Review

by Christopher Farris,

Shikizakura

Episodes 1-12 Streaming

Synopsis:
Shikizakura
A disaster eight years ago left Kakeru Miwa as the sole survivor, and he's spent that time crushed under the weight of that guilt and the question of the kind of person he can become to move forward. A chance encounter with a Shrine Maiden named Oka and her entourage of armored protectors leads Kakeru to learn that mythical monsters known as Oni were responsible for the incident in his past. What's more, the situation he lands in leads to Kakeru meeting and bonding with one of those Oni, a being named Ibara bonded to his own suit of powered armor. Given this unique opportunity for survival and power, Kakeru chooses to stand up alongside Oka and the others to become the hero he's always wished to be.
Review:

Tokusatsu has enjoyed a run of increased availability and visibility among English-speaking audiences, particularly those adjacent to anime fan circles, for a good several years now. It's to the point where many more people than before have an idea of what tokusatsu 'is' (or at least the preeminently pop-culturally osmoted version of it in Japan) aside from the old odd Power Rangers association. There's an understanding of the framework that establishments like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Super Sentai work with that new productions can lean on in order to evoke the spirit that forms the appeal of those shows. Sublimation's Shikizakura, being an animated production, is not technically tokusatsu, having no live-action basis in which to deploy the nominal special effects that characterize the medium. That's but a technical disqualification, however, because as far as what it's playing with in terms of influence and genre stylings, Shikizakura is tokusatsu as all heck.

Love letters to other genres and mediums in anime are nothing new, of course, and Shikizakura is not even close to being the first toku riff in Japanese animation. But it bears leading with because Shikizakura works best when it's proudly wearing its hero-show influences on its color-coded spandex sleeves. The story's setup gleefully borrows from what must have been the writers' favorite Kamen Rider shows, setting up opportunities for each of the main characters to face their literal demons, usually coming out the other side with some kind of fancy upgrade. The bent of reverence for shows like the aforementioned Rider and its Super Sentai sibling series is apparent in how Shikizakura brings its characters and story around to that optimistic, Sunday-morning tone, and in how much of its story arc is about its characters not believing they're 'heroes' until main boy Kakeru's attitude and the efforts they all partake in convinces them otherwise..

The writing makes that an easy thematic shift to facilitate through elements like Kakeru and his friend Kippei being fans of toku heroes in-universe (complete with an aside episode where they and the gang help put on a live stage show). But it's compounded by that love the staff of the series clearly have for the material. There's an optimism to the way Shikizakura approaches its well-worn tropes, even among the disaster-based backstories or the forthcoming sacrifice of a main character looming in the future. Seeing the leads grow from cynical soldiers in a war against monsters to people who believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference is codified with all the earnestly schmaltzy speeches and triumphant directorial flourishes you could hope for. The vibes, as they say, are completely on point.

That presentation is punched up thanks to the animation. I like to think we're all aware that CGI anime has gotten to a point where we don't immediately dismiss it on principle, but I sadly know that's still not that case for everyone. So yeah, Shikizakura's look is 'one of the good ones,' though it shouldn't be unexpected given that Shin'ya Sugai, Gō Kurosaki, and all their pals at Sublimation are old hands at this CGI animation game at this point. These folks know the tech and how to use it, and they bring their A-game in everything from rendering the designs of the sweet tech-suits the heroes use to showing them in action. There's a fundamental understanding of the advantages of CGI on display basically any time the action kicks up, with well-utilized sweeping camera movements and deployments of slow-motion to give it all a 'feel' that wouldn't work as comfortably in either modern 2D animation or even the conventions of 'real' live-action tokusatsu. It's to the point that the more low-key non-action parts of the show, with the characters out of their suits, can come off a bit more stiff and clunky by comparison, but they still function well enough in setting. If that's not enough contrast, the series also features two fully traditionally-animated episodes, seemingly as breaks for the staff between major story beats, which mostly devolve into outlandish comedy and serve to demonstrate how much rougher the whole show might have looked had it been produced with this more standard animation.

