Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 1st 2009
DVD - Complete Collection (Thinpak)
In an alternate-world version of Japan in 1918, monstrous spirits ravaged the imperial capital in an event known as the Kouma War. The heroic sacrifice of one spiritually-empowered soldier ended the threat, but only temporarily, so the Imperial Combat Troop was formed to protect the capital against future recurrences. At the heart of the Troop lies the Flower Division, a collection of spiritually powerful young maidens who also double as the cast of the Imperial Opera Troupe. Chief among the Flower Division's weapons are the Koubu, short, boxy mecha powered by a combination of steam and their pilots' spiritual energy, which enable the maidens to effectively go into battle against the giant, cyborg-like Wakiji and the demoniac members of the Black Sanctum Council – once the maidens have attuned to and mastered their mecha, anyway. Sakura Shinguji, daughter of the hero of the Kouma War and herself inheritor of the great spiritual power and spirit sword of the Shinguji line, is summoned to the capital to join the Flower Division, but she quickly finds relations with her fellow maidens to be contentious and has trouble fitting in at first. As the Flower Division brings in two additional members and new field leader Lt. Ohgami (the only male member), they must all come together to battle attacks by the forces of evil, assaults which initially seem random but are gradually revealed to be part of a grand plot. Behind it all is a former colleague of the Imperial Combat Troop's commander and vice-commander who has turned to the Dark Side and now seeks to destroy that which he once protected.
The Sakura Wars multimedia franchise began in 1996 with a ground-breaking game for the Sega Saturn console, one which integrated dating sim-like character interactions into standard strategy-oriented RPG mechanics, portrayed events in an episodic anime series-like style, and offered multiple possible endings which could be determined by the player's actions rather than the one fixed story path typical of RPGs at the time. The immensely popular game series it spawned first took true anime form in late 1997 with a four-episode OVA series, followed by a six-episode sequel in late 1999. Those proved popular enough to warrant a full 25-episode TV series beginning in the spring of 2000 as well as a later movie and several later OVA spin-offs. ADV originally released the TV series in single volumes over the course of 2003, and now Sentai Filmworks is following up with a second complete-set rerelease. For those too new to fandom to remember this one when it first came out, this economical rerelease offers a chance to experience why this was one of the most popular series in fandom in the early part of the current decade. Whether or not it is actually one of the best series from that time period is another matter entirely.
The plot structure is straightforward and fairly typical. The first few episodes concentrate on systematically assembling a team of mecha pilots that eventually numbers seven, and over the course of the next few episodes they gradually learn to master their powers, machines, and teamwork in order to combat a looming evil threat. Along the way occasional flashbacks reveal the foundation of the situation and some of the more troublesome character backgrounds, and naturally the pilots experience a certain amount of personality friction, too. The series' latter stages reveal a past connection between the unit's commanders and the main bad guy but otherwise focus on battles in earnest in a desperate effort by the heroines to save themselves and the capital from the evil forces, climaxing with the unit finally successfully using their epic Flower Formation attack in battle.
Sound a bit generic? It is, and the common archetypes represented by the pilots are no more daring. Amongst the female pilots are Sumire, the prideful prima donna who doubles as the rich girl; Kanna, the laid-back one who doubles as the masculine athletic-type; Maria, the formal and coldly businesslike one; Kohran, the techie who doubles as the friendly one; Sakura, the initially clumsy but earnest country bumpkin; and Iris, the obligatory cute little girl who doubles as The One Who Needs To Make Friends. Lt. Ohgami rounds out the picture as Boring Clean-Cut Guy. Relationship developments follow predictable paths, save that this version of the franchise has only hints of romance (and then only in flashbacks involving supporting characters). With a guy as handsome as Ohgami around and a year passing over the course of the series, some kind of at least tentative relationship between Ohgami and Sakura would be expected, but that is not within the purview of this series.
On the downside, the story takes so long to get around to explaining the foundation for current circumstances that pre-existing familiarity with the franchise is apparently assumed. The series also contains too little action and plot development in the first half of the series, at times even padding itself with side stories. Exactly why the chief villain switched sides is never adequately explained, either; there are suggestions that he became disillusioned, but support for this is weak. In general, the writing lacks the smooth flow seen in the better-written series and rarely achieves a satisfactory sense of completeness.
