The Fall 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Touken Ranbu - Hanamaru
How would you rate episode 1 of
Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru ?
What is this?
In the year 2205 A.D., the History Retrograde Army has dedicated itself to altering the course of history by interfering with pivotal events of the past. To stop them, the Sword Warriors have been assembled. Each is the incarnation of a famous Japanese warrior's sword (in bishounen form), and they are charged with defending the status quo of history without altering it. Yamatonokami Yasusada, one of Shinsengumi Souji Okita's swords, is a newcomer assigned to be the captain of a squad on his first mission. His team must annihilate the HRA at the Ikeda Inn before they can interfere with the Shinsengumi's actions there in 1864. Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru is based on a mobile game and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Sundays at 12:00 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I'm beginning to see a pattern in these adorably mercenary "gotta collect every cute boy!" tie-in shows that pop up like roaches season after season. (If you think that sounds like an exaggeration, we are two days into the preview guide and there are four of them already, my god there are four of them.) More traditional bishounen-bait anime based on shojo manga might introduce each member of the harem (like six total) with a focus episode that made up the first half of the runtime before we got to the plot in episode 7 or so. But this new slick breed of freemium game anime? They just piledrive right into the pack of boys at full steam, assigning each one a gimmick and designating one or two of them as more special focus characters (who get like two gimmicks and a tragic backstory). Whether there's a female harem lead or not, the rest of the formula seems to roll out like clockwork, and it's one of the most hollow industrial snoozefests possible. Nothing feels more like a toy commercial than this stuff, save maybe the toy commercials aimed at kids rather than grown women like this season's Monster Hunter Stories: RIDE ON.
They're not total carbon copies of one another, but you can just take my review of this Touken Ranbu thing and apply it to DREAM FESTIVAL, Magic-Kyun! Renaissance, and Utanoprincesama Legend Star. (I used to love you, UtaPri, we used to have something special, but that third season was just a dull disaster, and the fourth season kicked off with an even more soulless flavor.) Touken Ranbu has the best animation of the pack, but that's just a drop of fresh water in a bucket of expired syrup as far as sitting through the obnoxious thing is concerned. Quantity of anime boys is not better than quality of anime boys, and something's gotta give sooner or later. Even if smartphone games and idols are the biggest thing in Japan right now, I just don't think the market can sustain this much pabulum with no personality all lasered in on the same demographic.
For what it's worth, Touken Ranbu is the franchise most anticipated to finally supersede the reigning king of the female otaku market, UtaPri, which is why it's getting a more straight-laced dramatic adaptation from ufotable next year, in contrast with this slice-of-life version. Maybe they won't take the world's laziest approach of plowing through several dozen boys at lightning speed while detailing source game mechanics in unsubtle "as you know" exposition in between unfunny gags, but I wouldn't bet money on it. (Seriously, that run-on-sentence of a criticism can be applied equally to the other two bishounen game anime this season. Utapri doesn't have that game mechanics part, but it does keep piling on boys while watering down story. Pick your poison, they're all empty cheap calories.)
On a final note, here's a little inside baseball. That comparison I made earlier to toy commercial shows for kids has another parallel to male idol/smartphone shows. Both of those genres rank dead last at the bottom of our reader polls for interest every single season. So I guess that's another source of my frustration. Japan may be eating this stuff up right now, but it's a big waste of time on western shores. I want more anime to succeed over here, but this stuff is being mass-produced just to be declared dead on arrival. Anyway. Touken Ranbu. In two weeks, you'll forget you ever even watched it.
Japanese mythology contains a creature known as a tsukumogami, an object that has survived for one hundred years and thus been granted sentience and life. (You may remember them from Hell Girl.) Alas for Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru, that's not the basis of its story. Instead it is drawn from a computer-based trading card game where famous swords from history have been given the form of attractive young men in order to stop the History Retrograde Army from changing history. Why do they want to change history? Awesome question, and one that is absolutely left out of this first episode. Instead we're teased with a gorgeous recreation of the famous Ikedaya Affair of 1864 from the point of view of one of Okita Souji's swords and then plopped down into the everyday lives of the swordboys as they cook, tend horses and crops, and have an episode long snowball fight. Be still my heart.
Visually there's a lot to like about this episode. Everyone has a pleasing character design that tries to take into account the different styles of sword they once were, the animation is smooth and both scenes at the Ikedaya look great, and I rather liked the attempt to make the swords resemble, at least in part, their former wielders. The idea that the now-sentient swords might want to change history themselves in order to prevent the untimely deaths of their previous owners is an interesting one, particularly given that history's favorite tragic hero Okita Souji has two swords present, and in all fairness, that may be developed as the series goes on.
