Eight special young people, all of them different, each one associated with a positive quality. Each one with a different sob story involving star-crossed love, orphanhood, abusive guardians, or all of them above.
Raised worlds apart from one another, they barely know one another, yet, as chance brings them together, they discover that they share a common legacy that stretches decades, maybe even half a century, before their calling.
Now forming a team or party and putting all of their skills together, they have to fight epic battles against dramatic evil and ultimately defeat the usurper that bereft them of their rightful place...
Sounds familiar? Like... My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, if we count in Spike and Starlight? Digimon Adventure? Corrector Yui? The Waterfire Saga, if we count in Vrâja and Orfeo as well? The first arc of the Ringstetten Saga, before nearly all of the Happy Few were killed off? The Ocean's trilogy, if we expand the number of leading characters involved from eight to 11/12/13, respectively?
Well, it turns out that, before these sagas, there was a nineteenth-century Japanese epic that inspired all of the above. Maybe it was the first fiction ever starring an ensemble of companions of equal importance...
Satomi Hakkenden, the Chronicles of the Eight Warriors of House Satomi/the Satomi Clan, an 106-volume epic --and its days' counterpart of A Song of Ice and Fire, War and Peace, or the Potterverse when it comes to length and complexity-- takes place in the Warring States era or Sengoku jidai (simultaneous with the days of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Thirty Years' War in Europe). The convoluted premise is essentially the story of the Awa kingdom or county-state being fought over by clans led de facto by Tamazusa Anzai --the rightful lady of the shire (or is she?)-- and Satomi Fusehime, Lady Fuse Satomi --the usurper's only daughter (or is she?)--. A curse (to only mother wayward bastards) placed by the former on the latter's household after the coup causes Fusehime to take a bullet to the heart from her spurned suitor/intended fiancé Daisuke Kanamari, leading a detachment of her clan's own men; her heroic sacrifice and the purification rituals she had undergone before to free herself from the curse cause eight beads of her rosary to scatter and become eight children, each of them associated with a different virtue of confucianism and with a peony birthmark on a different body part. The bulk of the epic centers on the Debut Queue of these diverse characters meeting one another and learning about their shared destiny, aside from the fact that the spirit of Fusehime comes back from the afterlife to help them when in the direst straits, and their subsequent struggle against a resurrected Tamazusa, who has wrested their rightful place --or is it?-- from the Satomis in a bloody counter-coup, since Kanamari abdicated as penance for accidentally shooting his bride down... and the climax is the confrontation of the leading ensemble against the villainess in the fortress tower that is the epicentre of all this legendary Anzai-Satomi war for Awa...
To set the backstory clearly: think of the kingdom of Awa as Westeros, the Anzais as the Lannisters, and the Satomis as the Starks. The original rulers of the realm (think of them as both the Targs and Baratheons) had been decimated, and the vacant rulership usurped, by the upstart Anzais, led by Lady Macbeth figure Tamazusa. The Satomis, exiled retainers of the rightful rulers, defeat the Anzai Clan and gain control of the realm (rising to power just like the Stuarts and the Tyrells). On the chopping block, Tamazusa curses young Fuse, the only daughter and heir of Lord and Lady Satomi, to only mother wayward bastards. At this time, Fuse is still a child.
Years later, an adolescent Fuse finds on the castle doorstep a white spitz puppy with eight black spots and decides to take him in as a pet. Unbeknownst to everyone at court, Eightspots (Yatsufusa) is the reincarnation of Tamazusa. Fuse is also betrothed to Daisuke Kanamari, the most dashing of the Satomi bannermen, until he is left for dead upon the battlefield against the Anzais, that then advance towards the castle and lay siege. Rationing of food and especially water ensues, just like at Storm's End or Stalingrad; a desperate Lord Satomi vows to betroth his daughter to the one who brings back the severed head of the Anzai warlord from the enemy camp across the gates. Surprisingly, Eightspots is the one who fulfils the deed. Constrained to fulfil their promise, while also tarnished their reputation by impending zoophilia, the Satomi parents and child appear to be doomed... until Fuse surprisingly decides to leave the castle and retreat into a cave as a hermit nun with Eightspots for a watchdog, wearing no jewels but her rosary. This goes obviously against her parents' wishes, yet afer much coaxing they give in and let her lead such an ascetic life.
