Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 20th 2009
DVD - Part 1
Toraji Ishida, the budget-challenged coach for the Kendo Club at Muroe Private High School, finds himself in such a crunch for his food bill that he takes up a challenge from a former high school classmate (whom he once beat in the finals of a tournament) who has become a kendo coach at a different school: beat his friend's girl's kendo team and he can win a year of free food at a sushi restaurant! The only problem: Muroe High's Kendo Club currently only has one girl member. Thus, to fulfill his own selfish goals, he sets out on a recruitment drive. First – and most critical – is the slight and quiet but supremely-talented Tamaki, freshman daughter of a dojo master. Three other girls (and two guys) eventually follow to fill out the team with five, which is necessary when Toraji decides that they should aim higher than just winning his bets, as even a national championship could be within reach.
As its name suggests, the Japanese discipline of kendo shapes and defines Bamboo Blade in much the same way as most sports anime are shaped and defined by their particular sport, to the extent that the series can essentially be thought of as a sports anime. Familiarity with, or even interest in, kendo is hardly necessary for appreciating the series, however, and that may, in fact, be one of the series' greatest strengths: it makes its subject matter so approachable that even the most neophyte viewer is unlikely to be overwhelmed by its technicalities. Though it does also show off the negative side of kendo (it seems to delight in stressing kendo's odious reputation for odiferous equipment, for instance), the discipline could do far worse for free advertisement.
Of course, the presence of a passel of comely, quirky girls certainly does not hurt. How delightfully fun the girls can be once their particular idiosyncrasies start kicking in saves the series after a very shaky start, as through most of the first episode the series shapes up as a bland tale about a kendo teacher's selfish goals and the roster of girls he assembles to achieve them. It gives every indication early that it is going to be one of those shallow, dumb series whose humor is built on ridiculous overreactions – and then we get to the second episode, learn that quiet little Tamaki actually wants to be a “champion of justice” because she idolizes heroes in combat team anime, and start to realize that maybe, just maybe, this series has some promise after all. By the time Miyako discovers her (somewhat misguided) passion for kendo an episode and a half later, viewers will either be completely hooked or at the point where the series will simply not work for them. The former reaction is more likely, however, and additional treats come later on as Sayako formally enters the picture and the stalker character shows up, with Azuma's introduction and indoctrination rounding out the first half.
The painless and seamless way the writing examines the philosophies underlying kendo is another strength. Toraji and the kendo sensei of another school have a direct conversation at one point about how one's strict approach contrasts with the other's looser, more fun-focused approach, how the former developed, and the advantages of each, but even then the scene feels more like two men coming to an understanding about different approaches rather than some kind of info dump. Other scenes devote a lot of time to exploring what motivates individuals both to get into kendo in the first place, how they get enthusiastic about it, and what aspect of the practice gets them excited. For some, kendo is a means to exercise violence in an acceptable manner, while for others the attraction is the fulfillment of mastering a precision discipline or appreciating true talent in action; Kirino makes the comment at one point, without any masochistic overtones, that being struck by an impressive blow can actually be invigorating, which makes one great scene where members of an opposing team almost literally line up specifically to be struck by Tamaki only slightly less mind-blowing.
But really, the charm of the series comes from the girls themselves. Tomaki is the quiet and socially maladjusted one who is also an otaku, so seeing her gradually come out of her shell and start interacting with people is a treat; the way she blushes when complimented or appreciated also makes her irresistibly adorable. (Some would argue that she is a moe character, although this is hardly a girl who needs to be protected.) Kirino is the cheerfully catty one, which the producers make sure that viewers understand by giving a perpetual catlike curve to her mouth. Two-faced pretty girl Miyako may be the biggest delight, as both of her basic personas seem honest despite how completely they contrast. Sayako is the unstable drama queen, while Azuma offers a more serious-minded counterpoint as a girl whose circumstances forced her to abandon kendo but whose passion still lingers despite her attempts to ignore it. Toraji, despite coming across like a loser a lot of the time, occasionally shows some merit, Danjuro “Dan” Eiga provides comic support, and Reimi, the stalker girl, is just plain creepy. The only major supporting character who fails to make an impression is Yuji, a colorless “nice guy” who as often as not seems like an afterthought.
Since kendo is a martial skills-based discipline, the series does, of course, include a certain amount of kendo action, though as more of a necessity for storytelling than a feature attraction. The sudden, dramatic strikes required by the discipline provide a certain air of excitement and allow producer AIC to animate the scenes on the cheap, as rarely do these episodes show any sustained exchanges of blows. The artistry is much more meticulous about detailing the clothing and gear used in kendo, especially the shinai (i.e. bamboo swords) and the way helmets are worn. Since most of the action scenes involve characters wearing protective face masks, AIC took the interesting approach of fading the bars of the face grills so that the faces beneath can show through. Character designs run a typical gamut of looks save for the always-caricatured Dan. Although the series has had several opportunities so far to delve into fan service, it has avoided them save for a couple of shots (including one in the opener) which clearly focus on the chests of the better-endowed characters. They feel incongruous here since the series otherwise makes no effort to sex things up.
First-time music producer Kiyohiko Senba provides a score rich in traditional Japanese drumming, as might be expected for a series focused on a Japanese martial discipline. Those combine with more normal instrumental themes to create a solid and generally effective soundtrack. The opener and closer, both sung by choruses of seiyuu, are unremarkable J-Pop numbers.
Funimation's English dub relies entirely on veteran, proven vocal talent for its significant roles, and they do not disappoint. Casting does an acceptably good job of choosing the right performers for the right roles and the performances themselves should generate little or no complaint; in fact, this is one of the year's better English dubs. Leah Clark gives perhaps the best performance as the two-faced Miyako, whose sweet and dark sides have vastly differing vocal qualities, although Sean Michael Teague should also quickly grow on you in a nice complement as Danjuro. Cherami Leigh faced her own challenges in Tamaki, a character who is normally very soft-spoken except when she has to shout the attack phrases, but performed admirably. The English script does not play around much with the original except for Americanizing the pet names Miyako and Danjuro use towards each other – and the ones used are so fitting that few are likely to complain.
As Funimation box set releases go, this one is a bare-bones release: both DVDs in a single regular-sized case with only interior art on the cover and clean opener and closer on the DVDs for Extras. Annoyingly, they used the overlapping disks approach to packaging, so that the first disk has to be taken out to replace the second disk. (This may be space-efficient, but it's also definitely irritating.)
Despite its shaky start, the first half of Bamboo Blade ultimately works. It offers a fun look at the passion that sports can induce and proves astonishingly endearing along the way. It may have weak points where it gets too stupidly silly, but its cast is highly likeable, it convincingly explores the enticing spirit that a discipline like kendo can engender, occasionally will surprise by not always taking the cheap way out, and offers just enough hints of greater depth to give it at least a semblance of substance. It is not a top-tier title, but few who give it a chance are likely to regret it.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Likeable and endearing girls, usually fun and funny, makes the subject matter very approachable.
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