Reviewby James Beckett,
Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru
Season 1 BD/DVD
In the year 2205, a treacherous faction known as the “historical revisionists” travel through time in an attempt to rewrite history to their own ends. The Saniwa are sages capable of bestowing life unto ancient blades, who gain corporeal forms and go into war as the Touken Danshi to put a stop to the historical revisionists' meddling. In between missions, these wily swordsmen spend their days at the Saniwa's citadel, honing their skills and forming bonds with one another that they will take with them into battle. It is difficult to tell what will be a bigger challenge: Saving history itself, or figuring out how to get along with an increasingly large cadre of warriors, all of whom have personalities to match their razor sharp skills on the battlefield.
Before last year, I had never even heard of the mobile game that kickstarted the Touken Ranbu franchise; my introduction to it was in covering the premiere of ufotable's take on the series, Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu, which I found to be an enjoyable bit of sword-fighting spectacle in keeping with the work of the studio responsible for the best Fate adaptations. I expected something in a similar vein going in to Touken Ranbu Hanmaru, despite being produced under a different studio (Doga Kobo), with an entirely new creative team at the helm.
It didn't take long for me to realize that when you compare Touken Ranbu Hanmaru to its sister series from 2017, the former is an entirely different beast, mostly in that there isn't anything beastly about it. Where ufotable's series put the focus on the hacking and the slashing, where the action here is tossed about only occasionally. Outside of one surprisingly dramatic virtuoso sequence from the season's last episode, most of this series' fight scenes are inconsistent and largely inconsequential. In reality, Touken Ranbu Hanmaru is much more of a slice of life series, with each of its twelve episodes devoted mostly to giving the cast of many pretty sword-boys time to play off of one another and generally be cute.
I wasn't kidding when I said this show has an absurdly large cast—over forty speaking roles by my count, with every single one of them belonging to conspicuously attractive young men who practice swordplay and easygoing banter in equal measure. On the one hand, this is delightful junk food for any fans of the genre; there's a sword boy for literally every preference, and though none of them get enough screen time to develop in to anything more complex than handsome archetypes, every one of them gets at least one moment likely to make the target audience “daww” in appreciation. The stories here aren't complex: One episode features the group attempting a sake run, only for each of the characters to get distracted at the corner store and buy increasingly ridiculous novelty items. Another episode has everyone fixated on the potential blossoming of their gardens cherry blossom tree, which results in everyone participating in a wish writing campaign to get it to come true. Each episode tends to feature at least two vignettes that run back-to-back with some kind of loose connection tying them together, which means that many of the boys get small stories to themselves at least once before being delegated to being tertiary characters for the majority of the series.
On the other hand, Hanmaru's approach to character development and storytelling is lightweight, even for a slice-of-life show, which could leave some viewers feeling adrift in a sea of vaguely cute but easily forgotten fluff. This was more where I landed on the spectrum, mostly due to the fact that I just couldn't get attached to the characters. The reliance on predictable archetypes and low-stakes plots gives very little opportunity for any of the characters to be much more than a single personality trait: Yamanbagiri loves his cloak, Kuniyuki is lazy, Jiroutachi is flamboyantly drunk, Midare is a crossdresser, and so on. Sure, some of the bits the cast get into are mildly amusing, but that isn't enough to remain memorable for any longer than it takes for an episode's credits to roll. The best slice-of-life stories are able to take the genre's easygoing atmosphere and pair it with a likable cast that share an entertaining rapport; Touken Ranbu Hanmaru is an example of what happens when you get the atmosphere right but fail to create a memorable cast.
It does the series no favors that the direction of the series is so lackluster. While the show's colors and animation are generally good, the production is hobbled by boring cinematography and the fact that the show is mostly confined to the central setting of the citadel, which has the generic trappings of a feudal Japanese sanctuary. That means that the expressive character animation and bright colors that Doga Kobo brings to the table are wasted on flat, uninspired camera work and a general sense of visual staleness. Occasionally, some episodes break the mold, such as the aforementioned season finale, which looks so sharp and kinetic that it almost feels like it was pulled from ufotable's Katsugeki! Catalogue, but for the most part Touken Ranbu Hanmaru is plagued with an aesthetic sameness that lends to it feeling so forgettable at the end of the day.
Funimation has put out a DVD/Blu-Ray combination set that includes little more than the season's twelve episodes and the English dub. The localized track is perfectly fine, though it is again hampered by the gargantuan cast. I'm pretty sure Funimation had to recruit every single male voice actor in their Rolodex for this project, not to mention a handful of actresses to fill in for the younger and more effeminate roles: J. Michael Tatum, Jason Liebrecht, Vic Mignogna, Dawn M. Bennet, and many more all stop by to lend their voices, and they all do a fine job, though nobody has a meat enough part to stand out. The translation is a pretty loose one, with Director Jad Saxton and writer Clint Bickham opting for lines that capture the tone of the conversation while sounding a bit more casual and freeform than the more literal translation might. If anything, this makes the English version of Touken Ranbu Hanmaru a slightly superior experience, if only because it squeezes in a few more jokes and character bits every episode.
Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru is not a bad show, but it does exist in a very crowded genre, and it accomplishes very little to stand out from that crowd. There have been better mobile game adaptations and better Cute Characters Doing Cute Things slice-of-life series; the only thing this series really has going for it is just how many pretty sword boys it manages to fit into its roster. There's an audience out there for this series I am sure, but unless you're a diehard fan of the franchise, I can't see this adaptation of Touken Ranbu being much more than a pleasant but disposable distraction.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Good animation and lush color palette, decently funny vignettes throughout
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