In the meantime, Daisuke, recovered from his battle wounds, returns to the castle and is shocked by the relation of everything that happened in his absence. Shouldering his arquebus and fearing the worst, he leaves for the cave and shoots both Fuse and Eightspots through the heart with one and the same bullet. Then, to prove that she has had no intercourse with her watchdog, a dying Fuse tries to gut herself with her first suitor's sword... only that she dies right before, cutting her rosary, and causing eight of its 108 beads to scatter abroad across the land.
Daisuke, now a wandering monk, embarks on a quest of penance as the beads land next to eight newborn children, all of them marked with the peony crest of House Satomi; many of them born unto barren women and subsequently orphaned, not to be cared for by the best of guardians --each and every one of the Eight Warriors has a different cathartic sob story--. In the meantime, the last Satomis, Fuse's parents, are killed and their throne usurped by Tamazusa, reincarnated as a human noblewoman who has claimed her post at the head of the Anzais; thus a reign of terror begins... until those eight "wayward bastards" gradually come together and realise the ties that bind them and their common destiny to defeat the usurper who wrested their rightful place from them!
One of the reasons for the Hakkenden's staying power and its influence on anime --and, by extension, animesque-- is its diversity and character development. From the eight protagonists available (including counterparts of Shakespeare's Othello and Laertes [the latter with more reminiscences of Oberyn Martell], the classical Hercules, a transsexual Count/ess of Monte Cristo, and a child prodigy in the leading party!), it comes as no surprise that you will find yourself identifying with at least one of them; each and every one of these heroes, all of them good-looking young men, has got the birthmark on a different body part, a different virtue, a different lifestyle and personality... aside from a different sob story and character arc that would make Lemony Snicket, George R.R. Martin, AND Charles Dickens look like they're talking about idyllic elven romances!
Mind also that the Hakkenden is not an "ensemble" piece in the vein of the cliché found in Pixar (Said group full of wacky members with their own quirks? Check.) or Hallmark movies (a few quirky but bland small town friends), but rather a true ensemble piece, like War and Peace or A Song of Ice and Fire, in which all the quirky characters are fully developed, equally interesting, and share the same amount of spotlight cake, playing off one another's strengths and weaknesses on and off the battlefield, as their respective mental and emotional lives evolve. And that without losing "the limp and the eyepatch" that tell the child prodigy from the leader from the strongman from... without losing their own quirks. Diverse and quirky but not bland. And none of them as side character / ancillary character "friends" or "companions" to a pair of central leads, but all eight warriors taking the same prominence. What's more, their whole lives are covered until their deaths, tying all the plot strands neatly into a lovely bow.
Taste the hero rainbow. You'll at least identify with one of them.
Pictures from the most faithful and recent Hakkenden retelling anime, obviously titled Hakkenden.
You may be Kenpachi, the leader and by far the most popular member of the team, whose peony is on the corner of his left eye and whose signature virtue is integrity; a short-tempered, eccentric, and sarcastic badass military officer (with a mouth that can rival Deadpool, Tyrion Lannister, Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir, and those two guys in Pulp Fiction) who has survived several suicide attempts after being left by his beloved fiancée... true leader material indeed. Something like a more badass, able to resurrect every time he's killed (and this is far more serious than South Park Kenny, yet not that angsty Dondarrion resurrection blues), version of Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel... (Kenpachi even reminds me of some favourite female eccentrics like Pippi Lângstrump, Benio Hanamura, Rikku, Ty Lee, Luna Lovegood, Pinkie Pie, and Roald Dahl's Matilda! Only as a wittier, snarkier, more hard-drinking, and male version of this personal catnip!)
You may identify more with Kobungo, Kenpachi's innkeeper "best friend" wearing the peony mark of brotherhood on the left half of his derrière (obviously a bit awkward)--a pacifist gentle giant, excellent chef, and cat lover with a dark and troubled past involving fatal drunken violence --killing parents and siblings included--, who makes up with all of his friendliness and (Herculean!) physical strength for his lack of wit... as much bestie material as Kenpachi is leader material. Definitely the Sancho to Kenpachi's Quixote, being far more realistic.
