The Fall 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Kakeru Miwa, a high school student, gets involved in a battle between powered suits and oni that emerge from the demon world to prey on Onis manifest themselves in this world by possessing humans. Only “Yoroi,” powered suit that is a fusion of ancient secrets and cutting-edge technology, can protect people from onis. Kakeru puts on a Yoroi by chance and becomes a semi-official member of a team that fights against onis. Determined to become a hero, Kakeru battles Onis to protect Ouka Myojin, the shrine maiden destined to save the world.
How was the first episode?
I was more or less ready to write Shikizakura off when I realized it was all CG models. Yes, I know that isn't fair, but you have to admit, the track record hasn't been great. There have been a few good fully computer-animated anime, but more often than not, the character and facial animation is stiff and awkward. The action ones have been even more lacking, since they rarely have the sense of weight necessary to give battle scenes impact. What's more, Shikizakura is tokusatsu, a genre that has failed to capture me since I was six years old and couldn't figure out why everyone was suddenly obsessed with Power Rangers.
But then as I was watching, I realized: Shikizakura is actually pretty good!
The CG animation probably won't win over any converts and does occasionally have that issue of the characters looking like dolls posing. However, more often than not, it has a surprising level of fluidity and detail to the character animation without appearing rotoscoped. The cell-shading is well-done enough that screenshots look hand-drawn; it's only apparent that the characters are animated using three-dimensional models when they're moving around. Because of this, the show retains a traditionally “anime” sensibility, even when using modern animation techniques in a way that has rarely been done successfully.
The action direction is incredibly strong, using sound effects and flashes to create a sense of weight with every impact. When Kakeru lands after falling from a great height, you really feel it! One of the reasons animators cite for using CG over hand-drawn is how you can use the camera, and it zooms around a lot during the big climactic battle scene, following characters and rotating and just overall being really dynamic and fun to watch.
So, you may have noticed by now that I've talked a lot about the animation, but said almost nothing about the plot. That's because the plot is pretty typical for a tokusatsu series, mixing and matching tropes especially from the Super Sentai and Kamen Rider franchises. You've got the color-coded suit team, the naive princess (?), the protagonist with survivor's guilt who struggles for power against their evil partner… We're not redefining the genre here, people. But it's fun, and works perfectly fine as a vessel for the action.
Shikizakura probably won't win over people who dislike 3DCG anime, nor people who don't care for tokusatsu series, but if you're already okay with both those things, the first episode promises a pretty good time.
So far, this season hasn't been overflowing with amazing premieres, with only a few standouts that have managed to separate themselves from the ones that make me shrug my shoulders and go, “Eh. Probably not for me." This makes Shikizakura all the more enjoyable, then, because after a couple of minutes I was prepared to write it off as another also-ran, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit by the time it finished. I am a sucker for tokusatsu, after all, so maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising, but either way, Shikizakura made a solid first impression.
A big part of its success is the quality of the CG animation, especially since a lot of this premiere relies on action spectacle to hold its audience's attention. The story is mostly gobbledygook so far, what with the ancient demons and mysterious priestesses and teams of color-coded, robot-suited fighters doing battle with monsters from another dimension, or some such. The characters aren't anything to write home about either, though that's par for the course when it comes to these Super Sentai-adjacent anime, where archetypes and clichés are the order of the day. There are some interesting story wrinkles teased, such as how our hero ends up in control of the evil robot suit and gets kidnapped by the “heroes” just before the credits roll, but all of that will have to wait for future episodes. For now, whether you're willing to buy what Shikizakura is selling comes down to if you dig its visual style, and if you have fun with its Hero Vs. Monster action.
Credit where it's due, I think the show mostly nails it on that front. This is another factor that shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the crew's previous work; Shikizakura is being directed by Shin'ya Sugai and Gō Kurosaki, who have previously been in charge of the CG for the excellent Gatchaman anime, in addition to doing work with Studio Sublimation on behalf of Studio Khara for some of the Evangelion movies. Shikizakura doesn't nail all of its visual choices—the 2D background characters are still too stiff and incongruous looking, and the reliance on super-saturated purples and pinks for a lot of the stage “lighting” can be overwhelming—but the fight scenes kick ass, and that's what matters the most. There's palpable weight and heft to the characters' movements, the rigs' framerates are smooth, and the combination of good storyboarding and slick choreography ensures that all of the fighting is coherent. Heck, Sublimation have caught on to one of the tricks that not enough studios are exploiting, which is that CG animation makes it a lot easier to incorporate slow-motion cinematography and other flourishes that are incredibly difficult to make work in 2D. I am pretty much always chomping at the bit for more tokusatsu-flavored anime to geek out on, so I'm happy to add Shikizakura to my watchlist. I have no clue if the story will hold up, but it will at least be good for some fun popcorn entertainment.
