Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Feb 12th 2010
DVD 2 - Part 2
With the addition of the scatterbrained Azuma and a rigorous training camp weekend with Machido rivals, Muroe High's kendo team is complete and ready to take on the upcoming tournament to get Kojiro out of hot water. Miya and Tama must face intimidating new opponents and protect what they most hold dear: for Miya, her boyfriend, and for Tama, her sense of pride. However, after a wild year of wins and losses, the kendo team must face facts. They've been in danger of dissolution for months now, and the team's association with a shocking crime has nearly made it official. It's up to Kirino to bring the team back together, but without the support of Tama, Miya, or even their advisor Kojiro, can she remind the team why they fell in love with kendo in the first place before the curtain comes crashing down?
It's a cheap trick to reduce a series down to a movie pitch line, but there is simply no better description: this is Azumanga Daioh meets A League of Their Own, down to its band of friends, and their washed-up, disgruntled manager trying to bring the team success but not trying hard enough, leaving the girls to prove themselves on their own. The one thing these stories have in common before being morphed together in this particular anime is their inability to impress on paper, minimal in scope and somewhat trivial in subject matter. Past the typed synopsis, however, you have two treasured, lighthearted classics, and Bamboo Blade takes the best of what they have to offer and adds a few adrenaline-powered battle cries to deliver something really special.
This is a series about kendo, a sport no western viewer should care about, and the series assures us, very few Japanese find appealing due to its old-fashioned rigidity and smelly equipment. Yet this is exactly what a great sports show should be like because it's not really about kendo, it's about a bunch of young girls in love with the game. These characters complement each other wonderfully, and the story stays focused on their lives as much or more than their kendo matches. You don't have to know anything about the sport to feel the tension of each match for these characters, and the series never foists it on you with monologues about rules or strategies. No, the only monologuing present might be Azuma's crippling realization that she has the world's worst stomachache mid-match or Miya's paranoia that her childhood stalker is watching her from the bleachers with camera in hand. Still, these girls keep practicing and helping each other through their ups and downs because they need the team more than they need the game.
The clearest indication of the series' break from “sports epic” tradition is in its final conflict. Sure, the last couple episodes center around a tournament and its aftermath, but by then the turmoil has passed and it is finally the team's time to shine without the stress that harangues them much earlier in the story facing tougher opponents and family crises. No, the real tumultuous conflict of this series is a moral dilemma. Can Kirino lie to the school board to keep the team together? Not even a little white lie, but a premeditated deception that involves either cutting off old teammates or taking responsibility for a crime they shouldn't be held to. As it did in the beginning, the fate of the team lies much more with Kirino than it does with Kojiro, as she begs her advisor for guidance and he has none to give her. This decision is what tears the team apart and tests the series' ability to take the audience with it into a serious problem on a much smaller scale than usual. It sure can. It works beautifully.
That being said, Bamboo Blade is a comedy first, drama far second, but the drama comes to bear much harder in this second half than it ever did in the first, and the fact that it is moving rather than schmaltzy is worth mentioning. In fact, the most humorous aside in this latter half of the series, Tamaki's adventures on the set of a Blade Bravers movie, are probably the low point of the series. This still isn't saying much, as the episodes are entertaining, key to the plot in the end, and at worst a hiccup in pacing. When it needs to be, the series is as hilarious as it always was.
The art is clean and colorful, but not particularly unique, though the characters are at least as diverse in design as they are in personality. But screenshots don't do this series' visual finesse justice; it's the snappy comedic timing and the energy of the fights that make this series so much fun to watch. Far from being a static assault of bright colors and big eyes seen in series like Lucky Star, Bamboo Blade changes up the lighting and depth of field throughout the story and gives the whole experience so much more personality and breadth than the adorable chibi designs suggest. Add to this the series' preference for orchestrated pieces and a heaping helping of taiko drums for the battles themselves and the aesthetic presentation exceeds expectations all across the board.
Also exceeding expectations is the English dub for the series. Despite being a hysterical gut-buster as Azuma, Carrie Savage is, perhaps for the first time, not the sweetest voice in the dub here. Neither is Luci Christian's lovable, tenacious Kirino. No, the character you'll most want to squeal over until rainbow syrup spews out your ears is Tamaki, played by Cherami Leigh. Being the dwarf-sized dynamo of the team, Tamaki has an unusual mix of a tiny voice with a lion's strength behind it. It's also an unusual role for Leigh, but the freshness and sincerity of her portrayal are perfect and make for a whole new brand of adorable. This is not to downplay the rest of the voice cast, of course. Every role is well-cast, every line is delivered free of awkward writing stumbles, and the end result? This is one of the best slice-of-life comedy dubs out there. Neither too cartoony or too boringly normal, it's a joy to listen to. It's almost enough to recommend the dub over the Japanese, but the two tracks are so well in sync with one another that fans' usual viewing preferences in either direction will yield great results.
No extras of note besides trailers and clean themes, but thankfully, the DVDs are not stacked in this set as in the previous one, but separated via plastic pop-out flaps as they should be.
The show, naturally, isn't perfect; there are some detriments to Bamboo Blade. Like its lead character, it's little and unassuming. It's not the high-stakes kind of sports epic where a powerhouse team goes to nationals and drama ensues. The cast of Bamboo Blade spends much of their adventure on a losing streak, and the greatest threat is always posed by the slimy politics within the board of education. That doesn't mean that this tiny treasure doesn't pack a wallop to the gut and the funny bone in more unique ways, however, and that's all that matters. This is no great anime classic, but it is a wonderful little story that deserves all the glow that can be dished out for what it has to give.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Heart-warming, funny, lovable characters that are more the focus than the sport
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