Many anime fans would likely be familiar with some of the names of prominent figures in Japan’s Sengoku period – for approximately 150 years (roughly between 1467 and 1615), the country was engulfed in constant warfare, culminating in a Tokugawa victory that would set the stage for the subsequent Edo period. The three most important figures of this era (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) gradually united Japan, with Ieyasu cementing his family’s rule for generations; their fame as warlords remains to this day, and numerous pop culture productions dramatize their respective histories, as well as those of other notable officers and soldiers who fought during the various battles. The Ambition of Lord Nobuna changes the formula somewhat by altering the gender of numerous daimyo and other figures; instead of men, many of the famous persons become women, leading their respective armies into battle in a feminine form. Their personalities remain consistent with their historical forebears, however – Nobuna is as headstrong and accommodating to new technology as her historical forebear, for example – but the most dramatic change comes with the presence of Yoshiharu Sagara, a high school student from the 21st century whose knowledge of the period stems from video games. Because of his familiarity with key events in Oda Nobunaga’s life, he has the opportunity to inform Nobuna of important points in her life that would be in the immediate future for her; however, this would be difficult to accomplish initially, as he would need to gain the respect of Nobuna and her subordinates in Owari.
He gains the opportunity to meet Nobuna personally through the inadvertent death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi – the warlord dies protecting Sagara from enemy soldiers, allowing the boy to replace him as one of Nobuna’s chief advisors. He eventually saves Nobuna from a prospective attack, and out of gratitude, she allows him to accompany her back to her castle; however, things do not start off well for him as he does effectively become Hideyoshi within the estimation of Owari’s warlord. Despite claiming to have future knowledge and access to advanced technology (a phone that, unfortunately, has no more battery life), Sagara does not impress Nobuna in their first encounter; she refers to him as saru, or “monkey,” the same epithet the historical Nobunaga used in reference to Hideyoshi (due to his appearance and short stature). By using the same name for Sagara that had originally be used for Hideyoshi, Oda Nobuna repeats a key moment in her historical namesake’s history – she also displays the enthusiasm for nanban (a term for “barbarian” foreigners, namely referring to people from Western countries like Portugal) technology. The historical Nobunaga was fascinated with European technology, and incorporated firearms into his army; Nobuna exhibits the same interests, as shown later when her own army displays matchlock-style arquebuses.
A bit of foreshadowing can be seen here, if obliquely; one scene involves Imagawa Yoshimoto penalizing one of her vassals for a poor war performance. She can be seen punishing her subordinate Matsudaira Motoyasu by restricting her rations; Motoyasu is based upon the historical Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had married Yoshimoto’s niece. In real life, Ieyasu allied with the Oda clan following the death of his former lord Yoshimoto; he eventually established himself as one of the three “great unifiers” by ultimately emerging victorious at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 against a larger Western Army opponent (who had been loyal to Hideyoshi). Here, in the first episode of Oda Nobuna, Ieyasu is presented as rather meek, subservient girl who gets bullied by her superior; she is a far cry from the assertive Nobuna, who rose to prominence as an Owari daimyo who defeated a larger force in combat. The image of the future leader Ieyasu as a meek girl who gets hounded by her lord is done for comedic effect; she does not exhibit the same sort of assertiveness that characterizes Nobunaga, and Sagara’s sudden intervention in the timeline means that Hideyoshi would no longer exert himself as a major presence in the war. Yoshimoto has a minor role here, but she will likely play a larger part later on – the real-life Yoshimoto died during an Oda ambush at the Battle of Okehazama in 1560, while engaged in a head-viewing ceremony. The ceremony in question was a method of celebrating a recent victory for Yoshimoto, who conquered two of Nobunaga’s forts; Nobunaga himself capitalized on this, flanking Yoshimoto and beheading him.
Hideyoshi’s untimely death means that Nobuna will not have the opportunity to recruit him to her army; she now relies on a high school student, stranded in time, as Hideyoshi’s replacement, and she demonstrates an initial reluctance to trust his word and anger towards his rudeness. Sagara hasn’t exactly been a trustworthy candidate, anyway – he frequently ogles the girls, which (understandably) angers them, with Shibata Katsuie initially trying to kill him for his insolence. The historical Katsuie, incidentally, demonstrated his bravery to Oda after losing the Battle of Inō in an attempt to dethrone Nobunaga; he became a loyal retainer following this event. Katsuie in Oda Nobuna may have repeated that event, although nothing is shown about her life prior to Sagara’s appearance; however, she does exhibit the same loyalty as her namesake, and would protect Nobuna at any cost. Her compatriot, Niwa Nagahide, is similarly based on a historical Oda clan retainer of the same name – here, she has the tendency to rate suggestions and events using a mysterious point system.
The episode’s climatic ending marks a significant event in Nobuna’s life – it depicts the encounter between Oda Nobuna and her father-in-law Saitō Dōsan at Shotokuji Temple in 1553. The real-life meeting between Nobunaga and Dōsan resulted in the latter recognizing Nobunaga’s strength; he saw in the Oda warlord a man who rose to power on his own, and decided to support him. Oda Nobuna follows that same trajectory, but with the help of Sagara – the time-displaced student assists by explaining Dōsan’s reluctance to go to war, as his own son would be powerless against the Oda. He managed to convince the Viper of Mino of his status as a man from the future by being able to articulate the man’s thoughts; by doing so, he cemented the alliance, avoiding any potential battle in the process. Dōsan was equally impressed with Nobuna’s ambition; the Owari lord expressed a desire to conquer the world, not merely Japan, which left quite an impression on her father-in-law. Unlike others around her, Nobuna could adapt to technological advances; she had adopted firearms, introduced by the Europeans, equipping her troops with them and thus making them the strongest in the country. The image of her as the captain of a fleet of ships illustrates her ambition well; rather than think exclusively of a conquest of Japan, she looks towards the horizons for a future where she influences (and rules over) a much larger territory. Of course, the real Nobunaga did not live long enough to achieve such a lofty goal – he died at Honno-ji Temple, when Mitsuhide Akechi betrayed him. Sagara likely knows the historical Nobunaga’s fate, thanks to extensive playing of a video game about his life; if he wishes to save Nobuna from a similar death, he would have to prevent Akechi from rebelling.