The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide BAKUMATSU
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
How was the first episode?
I didn't know up front that this one was based on an otome game, but it wasn't hard to guess the origin. After all, it features various historical figures from the Shinsengumi and their rivals, the Chosu, depicted as lavishly-dressed pretty boys performing all manner of dashing actions. The story (at least for the moment) is focusing on Takasugi Shinsaku and Katsura Kogoro, who were both prominent figures in the establishment of the Meiji Restoration and form a classic “man of action/man of strategy” duo in this series. Rather than make any attempt to follow actual history, they are apparently jolted to an alternate timeline and world, one that will allow them to encounter and fight famous samurai from other eras, beginning with the Sengoku era's Sanada Yukimura,
In other words, the whole time-jumping scenario is just a way to have various samurai from throughout history battle each other. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that – after all, it's not like fantasy literature on both sides of the Pacific isn't populated with that kind of fare – but the problem is that little about both the scenario and the execution is particularly fresh. The personalities of Takasugi and Katsura could have been transplanted from any number of other titles: the cocky guy and the more thoughtful guy. Action scenes get a little creative for one running battle in the bowels of a ship, but otherwise they are standard sword-fighting exchanges with a mild level of animation support. (I did appreciate the little detail about how the standard katana is too long to be effective in tight ship corridors.) The series tries to make up for this shortcoming with the elaborate cannon-equipped castle of the new shogunate, but that just looks too fanciful to be taken seriously.
All of the above is done well enough that the series should satisfactorily appeal to its target audience. However, I can't see it having much appeal beyond that. There are a horde of this type of series out there right now, and this particular one is too typical in its visuals, storytelling, action, and general execution to stand out in an increasingly crowded field.
Watching Bakumatsu's premiere was a confusing experience, because based other online reports I'd read, this property is based on a dating sim starring a female protagonist, featuring twelve handsome samurai boyfriends that join the heroine in her journey through time and alternate histories of Japan. Bakumatsu has the time-travel, and the shirtless sword boys, and yet by the time the credits rolled the only sign of the leading lady was the mysterious woman in-black who made off with the magical clock doohickey that Shinsaku and Kogoro have been tasked with stealing. While I appreciate the possibility of the heroine of an otome-game adaptation being proactive and intriguing in her own right, the romantic angle of Bakumatsu is definitely downplayed in this premiere.
So what we're left with for now is a fantasy infused action-adventure show that, to me, almost feels like it came from another era. The flat aesthetics, workmanlike direction, and haphazard storytelling on display all remind me of the mid-level efforts that Geneon and ADV might have pushed out back in the day, the kind I used to pick up from the back shelves of my local library's DVD stacks. Shinsaku and Kogoro are the only guys we really get to know this episode, and they're the kind of familiar odd-couple types that work well enough to keep the plot moving, but not much else – Shinsaku is bold and loudly heroic, and Kogoro wears glasses, so you know he has to be smart and serious. The first half of the episode is also surprisingly bland; the brief sword fights and chase sequences we get are very plain to watch, and much of the episode just involves getting the main pair from Point A to Point B. They steal some outfits, break into a castle, find a boy chained up to a bed, get tossed into an alternate reality via time travel – and while that description might sound interesting, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Things pick up a little when our heroes end up in the warped, alternate version of Kyoto, but the writing is still really sloppy. Shinsaku and Kogoro get filled in on the key points of this new timeline from a conspicuously expository ramen cook, for example, and Shinsaku gets into a bout with a Shinsengumi warrior that is only decently animated and directed. The way the climax is framed and scored, it feels like it's supposed to be received with the gravitas of a fight that's been built up over many years, but we barely know these characters as they exist in this anime, and I'm not familiar with the historical figures upon which they are based, to there's virtually no reason to get emotionally invested. It's possible that this story might pick up more once the main heroine enters the story and the cast gets more developed, but even then the writing and art are too middling to get excited about. This isn't the worst premiere I've seen so far this week, but I doubt I'll be coming back to Bakumatsu any time soon either.
Is it just me, or are these anime versions of “sexy history boy” games getting less interesting with each passing season? As the latest entry in this particular category, Bakumatsu dispenses with the recent trend of personifying swords, muskets, and other inanimate objects and instead sticks to the old standard of recasting historical figures as handsome dudes. While this approach is arguably less gimmicky, it also means that there's nothing fresh about this particular story. It's just the same handful of famous swordsmen and generals, fighting their way through a stock “somebody messed with history” plot in an array of colorful outfits.
Even this premiere seems to assume that the audience has seen at least one of these shows before. The writing doesn't make much of an effort to introduce the characters or place them into a historical context. Instead, everyone just kind of shows up on screen, complete with established friendships and rivalries. I can't tell if this is just a case of lousy writing, or if Bakumatsu is operating under the expectation that everyone in its core audience already knows who most of these guys are. Either way, it's an approach that saves the series a lot of time and exposition, but it makes for a pretty high barrier to entry for anyone who hasn't already seen multiple incarnations of the same half-dozen Shinsengumi officers.