The rest of it, however, felt underwhelming. I really wanted there to be a tsukumogami aspect to the story that would help to explain things and add a firmer base for the show to start from, and the cutesy aspects of the episode completely lost me. If it's a show about swords incarnating as humans to save history, I want more history-saving and actual plot, not chucking manure balls at each other. Perhaps it's better to say that this episode felt unbalanced to me, unable to decide if it wanted to be an interesting science fiction time travel adventure or an adorable story about swords who look like cute guys living together. While you can have it both ways, this didn't get the ratio right, and all the Okita-lookalikes and neat historical costumes out there can't quite save this from its decision to take the route that panders rather than tells a story.
Touken Ranbu is based on a browser game that's essentially the gender-swapped version of Kancolle. Instead of girls based on World War II ships, Touken Ranbu is all about boys based on famous swords, who are conscripted into service in some sort of vague meta-battle. That very arbitrary concept doesn't necessarily lend itself to adaptation, and last year's underwhelming Kancolle adaptation didn't offer much of a compelling precedent for this one. All told, I wasn't really expecting much from this show.
Fortunately, my low expectations were thwarted within the first minutes of this episode. Hanamaru begins with a thrilling battle inside a claustrophobic inn, a fight lifted by beautiful animation and some very dynamic shot framing. From there, the show moves on to introduce its many, many central characters. One of the big issues with adapting a property like Touken Ranbu is that fans of the original all have their own favorites, and thus an adaptation must include as many characters as possible in order to give everyone their moment to shine. On the other hand, strong narratives tend to demand more focused casts, meaning the desires of the fans naturally pull against the needs of the adaptation.
Hanamaru handles this problem by establishing a sort of sword retreat for the main cast, and then letting them act out their various quirks in a succession of slice-of-life moments while also prioritizing a handful of key central characters. I was quite impressed by how many characters this episode solidly established, and further impressed when the show found something to actually do with them.
Apparently, the various swords of Touken Ranbu have all been brought to life in order to fight for the sake of history. The History Retrograde Army is attempting to change the course of history, and the swords have been summoned in order to stop it. Not only does this give at least some context to their presence, it also allows for some actually compelling drama regarding the swords’ relationships with their former masters. Unlike Kancolle, these characters’ historical origins aren't just window dressing - in fact, the last act of this episode involved the swords who were present in that initial historical fight returning to the inn, and acting out the battles that once ended the life of their beloved master.
That second fight features just as much lovely animation as the first, making Hanamaru the best-animated premiere of the season so far. When combined with its surprisingly clever take on its premise and generally appealing design, all that makes Hanamaru a show I'd recommend giving a try even if you're not a fan of Touken Ranbu. Smart adaptations are lovely things.
The source game for this new series has been described as a gender-swapped version of Kantai Collection, and that is almost exactly what it feels like. The only difference is that we have no idea who the mysterious master is, and I wouldn't be surprised if we never know. After all, that allow for an easy insert option. With a heavy load of (sometimes exceedingly effeminate) bishonen on hand and not a single female character in sight, exactly who is meant to be inserting themselves into that role is pretty clear.
The episode opens with a dynamic rendition of the famous battle at the Ikeda Inn in 1864, where the Shinsengumi first made a name for themselves by suppressing anti-shogunate revolutionaries. This is an ambitious piece of animation, with the camera constantly moving as it follows Okita through the course of the battle but never fully showing his face. The heavy, hectic tone of that scene does not persist, however, and only once, much later in the episode does the story return to a true action element, albeit with an entirely different style of presentation. In that second battle, where the Sword Warriors are now at Ikeda Inn, they face off against smoky, monstrous creatures which are apparently supposed to be the HRA. That is a much more conventional scene in the way it shifts between multiple characters’ actions, being although its animation is still pretty good and it features several sharp maneuvers.
In between those battles and after the last one, though, the tone of the episode is much lighter. Several of the boys are more bishonen than young men, and they act like it. In fact, the bulk of the episode actually consists of them being introduced and just goofing around, with a running snowball fight being used as a framing device. (Would you call this “cute guys doing cute things”?) Their leader, Hasabe, also gets his own comedy moments in his various reactions to not being selected for the mission, and it looks like many of the Sword Warriors will have personality quirks at least vaguely associated with their former masters.
The series looks sharp enough and has enough historical context that it has at least a chance of having some appeal to male audiences. That any BL subtext which might exist here is very restrained so far also helps. Still, ultimately the series joins its source game in primarily being for the ladies, and it's not half-bad so far as such series go.
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