Shin Sakura Wars was always destined to be a controversial entry in the Sakura Wars series. It was a perfect combination: The first new title in a long dormant series being headed by an entirely new creative staff. The writing of the game in particular gets highlighted among the fanbase. Without returning staff like scriptwriter Satoru Akahori the writing style of Shin Sakura Wars was bound to feel different from the other games.
This is especially highlighted when comparing how the game handles character arcs compared to the first five titles. In the first five games characters would all be given their own character episode that would feature a self contained character arc that more likely than not would change their behavior for the rest of the game.
The first and most highlightable example of this is Maria’s chapter from the very first Sakura Wars game. She starts the game very critical of Ogami and every decision he makes because of her own traumatic past in Russia/New York. Then by the end of the chapter she opens up and stays this way for the rest of the series. This form of self-contained character arc was a staple to the earlier Sakura Wars titles and helped give the franchise the episodic anime feel that it strived for.
Shin Sakura Wars on the other hand structures itself more like a modern anime with an overarching plot where each chapter is focused on said plot and the character development of a single heroine, Sakura Amamiya, leaving little room for self-contained character episodes for the rest of the cast. Throughout the ten chapters of Shin Sakura Wars only two of its primary cast members get character arcs that aren’t tied in with the main plot: Clarissa “Claris” Snowflake and Azami Mochizuki.
Claris’ character episode centers around her magical powers of Libromancy and how she is afraid of using them because she may hurt someone and how this fear has caused her to shut herself away from the world, but after some encouragement from her friends and allies in the Flower Division she is able to overcome this fear and pursue her dreams.
This is a fine character arc, but it has one major gaping flaw: we have seen this before. Claris’ arc in Shin Sakura Wars is essentially a rehash of Iris’ arc from the very first game as well as its manga and anime adaptations. This is well trodden ground for the franchise. Both characters are even French speaking girls who wear green! Regardless of if you think Claris’ character arc is well done or not, it’s hard to call something that is so explicitly reusing concepts from the previous games a highlight of Shin Sakura Wars.
That brings us to the other character who gets their own dedicated character arc episode in Shin Sakura Wars: Azami Mochizuki. Azami’s character, for those unaware, is that she is a 13 year old ninja who runs around in a bright yellow and purple maid dress. Throughout the game’s first three chapters, she barely interacts with the rest of the cast for more than a few seconds.
When she does get to interact with the rest of the cast, said interactions make her come across as emotionally distant. One notable example in the early game is when Hatsuho refers to Azami as her little sister, and Azami immediately brushes her off, saying they’re not related so they can’t be sisters. This all begins to change as she goes through her character development in the fourth chapter.
Despite this being her own chapter, Azami actually isn’t present for the first half of chapter 4 of Shin Sakura Wars. To double down and emphasize how distant she is from the rest of the team, no one even knows where she is or how she spends her time most of the day. Seijuro needs to actively reach out to Azami before the character development can even begin.
Azami’s arc centers around imposter syndrome and her desire to be seen as a real ninja in a world that doesn’t believe in ninjas. Throughout the chapter, we see Azami agonizing about how no one believes her about being a ninja and, at best, people think she’s a spy working for the villains.
After Azami and the protagonist, Seijuro, get arrested (long story, not important) and are sitting handcuffed in the back of a train, we get a very nice conversation about Azami’s insecurities. She worries that she’ll never be good enough to call herself a ninja and that she’ll always be a fake. Seijuro attempts to cheer her up by saying that it doesn’t matter if she’s real or fake because she’s good at what she does. He’s trying his best to help and be supportive, and Azami appreciates it, but also, this doesn’t help her much because the important part to her is that she doesn’t want to be fake.
This is one of my favorite conversations in the whole game. As someone who struggles to see my own worth as a writer, I greatly relate to Azami’s struggle to be seen as real. The people and friends around you complimenting you can help momentarily, but internalizing that feeling is harder than you can imagine. While I have greatly enjoyed many Sakura Wars character arcs in the past, this is the first that I can say I personally relate to.
As the conversation on the train continues and Seijuro begins to talk about his own insecurities with being captain, Azami begins to open up more than she had at any point prior in the game. Eventually, the two succeed in escaping with Seijuro, reassuring Azami that she is a real ninja to him.
As the chapter goes on, Azami and Seijuro eventually save her grandfather, who sets her on this ninja path, and he declares her a true master. This is the part of the chapter I am the most mixed on as I feel her master actually being a ninja and not just some farmer and giving Azami instant validation weakens the narrative and her struggle, but it does give us the fun giant frog moment.
What I do enjoy, though, is the very end of the chapter where Azami is walking around with a smile on her face and talking about how she feels like herself for once. The victory pose of the chapter is Azami cheerfully jumping on the shoulders of Hatsuho, and this sets up Azami’s characterization for the rest of the game. Instead of being completely absent for group scenes and having no interaction with the rest of the cast, Azami is always present and even engages with conversation, such as when she talks to Anastasia at the Christmas show. Her experience opening up to Seijuro when they were arrested opened her up and had a genuine effect on the character.
This character arc easily makes Azami the best written Shin Sakura Wars character to me. Aside from being one that is wholly original to Shin Sakura Wars, it also developed this character and how they were written throughout the game. The game’s main girl, Sakura Amamiya, also gets a game long character arc, but the way Amamiya is written is stagnant throughout the game. Azami’s writing is more dynamic with moments before and after her arc being as different as night and day.
As I say at the end of every one of these Sakura Wars articles, the future of the franchise is currently unclear as Sega has been near silent since the release of Shin Sakura Wars. If the franchise does end up continuing, I truly hope that we see more of Azami Mochizuki and see this character develop even more.