Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 30th 2013
Sakura Wars: The Movie
The time is now the end of 1925, and the Flower Division of the Imperial Combat Troupe has been supplemented by members of the former Star Division, which expands its combat roster out to nine with the addition of pretty American blond Lachette Altair. Although they continue to effectively protect Tokyo even in the temporary absence of Lt. Oogami (and also give stage performances on the side!), forces within the government aspire to find a way to no longer put the young ladies in danger. To that end American manufacturing company Douglas-Stewart and its young president, Brent Furlong, get involved by supplying a new class of remote-controlled mecha called Japhkiel. When these new units soon prove more combat-efficient, the Flower Division is in danger of being disbanded. Fortunately for them Mr. Furlong's intentions are not quite on the up-and-up, which once again puts Tokyo at risk.
The movie version of Sakura Wars is related to the TV version, but calling it a direct sequel is a stretch. In fact, it is actually set chronologically between the third and fourth installments in the core game series, while the TV series was loosely based on the first game. Thus a substantial amount of story elapses between the end of the TV series and the beginning of this, which could leave viewers lost if their only previous experience with the franchise is the TV series; this primarily shows in the references to Paris, New York, and Star Division and the more prominent presence of some characters who had very minor appearances in the TV series. The movie provides no recap about the situation and who the characters are, so familiarity with game events is clearly expected going in. The movie was originally marketed in the U.S. as a stand-alone, and it does have good enough visuals that it could be appreciated by someone who does not care about making sense of the story, but regarding it as such is not recommended.
Not that the movie's content is a whole lot better even if one does know the characters, setting, and background, though. The plot of the movie is so painfully generic that a child could probably predict just about everything that will transpire and the chief villain lacks any clear motivation for what he is doing; is he really going all-out to destroy Tokyo just because he sees it as inferior to New York City? Even worse, the way the scenes are strung together gives the movie a very disjointed feel, as if it were constructed from the cut scenes for a video game. Scenes sometimes break away at awkward times and gaps between actions – especially in the mecha fighting scenes – are sometimes apparent. Contrasting this is the exorbitant amount of time spent on a train loading and launch sequence. It that literally spans several minutes, which is a significant chunk of time in a movie that is only 85 minutes long, and is so methodically detailed that what should be a flashy sequence actually becomes boring. The musical performances which bookend the movie are more tolerable, as the fact that the Flower Division members are also stage performers is one of the franchise's staple elements, although the lengthy final performance is curious in a number of ways: it seems to be a cap for some character tensions (although exactly what tensions are involved is never made clear), and characters react as if something is going off script, but it never gives any clear signs of what is or is not being ad-libbed, what the problem might be, or why some of the troupe members are so worried about it. All we get is the sense that something is wrong and the troupe is coming together to correct it. Perhaps the reason why director Mitsuru Hongo sits with his back to the camera throughout the included interview is because he knows he has something to be embarrassed about here.
For all of the writing problems that the movie has, though, it does at least come through on the visuals. This is a sharp-looking, for the most part well-animated production which makes surprisingly good use of its CG elements for something that was made in 2001 and probably did not have a top-end budget. The fight choreography is not especially impressive, but nonetheless the boxy mecha have a good range of movement and maneuverability and are complemented by some innovative steampunk-flavored automobiles and a luxury of support equipment detail. The monsters, by contrast, are more ordinary. The Blu-Ray treatment brings out beautifully the richness of the colors and production in general, which was spearheaded by Production I.G, make the original character designs all the more appealing. Very little graphic violence and not a shred of salacious fan service are present, which makes the TV-14 rating seem a little strong; presumably it was assigned more on the intensity of some scenes.
The musical effort headed by Hajime Toma (who also scored a couple of the franchise's OVAs) stands squarely between the writing and visual efforts. It largely eschews the core themes of the TV series in favor of a much blander sound which does a merely adequate job of backing the more dramatic scenes. The opening performance number “Kiseki no Kane,” which was left undubbed in the English dub, is the closest thing the movie has a to a highlight number.
Because this movie was originally released by Geneon instead of ADV Films, it has an entirely different English dub cast than the TV series, one which consists of a host of names who had well-established dubbing careers when the movie was first released in the States in 2003 and/or went on to have substantial careers after it. That would leave one to expect a better effort than the odious dub of the TV series, and there is some definite improvement in that the dub is not painfully bad, but it is still a far cry from the standard that Bang Zoom! Entertainment would establish as the decade progressed. Male roles are generally passable if generic-sounding, but too many of the female performances give the impression that the actresses are straining to get the right pitch and affectation for the characters; this is most evident in Wendee Lee's miscast performance as Sakura. The handling of a couple of scenes where characters are supposed to be atypically speaking in English is also a mess, although in general the script is faithful to the original dub.
Funimation's Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack marks the movie's first American release since a UMD release back in early 2006. The case cover is a considerable artistic improvement over the earlier releases and the video quality improvement for the Blu-Ray, while not huge and a bit softer in appearance than the Blu-Rays of more recent productions, is enough to make the DVD version pointless to anyone who has a Blu-Ray player. Unusually, the Dolby TrueHD5.1 sound actually comes through a little better in the Japanese language track, suggesting that the audio did not get as much of an update on the English end as it did on the Japanese end. The main included Extra is a series of interwoven interviews with the head of Production I.G and various production personnel, which were apparently done in 2012 for the Japanese Blu-Ray release. Among the most interesting points brought up are original creator Ouji Hiroi's comments about how the Flower Division was inspired by stories he had heard from his grandmother about actual female performance troupes, which were quite prominent in Japan during the era in which the franchise is set and apparently put on shows not too dissimilar from those seen in the franchise. He also makes the intriguing observation that what those troupes did 90 years ago has parallels to what AKB48 and its sister groups do today. Other Extras consistent of a collection of movie trailers and promotional videos and some bonus interior cover art.
While this movie may hold nostalgia value for some and is a visual treat, the visuals alone are not enough to warrant recommending this to anyone who is not an established fan of the franchise.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : C
+ Mostly great visuals and animation, especially in its sharp use of color.
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