Or you may be the graceful crossdressing actor Keno, also known by his drag queen stage name of Asakeno: so feminine in appearance and demeanor that he is often mistaken for a lady at first glance... beautiful and elegant yet deadly, as determined as Edmund Dantès or Oberyn Martell to avenge the fact that s/he was brutally orphaned to get a hold of their clan's ancestral flute. S/He's even got his own Count-of-Montecristo-style convoluted intrigue to get revenge on those scoundrels, which involves said drag queen act on stage not to be recognized by the victims! Just like Dantès, (Asa-)Keno gradually discovers, as s/he takes down their enemies one by one, that revenge is not precisely the best of strategies to deal with life gives you the worst hand. Keno wears the mark of wisdom on their left pectoral, a bit above the nipple.
Or you may be kindred spirits with Daikaku, the skilful cat-loving artisan, reserved and taciturn and ostensibly cold as ice --yet, as seen when he makes lovely toys, and when he pets his cats and even sacrifices himself for them, with a heart of gold--; blame his late abusive stepmother for all that façade of emotionless introversion. More of an artist than an artisan, the ostensibly stoic Daikaku gradually defrosts as he grows into his new role as the warrior of good form (also rendered as etiquette or courtesy), whose peony is on his brow as a third eye that allows him to see spirits and other supernatural creatures. Also, like Othello, while still living in his village and bearing his given name of Kakutaro, he is put to the test with the local rumour, spread by his own stepmother (who disapproved, besides, of his choice of wife), that his beautiful and faithful wife Hinagiku has had an affair and is expecting the bastard child (when she actually swallowed the bead of good form to protect it from her stepmother-in-law, which made Hinagiku's belly swell) --and Kakutaro, just like the Moor, wavers at the end of the day. Upon confronting his wife and seeing Hinagiku commit ritual suicide to prove her own innocence and intact maidenhead, and thus discovering his true virtue of good form when he regains the bloodstained bead, he renames himself Daikaku and joins the other chosen ones.
But I identify far the most with Shinobu (AKA Shinbei, his name can be transliterated either way), the kind-hearted kid prodigy and the baby of the team; whose virtue is kindness/benevolence and whose marking is on his left shoulder. Adopted by Kobungo and Kenpachi after losing his parents and then grandmother guardian (making this one of the first cases in fiction with a gay couple adopting an orphan and forming a rainbow family!), Shinobu, whose real name is Daihachi (he had to be renamed post-adoption due to persecution... long story), this stripling is an arm and a leg of bright, aside from the glue that holds the whole octet of heroes together... and the most powerful, aside from the youngest, of the eight warriors!
There are, obviously, another three:
Shino, the warrior of devotion or piety, the earnest stripling and second youngest (a young adult who still looks and acts like a child, aside from having quite asexuated looks and personality), with his peony on his right upper arm. Sent to the shogun's court to bring his clan's ancestral sword to a new owner, and forced to cross-dress as a girl to evade his pursuers, he is often --and for quite a good reason--, mistaken for a real maiden. Shino is obviously the audience surrogate as well as the most frequent POV character; as the innocent farm boy born from a barren woman's wish and raised well by loving parents before calamity --personified as the local lordlings of the feudal shire-- takes them away forever (ritual suicide once more). We see Shino, like the Hogwarts students and the Stark children (especially like a gender-flipped Arya), struggle and survive in a hostile world: most readers, male or female, identify with Shino while they idealize Kenpachi.
