with plot armor as thick as a rhino’s hide. In short, he’s endlessly relatable, which makes his subsequent development all the more compelling and tragic.

He’s very much an everyman when you first meet him: polite, considerate, and with a strong sense of justice. But the cruel circumstances of his past and present send his life spiraling out of control; the sheer amount of emotional trauma this man endures throughout the storyline is just fucking insane, and he carries a burden so monumental that I doubt any of us would want to be in his place. Much of the game is spent witnessing Kageaki trying to make the best of the shitty hand he’s been dealt, but he’s trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in a world where the line between good and evil is blurred. This is in large part related to his complicated relationship with Muramasa (the friendly neighborhood mecha spider/super special dark elf wifey), which is honestly among the most fascinating aspects of the game: if you enjoy seeing an initially reluctant pair go through absolute hell together and slowly but surely begin to view each other as actual human beings, you’ll love what this VN has to offer. It’s by no means a love story, mind you, but rather a tale of two individuals sharing the same burden and forging a powerful bond as they try to overcome it (which has always been my preferred way of tackling eroge romance, by the way). The way they finally manage to accept and understand each other in the early parts of the true route is excellently done and sets the tone for the rest of the chapter; Muramasa’s unyielding loyalty, strength of character and kindness of heart have all earned her the title of Best Eroge Heroine as far as I’m concerned. I JUST LOVE HER SO MUCH I COULD EXPLODE.

Aside from being a fantastic examination of numerous larger-than-life themes, Muramasa’s characters – including many of its “villains” – all have a believable, human side to them that makes the cast insanely endearing and memorable. Sure, there will be people you’ll love to hate, but even then, there’s no clear black and white here, only varying shades of gray. And while the true route serves to complete Kageaki’s journey, the two other heroine routes, belonging to Ayane Ichijou and Ootori Kanae, are not to be neglected, either. They’re by no means throwaway side stories, and are thoroughly integral to fully understanding what makes these characters tick, both on their own and in the context of the larger overarching narrative. What’s also important to remember is that you don’t even necessarily have to agree with their ideals: there’s more than enough room left for readers to draw their own conclusions regarding what they wish to believe in and which character, if any, they feel is justified in their actions.

In Kanae’s story, what I find the most interesting is actually Kageaki’s relationship with the concepts of sin and punishment – let’s just say that his fascination with Kanae ties into this, and results in the route really going in a different direction compared to what you’d normally expect from a story utilizing this theme. I guess that’s the best way I can describe it without actually spoiling the contents of the route, lol. As for Ichijou, I absolutely adore her route and the way the VN tackles her personal development. She’s a character who abhors injustice to the point of viewing it as a disease to be exterminated, and strives to always do what she feels is right: to help the downtrodden, to stand up against tyranny even in the face of overwhelming odds, and to live her life righteously, 真っ直ぐに. Which is admirable, and even Kageaki finds it enviable, something worth cherishing. However, it soon becomes apparent that the age-old saying is true, and that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. I also love the metaphor with her always getting lost due to her terrible sense of directions, and how she’s told to always keep going in a straight line (真っ直ぐ), just like her name implies: the final scene of her route’s epilogue is frankly one of the most beautifully executed scenes in the VN, in my opinion.

So, after everything you’ve just read, you could rightfully ask the question: if Muramasa is so incredible, why doesn’t it get more recognition in the western VN scene? Well… the unfortunate state of affairs is that it doesn’t currently have an English version. (Update: It does now!) The game has been given excellent ratings – both on VNDB and EGS – by most people who’ve completed it and you’ll rarely find anyone who doesn’t talk about it in superlatives, but it’s also an immensely long read that can take anywhere between 60 to 80 hours to finish. It’s so worth it, though. I’ll have to repeat myself here a bit, but try to imagine Muramasa as a VN somewhat similar in tone to Hanachirasu, but with everything cranked up to 11 and expanded upon in mind-blowing ways. And now imagine that on an epic scale and with a cast so large and colorful you could fill up three other separate VNs with them. If Hanachirasu was a rough diamond, Muramasa is the complete necklace, adorned with perfectly chiseled jewels. If there was a literature class dedicated to VNs, this would top the reading list.

If you enjoy dark, powerfully written stories that challenge you, if you want to experience a complex emotional journey through the eyes of an unconventional anti-hero protagonist, if you want to see what the visual novel medium is truly capable of, and last but not least, if you want to find out why I can’t ever shut up about this VN… well, in that case, do consider giving Soukou Akki Muramasa a chance. I can only hope it’ll come to mean as much to you as it does to me.