The fresh, for-the-fun-of-itself approach to the show's conception applies even to the voice cast, being mostly made up of newcomers who auditioned specifically for the new series. They generally do a solid job regardless of this being their professional debut. Yūdai Noda as Kakeru sounds perhaps a bit higher-pitched than I'd expect for the character a lot of the time, but then you have the likes of Shingo Yoneyama as Ibara, who sounds so at home as this kind of character that you'd never guess he hadn't done it before. Sentai Filmworks and HIDIVE's English dub, meanwhile, expectedly uses more established performers. They mostly seem to be cast well, though there is a stiffness to some of their delivery that may be a result of dubbing over CGI rather than traditionally-created anime. Overall though, the strength of the production, which they seemingly worked on for over a year and change, speaks with its consistent, energizing use of the technology Sublimation knew they had at their disposal.

However, a strong production and an effectively energizing tone are not enough to carry a story, and it makes for a major frustration that the actual writing of much of Shikizakura's plot plainly can't keep up with its ambition. Oddly enough for my usual storytelling preferences, the main problem I have with the series is its haphazardly-deployed world-building. The 'near-future' aspect of its setting could make for some interesting elements, but apart from some one-time deployments of virtual-reality museum guides or newscasters, it hardly factors into the narrative. This lines up with the post-disaster aspect of the story's setup: the denizens of the world are clearly aware of the accident that occured eight years ago in the show, but seemingly no mind is paid to questioning the source or how it might tie into the supernatural incidents in the present. Elements like the system Oni use to 'feed' off of humans and their wishes aren't clarified until several episodes in, and even then feature inconsistencies (I'd say it almost comes off like some of the writers were expecting viewers to recall specific plot mechanics from Kamen Rider Den-O).

For another instance, Kakeru and Kippei's status as adopted brothers isn't made apparent until it becomes a source of momentary conflict in the fourth episode, at which point you still find yourself wondering about the specifics (Where are their parents?!). A late reveal makes it seem like one character is some sort of supernaturally-persisting presence from the past, before some last-minute aside dialogue clarifies that it was actually his ancestor we were seeing. All those examples are without mentioning the vagaries and inconsistencies we're given in terms of Ibara's backstory as the series unfolds. I could go on, but I think all that makes it clear enough that Shikizakura can be a chore to follow at times, as you constantly wonder if you blinked and missed major information, or if it was simply something the show glossed over with plans to get to later. Toku hero shows aren't known for being bastions of mechanical consistency, of course, but Shikizakura's efforts to speedrun their stylings in a single cour might have actually worked had they spent as much time tightening up their script drafts as they did choreographing their CGI monster battles.

It means that while I went into and came out of Shikizakura very much wanting to like it, the show simply can't earn a recommendation. It's a messy journey that misses a lot of opportunities, and the simple spectacle of its superpowered cyber-suit fights isn't enough to prop it up against all the dimensions it's otherwise missing. The action and the energy will likely be enough to carry it for some people, as viewers with as much love for the conventions of tokusatsu as Sublimation clearly had will find fun moments to get pumped about. And as a proof of concept for the workmanlike capabilities of CGI anime and its prospects for the future, it's perhaps worth a look from that angle as well. But there are many more tightly-scripted, idealistically-affecting anime out there, including several rooted in the same sort of enduring toku tropes that Shikizakura is paying homage to. You might find something to like if you check it out, but I sadly don't think there's enough here to say it's worth prioritizing.

Grade:
Overall : C+
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B

+ Experienced, fundamentally-strong CGI animation, Engaging tonal storytelling that enjoyably borrows from tokusatsu
Writing is rife with missed details and inconsistencies, Integration and use of 2D animation can look clunky

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Production Info:
Series Composition: Naruki Nagakawa
Producer: Tomoyasu Nishimura

Full encyclopedia details about
Shikizakura (TV)

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