Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 22nd 2011
Hyakka Ryōran Samurai Girls
Blu-Ray Complete Collection
In an alternate version of the early 21st century, Great Japan is still ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and has built its prestige and independence on the strength of its master samurai, warrior-maidens who make pacts with a general (typically the Tokugawa shogun) to empower themselves sufficiently to fight off even WWII-era bombers. The master samurai have been in decline for years, though, when Muneakira Yagyu travels to Buou Academic School, the training ground for prospective samurai, to be the new master of its dojo and encounters both Princess Sen Tokugawa and Yukimura Sanada (yes, she's a girl), a Tokugawa rival regarded as a brilliant strategist, while Hattori Hanzo and Matabei Goto (also both girls) serve as loyal underlings to each. While in the midst of a spot of trouble Muneakira also encounters a naked girl descending from the sky who calls him “big brother” and then kisses him, causing her to undergo a transformation into a powerful master samurai sporting the name Jubei Yagyu. The noncombatant version of Jubei is a simpleton, which deepens the mystery of her origin, but the fact that Muneakira can apparently make master samurai pacts with girls opens up some intriguing but also nerve-wracking new possibilities for Sen and Yukimura. Additional girls sporting early Edo period names later pop up to cause trouble, but the real problems begin when Sen's older brother Yoshihiko, who is apparently scheming something, returns from France to lay out some dire truths.
So many distinct and prominent anime genres lie in the foundation of Samurai Girls that it could be called one of anime's pyramid titles. Its obsession with samurai and naming most of its cast after prominent late Sengoku/early Edo period warriors (except for a random reference to the Three Musketeers) firmly roots the series in period samurai action tales, but the transformations its girls undergo to become master samurai pay clear homage instead to magical girl series. The bevy of girls who swirl around Muneakira, and their behavior towards him and each other, speaks firmly to a harem romantic comedy structure, while the scheming late in the series by Yoshihiko and the equipment of his faceless flunkies suggest a hard sci fi influence. Add in a split-personality girl who alternates between being a childish simpleton and a cold-hearted warrior (which is becoming one of the newer anime clichés), a lesbian ninja who wears a maid costume for no good reason, a level of casual nudity worthy of Queen's Blade, and a unique visual style and you have one of anime's weirdest cross-genre experiments.
In some respects the experiment actually works. If action laden with fan service is all you care about then the series will be a delight, as in this uncensored version the nudity flies frequently and freely; even the opener and closer have their share. All of the girls except the young-looking Yukimura get multiple opportunities to flash their assets, with the villainous Gisen also mixing in doses of eroticism which doubtless contribute to the TV-MA rating even though nudity and strong sexual content aren't listed as contributing factors on the DVD and Blu-Ray cases. (They should be.) The notion of a master samurai who gains her upgraded power through making a pact with a general is an interesting one, as is some of the exploration into the connection between the general and the samurai which happens late in the series, although sealing an empowering contract with a kiss is hardly an original concept; see any version of Negima! Some of the action scenes also play out with thrill and intensity, especially the series' climax, a visual and audio tour de force which almost single-handedly makes the entire series worth watching.
And it is the visuals in general which truly make this series stand out, as the plot and characters are hardly anything special. On most occasions the artistry looks like it was painted on time-worn paper panels, complete with heavy brush strokes and a color scheme muted enough that it makes the bolder colors really stand out. The girls are sexy enough and the fan service is detailed with loving care, but just as interesting are the auras of dark, coruscating energy which roil off of Muneakira and the master samurai who make pacts with him, with streams of black energy shooting off in major power releases. Ink blotches regularly plop down on the screen at all times, which are used in bunches as scene transitions and were used by the original TV broadcasts as censoring tools. When foes show up later in the series whose energy releases use different colors, such as white or purple or red, the splotches also change color to match, creating a sharp color contrast. The animation seems to be cutting corners in places (including minor action scenes) so that the animation budget can be focused on a few spectacular scenes, especially the final few minutes of the last episode, when the artistry shifts to all black-and-white except for spots of color mostly associated with characters' eyes. It makes for an impressive and memorable visual effect, courtesy of ARMS.
