Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
The government of the Shogun has become oppressive to its people, with rape and murder becoming common tools used against ordinary folk. As opposition to the Shogun grows, a group of masked warriors who have eschewed their swords in favor of guns imported from the West take the initiative to see that justice is done on the behalf of common folk. Called Samurai Guns, they have achieved almost mythical stature amongst commoners and are a growing thorn in the side of the Shogun. To deal with this threat he organizes an anti-Samurai unit to hunt down and deal with the Samurai Guns and their allies. This is the story of three such warriors: the one-eyed half-breed Ichimatsu, his associate Daimon, and the female entertainer Kurenai.
Cross-breed Batman with a classic samurai movie and mate their offspring to Wild Wild West (the Will Smith version) and the result is Samurai Gun, one of the oddest takes on Japanese pseudo-history yet to make it across the Pacific. It probably sounded good on paper: take samurai warriors who are crusading for justice and replace their swords with Western-style firearms! Unfortunately the creator forgot that it is the swordplay, much moreso than the conflicts between individuals, which have always given samurai flicks their appeal. Duels with blades are so much more elegant and personal than charging in with guns blazing, even if the hero is shooting people at very close range, while gunplay is much more about using raw power to strike down one's foes at range. Both can be very entertaining in their own ways, but it takes a deft hand to get away with juxtaposing the two styles. Samurai Guns is a good example of an unsuccessful attempt at doing this: what should be exciting battle scenes often wind up being ho-hum shoot-'em-up affairs instead.
While the concept doesn't quite work, good writing, plotting, and character development could have still carried the story along. Sadly that is not the case in this volume. Little has been done so far to flesh out any of the main characters; we know the ugly reason why Ichimatsu is on this justice kick and that he's reluctant to kill unless he has the right motivation, but that's all we know about him, and most everyone else is just a shell. That the prostitute who narrates episode 3 and appears briefly in episode 4, who's only really supposed to be a secondary character, is the best-developed character in this volume is not an encouraging sign. Nothing much in the way of ongoing plot has yet been established, but unlike Samurai Champloo its individual stories are too predictable, uninspired, and lacking in tension to carry the series along until the plot can develop.
The other big problem with the series is its anachronistic elements. Based on the story's premise (the Shogun is still in charge, anti-government sentiment is rising, regular enough contact has been made with the West to import Western weaponry and technological ideas), this series must be set in the Japan of the early-to-mid-1860s, yet several items are present in the story which didn't exist until much later. Among these are a zipper (didn't appear at all until the 1910s and not on clothing until the late '30s), a submachine pistol (the later stages of WWI), a hand-held machine gun (end of WWI), a gun scope (1880s), an electric chair-type torture device (uncertain, but the electric chair itself didn't exist until the 1880s), automatic pistols (1890s), and guns which use cartridge clips (not sure about the date on this one, but definitely later than the time of this story). The presence of fragmentation bullets (which presumably refers to exploding bullets) in Japan at that time is unlikely but theoretically possible, since they were first developed in 1863 for use in the American Civil War. I am also pretty sure they didn't have skintight suits or what looks like a spandex halter top back then, either. The liner notes try to explain away some of these as clever expansions on technology that was theoretically possible at that time but not in practical use, but it's a thin explanation in an extra which otherwise reads like a promotional tool. One scene where a bad guy is shown firing bullets from a revolver despite the fact that the chambers rotating up to the barrel are clearly empty further shows that the either the creators did not do their homework or someone slipped up on quality control. A bit of a stretch is acceptable in the spirit of making an interesting story, but this series just completely ignores historical reality.
Background artistry is one of the stronger points of the series so far. Details and textures are excellent, producing a few scenes which truly look sharp. Unfortunately character renderings, which have a glossy look to them, do not match that level of quality (except in their use of shadows) and the armor styles used by the Samurai Guns are more silly-looking than intimidating. Female character designs fare better than the generally less detailed male characters, although there isn't a single female character with breasts smaller than your their head. Animation quality is fitful; good in places, quite rough in others. Some of the gimmicks used to simulate a greater sense of motion – such as sliding the background art while having the character moving forward, or trying to coordinate a CG rendering of a large piece of rubble with character actions – fail badly. More successful are interesting slow-time shots of bullets in motion. Doses of intense graphic content are sprinkled throughout, as is some strongly suggestive sexual content and shots of women's figures which might be considered fan service. No actual nudity is found anywhere in this volume, but this is still not a series suited for younger audiences.
The soundtrack for Samurai Guns starts out with great promise by opening with the hip “Samurai Crew” by ZZ and ends with a respectable adult contemporary-styled closer. In between is a mixture of dramatic synthesized numbers and themes borrowed from samurai flicks which is wholly unremarkable.
The performances in ADV's English dub are respectable enough. Chris Patton, as Watou, shows that he can voice the slimy role as well as anyone, and Christine Auten proves that she can sing while playing Kure-nai. Other roles are generally suitably cast and adequately performed. The real problem here comes with ADV's English script, which takes such heavy liberties that the subtitles and English dialogue are sometimes seriously at odds. Granted, the original script wasn't a sterling example of writing to begin with, and a fair amount of leeway has to be allowed as long as the script sounds smooth in English and retains the essential meaning of each scene, but when a reference to a character's hair being “beautiful” in the subtitles becomes “ugly” in the dub, that's going too far. Far less troubling is the use of more harsh language in the dub than exists in the subtitles, because the subtitles themselves are hardly clean and the style of the show supports it. Some of the other changes, though, seem to have been done needlessly.
Most of the extras on this volume are standard fare: clean opener and closer, character and production art, company previews, and ADV's now-standard Next Volume preview. The most distinctive extra is Fun With Audio (a phrase they lifted from Saturday Night Live's Robert Smigel), this series' version of the “alternate outtakes” feature which has become increasingly common of late on anime releases. As with most such features the jokes are hit-or-miss, although this batch hits the mark less often than normal and is never more than mildly funny.
Samurai Guns represents one of ADV Films' first co-productions of an anime series. The results, while not awful, show that they have a fair amount to learn yet. Hopefully they will fare better in their next attempt.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ novel concept, good opening number and background artistry
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