Sósuke, the warrior of duty, is said local shire-lordlings' abused indentured servant of an orphan nephew. Born unto courtier parents, his world shattered as a very young child when advice his father gave to the new shogun was mistaken for treason, which led to Sósuke's father's ritual suicide and his widowed wife's exile, with a child Sósuke in tow, back to her parents' home in the provinces. However, a snowstorm claimed the life of Sósuke's mum during that wintry journey as she protected her boy from the cold. Sósuke was found after the snowstorm had calmed by his aunt and uncle, who blamed him for the clan's fall from grace and worked him into submission, treating him as an indentured servant, with a combination of physical and psychological abuse: this Cinderelliot was called "Gaku," which translates more or less to "Runt," by his foster family. In his twenties, when he realises his destiny, he has left his provincial home to return to court and carve out a niche of his own, to restore his surname's reputation; finding however far more than what he expected... Sósuke is a cool cat, but far less eccentric and closer to earth than Kenpachi: making Sósuke the oniisama or ideal older brother of the group, made far stronger by all the suffering he has had to endure. His peony is on his left upper arm, mirroring Shino's.
Dousetsu, the warrior of loyalty, a travelling healer, was also an indentured servant in the same feudal household where Sósuke was forced to share his fate; but Dousetsu was treated equally badly for being the master's bastard son of a whore --bastard, orphan, son of a whore...-- His stepmother even repetitively put poison in his drink and then, seeing him deeply unconscious, left him out to freeze in the winter cold. She didn't care that the boy had survived, partly having acquired poison immunity à la Oberyn Martell and partly being saved by a snow queen (or at least the youkai counterpart of this character). For a snow queen's ward, however, the hot-blooded Dousetsu can literally spit fire. An impulsive and slightly ditzy character in pursuit of his trueborn stepsister Hamaji, the only trueborn child and heir to the feudal clan and, most importantly, the only person (not counting the snow queen, who is not human) who was ever nice to him (besides, Hamaji is also Sósuke's cousin and Shino's fiancée --until her parents called off the engagement for a more lucrative lordling of a suitor)... When Dousetsu finds Hamaji, she has been taken prisoner by outlaws; taken off-guard by their illusory tricks, he accidentally stabs his beloved half-sister to death. This greatest failure will haunt him no matter how much he tries to put on a brave face, since it has barely changed his innate impulsive temperament. There are definitely parallels between Dousetsu and Shakespeare's Laertes as hot-blooded young men who dearly love their estranged little sisters and are broken by guilt upon directly or indirectly making them die (ps. a hot-blooded badass who cuts quite a figure, yet still haunted by the death of his lovely li'l sister... Oberyn, we're looking at you as well, and also due to the poison immunity!)... Dousetsu's peony is on the nape of his neck.
As for the villainess... Tamazusa is as much love-to-hate material as the Thénardiers and Iago put together. In fact, in my mind's eye she looks just like Bellatrix Lestrange... but given her power-behind-the-throne status and ruthlessness, she also reminds me of Lady Macbeth. Beheaded for high treason at the start of it all, she disappears for a while and subsequently resurrects, reincarnated, with a thirst for vengeance, wresting the castle and shire of House Satomi from right under their feet after Fusehime has died without trueborn heirs and her husband has abdicated as penance for killing her. This sinister femme fatale maintains her youth --and subsequently her health and good looks-- by washing in, and drinking, maidens' blood à la Erzsébet Báthory, which lends her character even more cruelty and ruthlessness... Undead, vampiric, and beautifully sinister, Tamazusa is obviously a force to be reckoned with.
It comes as no surprise that the Satomi Hakkenden has endured through the ages and been adapted left and right all over the place, from more faithful retellings to loosely inspired ones like Corrector Yui (the eight original Correctors' characters) and Digimon Adventure (the eight original Chosen Ones). And even into my own fiction, where it's not impossible to see traits of the Hakkenden warriors in the Happy Few; Gerhard Wilhelm von Ringstetten as obviously Kenpachi, Erik and Liselotte both having inspiration from Kobungo (but Alois taking on the role as right-hand-man), resident scholar Kurtius as Shinobu...
The eight warriors in a 1980s Hakkenden OVA.
The eight Correctors flanking the titular character in Corrector Yui.
The original Chosen Ones in the 1990s Digimon Adventure finale.
The eight original Chosen Ones in the present-day 20th-anniversary OVA Digimon Adventure Tri.
Eight Hakkenden-inspired warriors play a relevant part in the videogame Okami.
You may be able to identify, in all of these hypertextual media examples, the parallels to the warriors I have mentioned in my review...