Tatsuya Katou has seen a lot of work lately crafting musical scores which mix comedy support with rousing action numbers, such as for Kämpfer, Demon King Daimao, and Needless, but this may be his best effort to date. The dramatic themes which back key power-release and action sequences give them a potency and grandeur which can cover the sillier aspects of said scenes, while light-hearted and even poignant themes used in other places work well, too. The score also infuses in some classical Japanese flavor to tune the themes better to the visuals. Opener “Last vision for last” is a rousing rock number that is equal parts dramatic and sexy, while closer “Koi ni Sesse Tooryanse,” which is sung by the seiyuu for the three main harem members, is a more playful, jazzy number featuring a chibi Jubei walking over pictures of the female characters in the buff; one brief shot showing Jubei's thoughts updates with each episode.
Although the series does work in the above aspects, it also has its glaring weaknesses. Set aside the samurai theme and this is, basically, a run-of-the-mill harem comedy/action series, complete with a plethora of worn-out harem shenanigans, such as tired squabbling amongst the harem members, abusive victimizing of Muneakira for transgressions that usually aren't his fault, and new girls regularly showing up to either try to jump his bones or go tsundere on him. Kanetsugu is supposed to be a comedy relief character but ends up being far more annoying than entertaining, Yoshihiko's bluster gets overplayed, and the whole business with Amakusa in the late episodes feels as if it were tacked on to provide an excuse for a climactic battle – and this despite the series dropping hints about heading in that direction ever since Jubei appeared at the end of episode 1. A big chunk of the series is supposed to be funny, and there are a few scenes which could genuinely make people laugh, but too little of it actually works.
Sentai Filmworks' English dub is also a mix of successes and failures. The principle cast is entirely composed of easily-recognizable, long-time ADV/Sentai regulars but one wouldn't know that from the cast list, as all of them have chosen to use sometimes-naughty-sounding pseudonyms – Eileen Dover, Ophelia Cox, Lena Weiback, and Teresa Krowd, for instance. (And yes, I have been assured by a Sentai rep that these decisions were entirely the actors' choices.) The casting choices are solid and the performances beyond Kanetsugu's even more irritating vocal style are fine, with Jubei's and Gisen's being highlights, but the dub has some flaws that probably exist at the directing level. The English script stays close to the subtitles but every so often the English voice actors get a word wrong: an “at” is inserted where an “of” should be, “the” instead of “a,” the wrong form of a word for context, and so forth. This happens a lot, too; perhaps two dozen such errors are spread across the twelve episodes, maybe more. In other words, the dub suffers from the types of errors which are common in quickly-spoken regular speech but which really should have been corrected for a professional dub. It gives the impression that the dub job relied overly heavily on first takes. On the plus side, the subtitles do include translations for all of the attack names and on-screen text and include notes explaining more obscure references.
Sentai is offering separate DVD and Blu-Ray releases for this one. The Blu-Ray uses 1080p resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound on both language tracks, while the DVD merely uses regular 2.0 audio. The picture and sound qualities are not dramatic upgrades for the Blu-Ray version; only audiophiles and videophiles are likely to notice much improvement. The DVD version does shunt the goodly number of Extras off onto a third disk and have a slightly broader set of company trailers, but those are the only substantive differences. The Extras include a collection of production sketches set to the opening and closing themes, clean opener and closer, various Japanese promo videos, a collection of voiced-over four-panel strips featuring important characters (one for each episode), and a collection of six “Blushing Maidens of the Pact” omake which, as expected, are even racier than the regular content; this does include Yukimura bragging about and flaunting her self-proclaimed lolicon appeal, though it is still nowhere near as edgy as, say, Dance in the Vampire Bund. Neither of the latter two sets of Extras are dubbed.
Samurai Girls is not a series that will dazzle anyone with its conceptual creativity or plot execution. It is not as funny as it wants to be and only occasionally achieves moments of sincerity. It does have an above-average male lead and finish strong, however, and along the way serves up plenty of fan service and flashy action, and that is enough to make it watchable. The content may be stupid, but ultimately the series works better than it probably should.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Unique visual style, effective musical score, strong final episode, plentiful fan service.
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