You had me at "A slapstick adolescence idol success story."
Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 19th 2005
DVD 1: Secrets & Lies
When country bumpkin and innkeeper's son Touma comes to Tokyo for his college entrance exams, he finds himself in a predicament. He has fallen quickly and deeply in love with the beautiful Mieko while attending the entrance exam for prestigious Keiho University, but his failure to pass that exam – or either of the other ones he took – puts his love life in jeopardy, for Mieko dates only college men. So what is a love-struck boy to do? Pretend like he passed and is attending Keiho instead of a cram school, of course! Meanwhile he stays in his uncle's apartment with his sexy cousin Urara, a high school girl who fell in love with Touma after their one previous encounter as children. Though she tries her best to “relax” Touma and draw his attention, Touma is initially oblivious to her feelings.
Sakura Diaries was originally released on laser disc in Japan in 1997, but an edited version was broadcast on Japanese TV the next year. When ADV did its original dub and four-volume release of the title in 2001, they unknowingly used the edited TV version, which cut out the nudity; this was the version reviewed on this site in early 2002. Late in 2001 ADV released an unedited and retranslated box set, but dropped the English dub in favor of a subtitle-only release. Now they have finally rereleased the unedited version of the series with a brand new English dub, this time on two economical six-episode volumes. Thus a new review is warranted.
The love triangle at the center of Sakura Diaries is a standard one for anime romances: a boy is so totally enamored with a gorgeous, high-class babe that he doesn't notice the affection of the cute, willing, and caring girl right at hand – at least not at first. The twist for the boy is that he's lying about attending a particular college so that he can be close to the high-class babe, and the twist for the girl is that she's very inventive and brazen in her sexy efforts to relax the boy and get his attention; one would think that the message would be clear when the girl you're sharing an apartment with walks around in your presence with literally nothing but an apron on, but Touma is evidently not the brightest of guys. Many of the scenes, situations, and characters are common elements of anime romances; Touma is constantly fantasizing about scenarios with Mieko, while Urara is regularly counseled/consoled by her boy-crazed best friend Koumi, and naturally there's a pretty strong reason in Urara's past behind why she's in love with Touma. Then there are the various improbable circumstances that anime romances inevitably have, such as how Touma never notices that there's no evidence of Urara's father ever being around in the apartment or how he can be brushing his teeth in the bathroom while Urara's in the shower.
What slightly separates Sakura Diaries from typical romantic comedies is that it is a pure (albeit light-hearted) romance, and what makes it interesting to watch is its set of flawed characters. None of the three main characters are being entirely honest: Urara is covering up the fact that her father really isn't around (though why he isn't around is yet to be explained), Mieko may partly be using Touma, and Touma is not only lying to Mieko about his collegiate status but also comes up with some remarkably dishonest and callous ideas about his relationship with Urara. The only person who really tells things straight is Koumi, who seems to exist in the series primarily for that purpose.
The other reason to watch Sakura Diaries, and this version in particular, is to see the fan service in all its unedited glory. For as cute as she is, Urara is also quite the hottie, and gives both Touma and the viewer ample tantalizing glimpses of her figure, undergarments, and even bare flesh. Mieko also contributes some skin, but the focus is usually more on Urara. This is some high-quality content which, for some, will make the series worth watching for the fan service alone. Those who do not care for fan service involving nudity would be well advised to avoid this title.
The artistry, which looks to have been done entirely with cel animation, has the rougher and more muted look one would expect of an even older series, but except for the closer it's still refined enough to be pleasing to the eyes. Character designs are very appealing and uniformly well-proportioned, with Urara and Mieko both being provided with a wide array of costuming over the course of these six episodes, while backgrounds have sufficient detail. The animation excels in some places (one scene where Urara is seen from behind as she runs looks especially good for not using any digital effects) but is rough in others and does take significant shortcuts, creating a production where it looks like the animation efforts were concentrated on a few key scenes in each episode while others were only developed minimally.
The gentle, acoustic guitar-based opener is a pleasant enough tune, as is the more up-tempo, American Country-twanged closer, though how well either one actually fits with the series is another matter. The soundtrack works pretty hard to set the mood and tone for each scene but overall doesn't distinguish itself much. Because this is a somewhat older production, only basic 2.0 stereo sound options are available.
ADV's original English dub was rated very poorly, but fortunately they did a much better job this time around. The English voices aren't perfect matches for the original seiyuu or their vocal styles, but they do accurately represent the essence and emotions of their respective characters. Those who have complained about ADV relying too heavily on a limited talent pool will be happy to know that some fresh talent is featured here: Robert Martinez, as Touma, seems to be a complete newcomer, while Mariela Ortiz, as Urara, has only done a couple of other major roles. Some may not care for Martinez's vocal quality, but both turn in good enough performances that dub fans will probably hear more of them in the future. Precision lip-synching has been sacrificed in favor of smoother deliveries, an effect which may take some dub fans a while to get used to, but this does also allow for an English script which follows the meaning of the subtitles when it isn't parroting them almost word-for-word. The only major discrepancy is the “baseball rock-paper-scissors” game Touma and Urara do in episode 5, which is rewritten into a variation American fans are more apt to recognize and understand.
ADV's original domestic release allegedly had no extras, but this time they have included a clean opener and closer and some on-disc Liner Notes (read: translation notes) in addition to company previews, a next volume preview, and six full episodes. The special feature is an unused alternate closer which uses the same graphics but a song with completely different style, tone, and lyrics. It's a good enough song that some viewers may find themselves wondering how the actual closer was picked over this one. New cover art is also used.
ADV may have flubbed the first time around with Sakura Diaries, but this revamped rerelease shows that they are trying to make up for past mistakes. Its premise and storytelling may not be terribly original, but if you favor saucy, sexy romance series or have appreciation for high-quality fan service then this may be a title worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Excellent fan service, high episode count, appealing character designs.
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