26 thoughts on “The anti-hero’s journey – discussing Soukou Akki Muramasa

  1. Very good review, better than your previous one imho (which looked more like a summary than anything). It captures what makes muramasa about as much as it is possible without spoiling; maybe it’ll look like a bunch of generic statements to an outsider but it’s really hard to do much more. I really like the choice of line (Wolfram’s) to illustrate the duality between drama and comedy. Honestly I think the dream part was the funniest thing I’ve read in any VN (despite having read comedy centered ones) and it could only happen because of the graveness of Kageaki and the overall serious tone.

    If I tried to sum up why Muramasa is good in one sentence I’d probably say something like “It’s unfair to judge a piece of fiction as the sum of its parts, but what can you do when every single part grazes perfection?”

    • Thanks. Yeah, I wasn’t too happy with how that previous review turned out (let’s be honest, it didn’t really do the VN justice), which is why I’ve been wanting to write a completely new one from scratch. The upcoming 10th anniversary is what finally motivated me to sit my ass down and actually finish it.

      That scene with Wolfram is an old favorite of mine, and yeah I did include it to try and illustrate Muramasa’s brand of comedy. I’m glad someone noticed, lol.

  2. Been meaning to read this behemoth for ages, though after spending a moderately boozed evening with the prologue some months ago I realized that I may be in over my head.

    Probably wasn’t the booze. Or maybe I didn’t have enough booze…? How many beers, dictionaries, modern history reference texts, and Japanese atlases am I going to need, senpai?

    • Well, that’s something you gotta determine for yourself tbh. If you understand what’s going on but need to look up some vocab from time to time, you should still be good. But if reading every single sentence feels about as fruitful as trying to fuck a brick wall, then maybe hold off and come back later when you’re more skilled. Also, the VN explains what you need to know in-game, there’s even a history class or two immediately in the first chapter. You don’t need to be a certified Japanese historian to enjoy and understand the story.

      • Affirmative, senpai. “An appropriate number of beers.” Got it.

        On a marginally more serious note: I’m pretty impressed by you folks who seemingly managed to put together lexicons that let you read the greater part (sans the occasional samurai slang, pseudo-archaisms, and so forth) of works like Muramasa in relative ease. Especially those of you who don’t use anything like SRS software e.g. Anki; the only way to even begin to juggle the sort of vocabulary that Muramasa demands (it being something approaching — though perhaps not quite at — the more difficult end of the spectrum of modern Japanese lit) for a relaxed read is of course through sheer daily reading volume and the language exposure therefrom.

        Been cracking my head against nihongo for years now, but it’s hard for me to imagine myself being capable of consuming -that much- Japanese every single day so as to keep various vocabulary and grammar concepts fresh. The ungodly amount of time it took me to deal with the density of quirky and otherwise esoteric language in a short VN like 魔法使いの夜 has me thinking that civilization will collapse before I manage to read through Grimdark Brown-Elf Kenjutsu-Treatise Taishō Mecha-Melee Simulator 2009.

        Might just be that I have a shit memory, senpai.

        ok thx 4 reading my blog ;)))

  3. Awesome review for an equally amazing visual novel.

    Soukou Akki Muramasa is also one of my top favorites for the exact things you mentioned. I thoroughly enjoyed the game for the story, heroines, and of course, Kageaki, an unprecedented polite badass protagonist. The music was also a blast to listen to alongside some captivating artwork.

    What glued my ass onto my seat was the shift and end of the common route with the reveal of the second opening. From there on out, I knew this game was no joke.

    Your review was a pleasant read and reminded me of why I like this visual novel so much. I definitely look forward to namanikuATK’s second illustration art book. Need me more Muramasa.

