Reviewby Theron Martin,
Senran Kagura: Ninja Flash!
BD+DVD - The Complete Series [Limited Edition]
National Hanzo Academy is a prestigious college prep high school, but its outward face hides a secret few know about: it also houses the “shinobi school,” hidden training facilities for the next generation of good female ninja. Asuka, granddaughter of one of the most famous and respected ninjas, is one such shinobi-in-training, along with the straight-laced Homura, the perverted Katsuragi, the umbrella-sporting prodigy Yagyu, and the klutzy Hibari. Their training to become proper ninjas takes a more involved path with they start encountering and getting into fights with the elite students of the hidden Hebijo Girls Academy, a school which trains evil ninjas. (And yes, they even call themselves “evil ninjas.”) This results in many clothes-decimating battles. The good ninjas and their sensei eventually discover that the head honcho of Hebijo is out to unite the Yin and Yang scrolls, which hold super-secret ninja techniques, and that involves the evil ninjas stealing the one in Hanzo Academy. They also learn that a former Hanzo Academy student, long thought dead, seems to be helping the evil ninjas, too, but may have her own ulterior motives. Whatever the case, Asuka and her compatriots must get stronger to be able to thwart the evil ninjas (and keep their clothes intact).
If the idea of goofy ninja action featuring lots of busty babes and panty shots appeals to you then it's hard to beat Senran Kagura, whose entire raison d'etre is to showcase exactly that. If you seek anything more than that then you are probably better off looking elsewhere, as this 12-episode, video game-based series does not offer much else.
To be fair, the series is not entirely a ninja-flavored fan service romp. It does actually engage in some character development, an actual plot does finally surface in its second half, and it does develop a theme: regardless of whether you're a good ninja or an evil ninja, bonding like a family is important. Writers for other franchises could also learn a thing or two from how the series handles flashbacks, especially for the “evil” ninjas: they are uniformly brief and to the point. Why get any more involved than you need to when establishing a rationale for relatively straightforward character motivations? When these elements finally start to come together in the series' final third, the improvement in narrative quality is quite noticeable, to the point that I could almost overlook how cheesy the premise and its execution actually were. (Because of that, the Story and Overall grades should each be considered a step higher for the final third.)
But there's no getting around the fact that the premise is thin and cheesy. The plot really just boils down to “good Ninja Girls periodically fight (generally stronger) evil Ninja Girls while the leader of the latter tries to gather and activate a pair of powerful scrolls,” and for the first half of the series the latter part of the premise is not even readily apparent. What, exactly, is the dividing line between “good ninja” and “evil ninja” is never completely clear, either, although characters do at least discuss that some; it seems to be more a matter of affiliation with rival organizations than an actual philosophical or moralistic conflict, with the only functional difference being that some of the evil ninja are a little more ruthless in their approaches to fights (and certainly to training methods). Ultimately most of what passes for plot is just an excuse to set up fights.
Character development is a little better, as all of the girls on both sides do have distinct personalities and motivations that are delved into at least a little bit. That does not prevent some of them from being outright irritating; one of the evil ninjas, for instance, obsesses ad nauseum over class warfare and economics as they relate to bean sprouts (and her comrades find her behavior just as annoying as viewers do). On the other side, Hibari is largely pathetic whenever her butt-kicking summoned bunny is not around and Yagyu is defined by little more than her love of squid and wanting to protect Hibari because she sees Hibari as a surrogate for an apparently-deceased little sister. More enjoyable are some of the other character interactions, particularly Ikaruga with Katsuragi and evil ninja Haruka with just about anyone.
Action and fan service are the core elements of the series, though, and if they succeed then the rest does not matter. Most of the action is run-of-the-mill ninja fare (except for Hibari's butt-kicking summoned bunny!) that is hampered somewhat by the need to stage it with fan service in mind, so the onus falls completely on the fan service to carry the series. In that regard the series does not disappoint unless you expect to see actual nudity, which it avoids despite innumerable good opportunities for it. (How Katsuragi does not show any nipples despite her empowered ninja outfit defies logic.) All but one of the girls between both sides are well-endowed, hardly a scene passes without jiggling breasts, panty shots are relatively frequent, at least two characters are gropers, and characters sometimes run around and/or fight in their undies. In the Ikki Tousen tradition, clothing destruction is an integral part of ninja battles, although in this setting the empowered form ninja outfits also provide physical defense, so damage to them represents a partial absorption of potential physical trauma. Though it is a clever justification, the motive for it being there at all is still quite transparent. Even more transparent are the blatant suggestions of fellatio, especially in the regular shots of the good Ninja Girls eating unsliced futomaki rolls.
Beyond the fan service, the character designs give a good range of different looks despite not offering much difference in physical builds. Male characters are comparatively nondescript. The girls' ninja outfits are, of course, ridiculous and impractical, but realism was clearly not a goal here. The artistry otherwise impresses the most in its exterior shots of Hebijo Academy and other background scenery, while its character rendering is far less impressive. So much effort went into animating bouncing breasts that the animation takes plenty of shortcuts elsewhere to compensate, which cuts into the dynamic impact of the fight scenes. It, too, is ultimately an ordinary effort overall.
A little better than ordinary is the soundtrack, which uses a varied sound that includes traditional Japanese themes, light rock numbers, and synthesized pieces, among others. It does a reasonably good job at enhancing more intense scenes, especially those late in the series. Opener “Break Your World” has a generic quality to it, while the closer cycles between three different songs: one featuring the good ninja cast and their seiyuu, one featuring the evil ninja cast and their seiyuu, and a third song which plays as credits roll across the animation in four of the episodes.
Funimation's English dub mixes longtime veterans with relative or complete newcomers, with mixed but generally positive results. A real find is Bill Brooks, a singer and voice actor with a 40+ year career, who makes his anime debut as Hanzo. Newcomer Megan Shipman is also a good fit as Hibari, while relative newcomer Bryn Apprill seems constrained by her role as Yagyu. (She has been much more impressive in other roles this year.) Amongst veterans, Brittney Karbowski is the natural choice for Katsuragi and Teri Rogers (who also vamps it up as Akeno in High School DxD) is spot-on as Haruka. The English script jacks up the boob and panty references in the narration to an annoying degree and aims for a more hip syntax in general, one which fits the tone of the show relatively well.
Funimation's release of the title comes with Blu-rays and DVDs in separate cases with bonus interior artwork, both included in a chipboard artbox. Neither audio nor visual quality gets much of an upgrade going from DVD to Blu-Ray versions. Amongst the Extras are clean opener and closers, Japanese trailers/commercials, and English audio commentaries for episodes 4 and 10, both led by ADR Director Jerry Jewell and featuring technicians and/or cast members. These show that Mr. Jewell can be quite funny when speaking off the cuff but isn't the greatest at maintaining a smooth flow in audio commentaries.
If you go into Senran Kagura expecting exactly what it appears to be then it is unlikely to disappoint you. While it does elevate its stock a bit in its late stages, that isn't enough to recommend it to someone who is not normally highly tolerant of fan service.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Lots of bouncy boobs and panties (if you're into that sort of thing), improves markedly towards the end.
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