Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 2nd 2012
DVD - Season 1
In 1863, Chizuru Yukimura, a young woman passing herself off as a young man, comes to Kyoto in search of her doctor father, who has been abnormally out of contact for some time. A perilous encounter with strangely savage samurai leads her into the company of the Shinsengumi, a special police force established to support the Tokugawa Bakufu, whose members claimed to have formerly worked with Chizuru's absent father. Though initially kept under effective house arrest because of some secrets she has witnessed about the Shinsengumi, Chizuru gradually earns the right to accompany them on patrols as she looks for clues about her father. As she joins the Shinsengumi in various historical conflicts against anti-Tokugawa elements, Chizuru also has assorted encounters with puissant individuals who claim to be devils and seem to have a peculiar interest in her. And their interest may be justified, for as the upper echelons of the Shinsengumi eventually discover, Chizuru is not exactly normal herself.
How does one entice male viewers to watch a series clearly aimed specifically at female viewers? Tossing in lots of bloody violence and historical context involving samurai is the apparent answer in this, the first of four anime series (and eventually two movies, too) based on the Hakuōki video game series for various PlayStation and Nintendo platforms. The approach works because all of the bishonen characters and the vague reverse harem structure do not detract much from appreciating the series as a work of supernaturally-tinged historical fiction.
The core members of the Shinsengumi have been depicted, with varying degrees of focus and historical accuracy, in numerous anime series over the years, so this franchise attempts to introduce a fresher twist by involving the Shinsengumi in some supernatural matters behind the scenes while real-life events – such as the Ikedaya Affair, the shift of the Shinsengumi's headquarters to Nishihonganji Temple, and the Battle of Toba-Fushimi – are used as framing devices; narration done by Chizuru typically identifies the historical incidents as they come up. Initially those supernatural elements just look to be the Failed Warriors, vampire-like beings created as a side effect of Shinsengumi members drinking a super-medicine called Water of Life; this is used to explain why one character who is commonly believed to have committed seppuku in 1865 is still around later in the story. (He fakes his own death to cover for having become a Failed Warrior, you see.) Eventually, though, proper devils in human form are also shown to be amongst the individuals that the Shinsengumi encounter, ones who partly have their own agenda and partly have one which aligns some of them with forces that eventually act as enemies to the Shinsengumi. In fact, the writing is actually fairly clever about the way it integrates these elements into the actual history.
The integration does not always produce smooth results, however, and that stands as the less subjective of the series' two significant flaws. At times the plotlines about Chizuru looking for her father and the motivations of the various devils afoot in the setting get lost amongst the grand sweep of history that the series attempts to portray, which results in months and sometimes even a year or two passing between activity on this front even though some sense of urgency on the devils' part is implied at some points. The other, more subjective problem is Chizuru's literal and figurative weakness. She follows the all-too-typical reverse harem pattern of having a fairly strong spirit but still regularly being put in situations where she is “rescue bait” for the dashing male characters around her; in fact, it must happen at least a half-dozen times across these dozen episodes. Though she is supposedly special, she also seems decidedly weaker than other characters who are special in the same way, and though she is around the Shinsengumi for more than four years over the course of the series, she never seems to age or learn any meaningful fighting skill despite the dangers she regularly finds herself in. She is shown to be deeply caring and compassionate, but on the whole she is as pathetic as the worst male harem leads. Fortunately the male characters around her are dynamic enough to carry the series without her.
And let's not even get started about the one male devil who goes around wielding a Western-style hand gun and his ridiculous flamboyance with it.
Studio DEEN showed with the Vampire Knight franchise that they are well-capable of producing great-looking bishonen-focused fare, and their team-up with background specialists Studio Easter for this project results in one of the studio's best-looking efforts to date. Atsuko Nakajima, whose long career as a character designer includes prominent fare like Ranma ½, You're Under Arrest, and Trinity Blood, does a wonderful job of adapting the source games' original character designs, in the process producing gorgeous bishonen versions of most of the key Shinsengumi members and some of the key foes, designs which feature some of the most striking eyes one is ever likely to see in male anime characters. Chizuru, by comparison, is rather plain (though she does look much better when dressed up as a proper lady in one episode), but other prominent female characters are more appealing. Background art is a typically excellent effort by Studio Easter, and while the animation isn't quite as sharp, it is still better than average. This being a title originally aimed at female audiences, it does not have a shred of male-oriented fan service in it, but it is not shy about getting graphically violent.
The musical score is also quite effective. It favors heavy, dark tones for its action and dramatic scenes, which lends intensity and even an occasional amount of creepiness to the content. In lighter moments it tends to run silent or briefly play more mellow numbers to foster the series' small doses of humor. Opening theme “Izayoi Namida” is a catchy, nicely-animated piece with a good beat backed by a hint of classical Japanese flavor, while the gentler, more melodic tone of closer “Kimi no Kioku” also results in a solid (if less memorable) number.
Sentai Filmworks has the license for the whole franchise and a stated intent to release all of the franchise's content through the OVA series, so this should be just their first installment of the overall story to see Region 1 release. Sentai is dubbing the series but only releasing it on DVD, with the twelve episodes spread across three disks and the only Extras being clean opener and closer. (Some details on the historical references might have been nice, a la the Le Chevalier D'Eon DVDs put out by their predecessor ADV.) In the dub, Brittney Karbowski acquits herself well enough as Chizuru and the assemblage of male talent provides a little more variety to the vocal styles than the Japanese cast does, though most of the voices and delivery styles are in line with the original performances; the only significant difference is that the English voice actors focus more on varying attitude than using an accent or distinctive speech pattern in a couple of roles. With a script that also stays reasonably close, this is a solid overall dub.
Ultimately Hakuōki seems more concerned with spinning a fanciful version of history than with actually telling a character-driven story or playing up any emotional connections. That would not necessarily be a problem if the series was more direct about its intentions, but instead it spends most of its time trying to straddle the line between emphasizing its historical elements and developing its characters and non-historical elements fully. Still, the historical elements and characterization of the setting and time period are handled well enough for the series to be worth a mild recommendation. It ends without resolving much of anything, but given that its sequels are out there that problem may be fixed by a future release.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Character designs, cleverly integrates new content into historical references.
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