On the upside, the more action-oriented and plot-intensive episodes towards the end are suitably thrilling and the setting's steampunk technological base is a thoroughly different and oddly enticing variation on the high-tech norm, provided not an ounce of logic is applied to it. The barrel-like, pipe-sprouting Koubu, which look somewhat like old-fashioned deep-sea diving canisters, have a charm of their own despite how ungainly they look. The series also displays a certain cleverness in making its pilots simultaneously train as actors; song and dance are deeply ground into Japanese spiritualism, so performance art as a means of honing spiritual energy and confidence is hardly a stretch. In the original Japanese, “Opera Troupe” and “Combat Troop” are homophones, so making the girls members of both also creates a clever pun which, sadly, gets thoroughly lost in translation. The inherent appeal of a wide variety of cute girls wearing sharp-looking European military officer-styled uniforms while fighting in mecha cannot be discounted, either.
Madhouse Studios has earned a reputation for producing some of the sharpest-looking anime series of the past few years, but this one came along before they fully refined their techniques and learned to truly exploit modern digital coloring methods. As a result, the artistry stands at a transition point between the older-school look of the early-to-mid '90s and the sleekness of more recent productions. This one also either came along before Madhouse developed consistent quality control or represents a lapse in such efforts, as while the backgrounds generally look good, the character rendering quality can be erratic and only suffers more as the series progresses. The artistry's strengths lie in its costuming, mecha designs, and inclination to give all its female characters sensible figures and hairdos. Fan service is not a factor in the slightest, although the series does have enough graphic violence content to call into question the TV-PG rating on the case. The animation takes typical fight-scene shortcuts in an overall unremarkable effort.
The soundtrack for the series is also a strength, although its presence and effectiveness can be a little erratic. In the early going Kouhei Tanaka (One Piece, Dirty Pair, and many others) shows a willingness to experiment with the score before settling into more traditional orchestrated dramatic numbers towards the end. While his efforts usually work great, they also leave some scenes without music which feel like they should have it. Opener “Geki Teikoku Kagekidan,” sung by the lead seiyuu, has the sound, feel, and lyrics of a classic old-school mecha series opener, while normal closer “Yume Mite Iyou,” which is also sung by the main seiyuu and is used in the first half and last five episodes, offers a more sedate and mellow conclusion. In between an alternate version of the opener sung by Kanna's seiyuu in a festival dance style paired with appropriate chibi animation closes out each episode.
Although ADV's English dubbing efforts over the years have not always been great, rarely have they produced a true stinker. This one, however, is pretty rank. Done by their onetime secondary dubbing studio Monster Island, the dub features an entirely different cast than either the movie or the OVAs, one whose major roles are comprised almost exclusively of voice actors with little or no other major anime experience – and after hearing the dub it isn't hard to understand why. (The only major-role VA with significant experience is Larissa Wolcott, who voices Iris beginning with episode 10 and is constrained by requirements of continuity into having to model her performance after the weak original effort.) Limp performances which do not interact well with each other, irregular accents, and speaking patterns which sound more like speech impediments are regular problems; in fact, this dub is a classic example of what happens when distinctive speaking styles are emphasized more than the actual acting. Male roles generally fare better, and some performances do improve a little over time, but the only place where the dub excels is when characters laugh maniacally. An English script which frequently entirely rewrites the original, and which inconsistently alternates between Japanese and English orders on character naming conventions, does not help. It also changes the name of the main villain to “Satani” from “Aoi Satan,” but given that Western viewers would likely have much greater sensitivity to the original name, that is less objectionable.
The only true Extras on this economy rerelease are the clean opener and closer found on the second of the four disks. The first disk of the review copy had regular problems with artifacts but this was not repeated on later disks. What, exactly, Sentai Filmworks was thinking with the case design is a bigger issue, as it has all four DVDs stacked on top of each other on one extra-deep holder, which requires the removal of the earlier DVDs to get to the later ones. It also includes a needless half-inch of padding to bring the case out to a total thickness equal to two DVDs.
Sakura Wars TV can be an involving series, and the drawing power it had which made it such a popular title is certainly understandable. It is best enjoyed on a purely fun level, as flaws start showing if any kind of serious analysis is applied to it.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Costume designs, funky technological basis, musical score.
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