  4. do you know japanese or did you use any sort of translator?
    your review made me interested but i don’t know japanese…

  5. I stopped playing VNs in 2011. Lately I’ve been intending to get back to reading them again because I’ve picked up Japanese again, and I’ve been thinking about re-reading muramasa 🙂

    The game had some pacing issues and imo it needs some heavy editing to cut out some wall of text, but other than that it’s a 10/10 game for me

  6. I’m now struggling to complete the first – Ichijou’s route. I loved the beginning of the novel, the first chapter is amazing, I love the characters and the overall plot. But I hate, I really hate the “anti-kill” philosophy of the novel and how self-righteously it tries to force itself to the reader. IDK how you people can consider killing evil inhuman bastards as something bad. Killing in itself isn’t bad, it is bad only when you kill good people or when you kill something(even animal) or someone without a valid reason just for the sake of killing. We, humans, are animals, we aren’t special. Our species is omnivorous so it is in our nature to kill living things. Many completely normal people (for example, my grandma) kill innocent cute animals to get some tasty meat. How killing human trash could be worse than killing an innocent cow or chicken? It is just human supremacist shit. Just because someone was born human doesn’t mean that their life is precious. I completely agree with Masamune’s philosophy, but game tries hard to invalidate it through some forced plot developments.
    Would it be even more annoying on other routes? I’m not sure if I should read further, I both love and hate this novel at the same time. Moreover, the ending where you choose to support Musamune’s ideology by killing trash of a brother…is just an immediate bad end without any explanation, like, wtf?

    • Ok, I completed the Ichijou route and really hated it. The author tries to force the idea that “killing is terrible no matter that” into our throats, but doesn’t give ANY alternative to it because it just doesn’t exist in many circumstances. If Ichijou let the bald bastard go then he would kill more people and violate more girls and never would be punished for what he did, he would just enjoy his life like he did before. It is the right thing to do? Certainly no. Him having a stupid mistress doesn’t change anything and killing herself is just her decision, Ichijou isn’t responsible for that.

      If no one can punish a trashy human for that they did, then you would be right to do it. At the end of everything, even law is decided by people and law-enforcement is just another form of violence, moreover, it was completely normal to sentence people to death at the time when Muramasa set, in fact, it is normal even in the modern world, for example in the USA. A lot of crimes don’t deserve forgiveness and death or a lifetime of imprisonment (which is even worse in some sense) are very appropriate punishments for that. Both are violence and infringement of human rights, but some criminals don’t deserve to be considered humans in the first place. Let’s talk about the creator of Muramasa – what exactly could he do to Mongols other than killing them? In his situation killing each one of them was the only right choice. So yeah, even if “absolutely objective evil and good” don’t exist, we humans have the right to decide that is right and wrong in our society and we have the right to kill dangerous animals who are the threat to our safety.

      So the question is – how stubborn is the author to push this shit in other routes? Or it is just Ichijou’s route that tries to go against the concept of justice? From what I know in Kanae’s route it would be something like “getting revenge is bad”, which is also a shitty premise, but still tolerable. And what about the true route? I remember someone on vndb said that it is more plot-heavy and less philosophical, you also mentioned how romantic it is in review (Ichijou route has literally ZERO romance). I really want to give it a chance (there literally only about 7 top-rated visual novels I haven’t read yet, so it is just sad to drop this one), but I don’t want to be disappointed by irrational moralfaggotry again. I’d even prefer if MC goes full “evil mode” than that and I actually enjoyed some stories with completely amoral MC (like Reverend Insanity).

      • I too have only played Ichijou’s route thus far. You have to admit it’s quite hard to disagree with Narahara’s critique of manichaeistic justice and how it does permeate any worldview through a tyranny of values. The story there is definitely asking you to think, but also warning not to come to a harsh conclusion. After all, Kageaki insists the pursuit is noble, but who is there to define what is noble if the image of morality presented is self-defeating?

        But I must persist, if you are to call yourself an otaku, who have experienced the merits & achievements of this culture, do you not already know; that what is beautiful is good, true & just?

  7. Pingback: [Review] Hanachirasu | gareblogs

  8. Would be great to reread your reworked detailed retail of all routes. Even though I know it’s no use cheking – I’m still comming here twice a year since you deleted the old one covering whole VN. It was a great ride. If it still exists somewhere on your hard drive – sending it on e-mail would be unbelievably great for me.

  9. Pingback: [Review] Kishin Houkou Demonbane | gareblogs

  10. You know, I just finished reading Ichijou route and am just about done with Kanae route, and I cannot help but agree with a lot of things that you have said. Full Metal Daemon Muramasa is an absolute joy to read, but I don’t think this would be for everyone. It’s got… niche tastes, but the writing and world-building are incredibly wrong. Thanks for this!

    Also I wanted to try and go for Muramasa route at a get-go, but I cannot seem to find any options that help me reach it. What do?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.