Story by Hanjiro Tsuikoka, Art by Hikaru Tanaka
This volume focuses squarely on Sagara. While he is a rather compelling character, the way he is framed leading up to, and including the finale, proves rather problematic. Not from a storytelling point of view so much, although that certainly is at least related to the problem, moreso by how the series chooses to turn him into a self-sacrificing martyr.
There are two reasons this is problematic and neither of them have to do with the actual history, which I feel I do not know enough about myself to explain in the slightest. First, Sagara, early on in this volume, and in the previous volumes, has is not a character always in the right with his actions. In a previous volume he orders Kotetsu to be whipped viciously because the person Kotetsu was protecting forced him to go along with his whims. This was one of the few times in the series that nothing bad had happened, so the whipping’s only purpose was to serve as character development. Also of note with the lashes, Kotetsu himself is still in high school, which made Sagara even more unlikable. The villain’s hatred towards Sagara is not wrong as, ultimately. It is Sagara’s blind devotion to his beliefs that results in the deaths of many characters throughout the series especially in the finale.
This does not make him a bad person, it just adds layers to his character, something like it tries to paint as black and white instead of morally grey in the finale. The second reason the framing proves problematic is much less convoluted in that martyrs are a worn out trope, done time and again in fiction, and the ending results in the series being rather easy to forget. Five days after I read it I could not so much as recall a single character, and the writing in this last book for the most part is a significant cause for that.
Despite being based in history for the most part, this book felt contrived at many turns. Instead of allowing the characters to be flawed human beings, practically every character save one had to die a heroic tragic death. The loud violin and orchestra, playing predictable dramatic music, in the background were clearly audible despite a lack of sound.
This brings up the series other big issue: near the end of the book it is implied that Seitarou, postmortem, brings Kotetsu back in time for no other reason than to help him “grow up”, something much more easily accomplished with some counseling, and to teach Sagara the distant future for Japan turns out alright. Sagara only learns this hours prior to his death when being transported to the future briefly with Kotetsu near the end of this volume. This could have been so easily solved by simply transporting Sagara to the present without risking the high schooler messing up history and witnessing lots of deaths.
Volume 4 ends Scarlet Empire on a rather sour note as this series started out with so much potential. It ended up going from rather layered to simplistic in the end, presumably because it ended prematurely, and someone along the production line likely wanted it to be as widely accessible as possible. As a whole series Scarlet Empire was not a bad read, although it had its issues especially towards the end. It just feels rather forgettable when everything is said and done.