Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Oct 3rd 2003
Sakura Wars: The Movie
Once again, the Imperial Fighting Troupe has been called out to do battle with vicious demons that are attacking the new capital city, Tokyo. Unfortunately, something stinks in suburbia, and an insidious American company called Douglas-Stewart has entered the fray, fighting back the demons with mechanized robots more powerful than the Troupe's! Douglas-Stewart's champion robots make life miserable for Sakura and her plucky gang of heroines, who are on indefinite stand-by status. When Maria investigates Douglas-Stewart, all hell breaks loose, and it's up to the Imperial Fighting Troupe to crack the mystery and regain their glory!
One of the major problems with film versions of anime series based on long-standing properties is that the writers of these films don't feel the need to develop the characters whatsoever. Instead, they assume anyone watching the film has played all the games, bought all the comics, watched all the television episodes and even bought commemorative Kleenex, and would therefore be familiar with the characters already. Unfortunately, Sakura Wars: The Movie falls victim to this particular pitfall, and in a most heinous way. What we have here is a beautifully rendered film, unforgivably marred by poor writing and a complete lack of character development. This is the sort of dry anime film that drives people away from a potentially lucrative franchise because it relies too heavily on what came before.
The movie opens with the girls of the Imperial Flower Troupe performing on stage (one assumes that this is what the girls do when they're not in robots fighting ugly demons), wearing some of the most ridiculous costumes you'll ever see. Green pantaloons and big red Alucard hats (or perhaps Tokyo Babylon hats) are the order of the day. They're also wearing baby blue peacock feathers, just like the girls you'll find at any cabaret in Vegas. The problem is, the girls in Vegas are topless. That's why people are watching them cavort on stage and sing saccharine showtunes. Since Sakura and her posse are fully-clothed, it begs the question: why would anyone watch this for fun? They sing some asinine song about love and light and hope and all that silly nonsense, but mostly they stand there and kinda dance a little. It's a questionable way to open the movie, especially since they don't bother explaining that in addition to being mechanized badasses, these girls are apparently queens of the stage. Whatever. It gets worse.
The storyline of Sakura Wars: The Movie is not so labyrinthine as to lose any uninitiated viewer, as is the case with many other anime films based on pre-established series. Here we have a basic story about a bunch of cute girls in robots saving the city from evil Americans and their Cirque du Soleil-style demons (something tells me the art designer for this movie took a quick trip to the City of Sin before doing his job). The problem is, this movie has a zillion and one characters (who, thanks to excellent character design, are very easy to tell apart) and none of them seem to have any motivation for doing anything. Of course the pre-existing audience for this film already knows why these characters do what they do, but frankly, that's a very sloppy way to write a movie. Had they even bothered to show each girl doing something stereotypical of her character, maybe things might make a bit more sense, but as it is, everything is sort of up in the air.
It doesn't help that when tidbits of these girls' personalities do shine through, they wind up being immensely irritating. Sakura has Belldandy syndrome: she is unflappably optimistic, to the point of being stupid. Thank goodness the writers have written the scenario to prove her mindless optimism right in every circumstance, otherwise she might lose a little of her naiveté. Everything out of her mouth drips with saccharine sweetness. It's unbearable. Maria, the blonde-headed Troupe leader (at least for the purposes of this movie) is your hard-nosed but soft-hearted and capable commander. Sumire is the cold, nasty theater queen who never wants to help anyone with anything. Add in Smart Girl, Girl To Bait The Lolita Guys, Mannish Redhead and a smattering of other totally uninteresting and obnoxious character archetypes, and you have the cast of Sakura Wars. Wait, I forgot to mention the totally forgettable villains, whose oh-so-deep greed motivation truly strikes fear into the hearts of whoever they send their silly looking clown-demon things after. They even have a sprite guy in a silly hat who does a deadly Whirling Dervish dance to take out his enemies. Seriously.
The problem is, these are issues that only non-fans will have. Sakura Wars hardcores will no doubt love this movie, because it gives them everything they want. There's plenty of character interaction, mecha fights, and girls being cute. There's really nothing bad to say if you already love Sakura Wars and have seen everything there is to see. Unfortunately, a film (especially a film marketed in this fashion by Pioneer, released into theaters where 99.9 percent of the American audience will have never heard of any of this nonsense) needs to at least try and reintroduce the characters. American sequels to American movies don't need to do that because they can safely assume that if you've seen the first one, you're watching the second. Unfortunately, this is not Japan, and nobody is familiar with Sakura Wars. If you aren't already familiar with these characters, you'd better start off with the TV series or the OVAs. Heck, we don't even have the games the whole thing is based on.
The dub is something of a disaster. If English dubs were humanity, Generic Overacting Anime Girl Voice would be the plague. It has easily killed a third of the potentially good English dubs out there, and it has infected every corner of Sakura Wars: The Movie. The entire cast totally overacts their lines, saying them with such punch and vigor as to be completely obnoxious. Sakura sounds like a total airhead – think “Serena” from the DiC Sailor Moon dub and you're about there. All of the girls in this thing have voices that sound like they're struggling to overact at 3 octaves higher than their normal voices, especially the little girl with the teddy bear. Listening to them all talk to each other in rapid succession is like being inside a henhouse where all the hens have loudspeakers. It is totally maddening, an experience I can safely say I will never repeat. It doesn't help that the dialogue is painfully awkward, so it isn't like they had much to work with in the first place. The rest of the characters are pretty standard – lots of hemming and hawing old men, and Crispin Freeman once again doing his Alucard voice for the villain. I think they're forcing him to do this voice for everything he's in, now that they've discovered he can play heavies. That's great because it means more roles for him, but the voice is quickly becoming tired and it seems especially wasted on this one-dimensional villain with crazy hair. Furthermore, there are a few moments in the dub where the New Blonde Girl walks up to Sakura and asks her if she can speak English. Sakura then, in perfect English, says “Oh, gee, my English isn't so good!”, and then proceeds to speak like a Japanese person trying to speak English (“How aaah yuuuuu” and so forth). This is horrifically awkward. Obviously this film is meant to be viewed in Japanese. The dub is wreck, so you'd best stick to the film's native language.
The one thing that can be said for Sakura Wars: The Movie is that it is absolutely, without a doubt, beautiful to look at. The animation here is second to none, fluidly realized. Even more impressive are the backgrounds, which are gorgeous paintings in their own right. It would be lovely to see some of this art in a collection somewhere; it's that good, and the quality remains excellent throughout the film. There are moments of aesthetic beauty in this film that rival some of the best anime productions ever made. If anything, this movie is sheer eye candy.
It's really too bad that it has almost nothing else going for it. Sakura Wars: The Movie is an aesthetically brilliant yet lethally uninteresting and ridiculous film. It should be noted for its beauty, worshipped by Sakura Wars fans, and rightfully ignored by everyone else.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Brilliant animation and production values
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