CG anime gets a bad rep. There are undeniably a lot of crummy looking full 3DCG TV series out there, especially from this past decade, but I think that track record leads people to just throw any and all CG series in the bin just because it looks different from traditional 2D anime, and that's just not fair. These are two vastly different artistic and technological approaches to animation that, while similar and sharing an industry space, are fundamentally going to produce different results that should be judged on their own rather than compared. Granted, making that argument gets a lot harder when the overburdened industry dumps stuff like Tesla Note in our laps, so this season has seen fit to balance things out with some actually well-executed CG action here.
Now don't get me wrong, Shikizakura is not some groundbreaking advancement in art or technology that will change the way you view anime. At its heart its a pretty standard riff on the Super Sentai formula with a cast of color-coded teenagers in mystical power armor that fight dark creatures who devour the negative emotions of humanity. But it's also a series made by artists who clearly understand and had the resources necessary to actually use the medium properly. The action sequences here are fast, kinetic, and have real impact that's enhanced by well-integrated 2D flourishes. When two characters interact, you can actually feel the super-strong force and believe these are humans (or monsters) smashing into each other with genuine intent. Combined with the eye-catching, neon-coated designs of the power suits and you've got an exciting brawl for the climax of this episode.
As for the actual story, things are pretty standard. If you've seen even a single episode of Power Rangers or the like, you can call every plot point of this premiere with your eyes closed. That doesn't make it bad, but it does make the whole thing a lot more forgettable than you'd want. Our main cast are about as stock as you can get, with the only real twist that it's our Red Ranger who has the dark alter-ego he has to combat inside his own mind. Usually they save something like that for the sixth member. But otherwise the actual writing is serviceable at best.
Like I said, Shikizakura is not amazing, but on a technical level it's at least good at what it wants to do, and there's nothing particularly objectionable or actively bad in this premiere. I might even give it another couple episodes, if only to satisfy the part of my brain that likes seeing action figures smack together.
What happens when you mix Super Sentai with Japanese folklore and spiritualism? This, apparently.
Shikizakura is a mess—but not that entertaining kind of mess that pulls you in just because of how bad it is. This is the other kind of mess: the boring kind. This might be the most paint-by-numbers premiere of the season.
I mean, we have a boy with a secret past he doesn't understand meeting a beautiful girl who just so happens to be intricately tied to that past. Then we have monsters being fought by superheroes in a sub-reality that normal people can't see. And finally we have the normal kid becoming a superhero too and beating all the bad guys—only for a dark presence to try and take control of him (but he's able to fight it off because he's just that good of a person). These are, to be frank, the most common of common tropes in shonen anime, and Shikizakura does nothing to put its own unique spin on them.
The characters are no less stereotypical. We've got the “normal kid with a heart of gold,” the “glasses-wearing all-too-serious guy,” and the “naive but strong-willed princess who needs to be protected/rescued.” The only character I was even slightly interested in was the “fat best friend” because honestly, he seemed like a good guy that would really have your back.
Then we get to the visuals. It's not the worst of the season, but that's not exactly a high bar to begin with. (I mean, you'd have to be something special to “beat” Tesla Note in that regard.) The character design is bland and the 3D animation is often stilted and cheap-looking—though it can look okay during static shots. You can tell that all the resources went into the hero-goes-berserk action scene at the climax of the episode.
That fight is actually quite well-choreographed and the dynamic camera movements make great use of the freedom that that is afforded by 3D animation. The backgrounds throughout also look nice and detailed. They really do a good job of showing off the Nagoya setting through some of the various landmarks on the city.
But sadly, quality backgrounds and a single good-looking fight scene do little to redeem the episode as a whole. It's clichéd, boring, and often looks like its being made on a shoestring budget. Or to put it another way, don't waste your time with this one.
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