I was a little surprised to learn Bakumatsu is based on a romance game, given that the plot feels like it was ripped straight out of a gacha-style RPG. The baddies' giant headquarters is even divided up into visually distinct areas, each of which is presumably guarded by a final boss from a different era. Even if the original game was more about forming relationships with these guys, it looks like leading man Shinsaku will still have to assemble a team of allies and fight his way to the top. If these opening plot points are any indication, anyone who sticks around for the full season is in for a lot of inconclusive fight scenes and events that happen purely out of narrative necessity.
The visuals are at least passable, if not especially impressive. To Bakumatsu's credit, it hasn't done anything uniquely stupid so far, but the whole affair just reeks of recycled ideas. You could probably do worse if you're in the market for passionate sword fights between pretty boys, but you could also do a heck of a lot better. Unless you really want to see this particular game's take on the usual cast of historical swordsmen, you can probably skip Bakumatsu with no fear of missing anything good.
While I'll admit I'm a little sick of the Shinsengumi, I'm also a sucker for a time travel story and some of history's lesser-known (at least compared to the aforementioned Shinsengumi) figures, so Bakumatsu is actually more up my alley than I expected. The base plotline, that Meiji Restoration statesmen Shinsaku Takasugi and Katsura Kogoro (later known as Kido Takayoshi) have been sent to an alternate version of Japan where the Meiji era never happened and the Tokugawa shogunate was replaced by the Tensho shogunate, is a new enough twist on the same old piece of rehashed history that it works. Or at least, it works well enough – the first half of the episode is mostly Katsura and Shinsaku running around doing random things they shouldn't, mostly at Shinsaku's behest.
Of course, “behest” might imply more thought than Shinsaku's actually putting into anything. That's what's fun about his character, though; he's a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy, even if suddenly finding himself in pants comes as a shock. His general ability to ignore Katsura's reasoned words and attempts to both figure things out and keep the two of them alive make for an episode that rarely sits still, even if the first half does seem a bit aimless at times.
If we think about it beyond the conceit of a new way to throw the Shinsengumi into anime, the implications of two of the orchestrators of the Meiji Restoration being sent to a world where that never happened is an interesting one. The Tensho Era is far less tolerant than the Meiji would have been, with peace only on the surface and cannons activated by creepy clockwork dolls pointed directly at the people. There's a definite 1984 vibe to the place, and even if the endgame of the series is to say that history ran the way it ought to have in the first place, the various ways in which it's gone wrong for the people under Tensho is good set up for what's to come. The visuals do help as well – while I'm not sold on the shine in people's hair looking like family crests, the fantastical nature of Kyoto's new Susanoo Palace is very nice, and the redesign of the Shinsengumi jackets into something more sinister works well. While this may turn out to be just another “hot guys of Japanese history” show, it does feel right now like there may be something more going for it. It'll be worth another episode to see where it goes.
It's been interesting living through the mobile game adaptation boom period. These adaptations have resulted in a whole lot of “historical fantasy,” but fantasy filtered through the lense of “we need a thousand cool characters and a vague, ahistorical conflict” that mobile games demand. This has often resulted in deeply unfocused shows that are basically just celebrating the characters of the game properties, like last season's The Thousand Musketeers. But while Bakumatsu certainly has too many characters and a fairly absurd concept, it demonstrates that it's actually possible to channel these game concepts into a genuinely compelling narrative.
First off, the show is careful not to overwhelm us with too many random historical figures right from the start. We open with co-rogues Takasugi Shinsaku and Katsura Kogoro, and though I don't know their histories or even if they have histories, this episode characterizes them so well that that doesn't matter. Across the course of a variety of capers centering on a time-controlling pocket watch, these two develop a charming, convincing rapport. Their dynamic is the classic headstrong leader with a long-suffering sidekick, but Bakumatsu's consistently snappy jokes and very natural conversations make their friendship convincing in short order. And the comedy of their relationship is matched visually by animation favoring expressive pratfalls over combat fluidity, with many of Bakumatsu's major sequences feeling more than a little like Scooby Doo villains chasing our heroes through hidden passages.
Bakumatsu is also smart enough not to overwhelm us with exposition regarding its time travel conceit. We start on the ground floor, knowing only what Takasugi and Katsura know, and are introduced to the ahistorical nega-Kyoto at the same time they are. This allows the show/game's premise to come off more as a genuine mystery to be solved than a burden of information required to even engage with the story, turning what could be tedious backstory into an actual hook. With the strong grounding force of Takasugi and Katsura's relationship, the absurd conceits surround them become far more approachable, and by the end of this episode, I was actually pretty excited for Takasugi's upcoming historical boss gauntlet.
Bakumatsu' premise still feels pretty darn convoluted, and the animation isn't truly great, but I had a very fine time with this premiere. Strong chemistry and a winning sense of humor can go a long way in selling a show, and even if it's not the best premiere of the season, I'm impressed with how well Bakumatsu was able to translate game mechanics to an engaging narrative. If these sorts of pan-historical brawls appeal to you, definitely give it a shot.
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