The Mike Toole Show
Sakura Wars: What Is It Good For?

by Michael Toole,

I've really been digging the new Hunter x Hunter series from Madhouse. It's got that shonen action formula down almost perfectly-- the assortment of heroes and villains are fun, the story is twisty and briskly paced, and the action is fast, furious, and sometimes unexpectedly brutal. The series has had my attention for a good ninety episodes, and for a number of installments of the two most recent story arcs, I keep noticing a certain character, a pint-sized blonde girl who happens to be a martial arts genius. Every time she speaks, I flash a smile that is unconscious, completely involuntary, like a sneeze or a heartbeat. I do this because she's voiced by Chisa Yokoyama, whose signature role is the title character in video game/anime/manga mega-franchise Sakura Wars.

I was lucky-- yeah, goddammit, lucky!-- enough to climb aboard pretty close to the ground floor of the whole Sakura Wars phenomenon. When the Sega Saturn hit the skids in the US in 1997, I snapped up an ex-rental unit from Blockbuster (total cost, with handy carrying case: $30), mainly because I wanted to play import games. I wanted to hit then-obscure import shops like NCSX and Tronix and pick up stuff like Dodonpachi, Princess Crown, Keio Yugekitai, and Marvel vs. Street Fighter-- you know, one of those import-only Capcom fighters that required the funky 4-megabyte RAM cartridge. More than all of those, though, I wanted to try out Sakura Wars.

I wanted to try out Sakura Wars because the whole dating sim thing was still pretty new at the time-- sure, nowadays even AAA games like the Mass Effect series have romantic gameplay elements, but it was still a novelty in the 90s. I wanted to try the game out because it had hugely positive buzz in Japan, where its high production values, outstanding soundtrack, anime-like structure, and cast of star seiyuu combined to make it a hit right out of the gate. I got my chance soon enough, albeit with some interesting obstacles attached; the game is almost 100% voiced and a lot of the spoken Japanese is simple stuff, but that still left a huge amount of text to be read. Text that, given that I couldn't (and can't) speak much Japanese, I could not read. But hey, no problem! I just went to the Sakura Wars mailing list (of course there was a mailing list!) and grabbed the 50-page translation guide. I printed the thing out at work and bam, I was good to go.

The setting of Sakura Wars-- Taisho-era Tokyo, in a mostly spotless capital that's charmingly archaic yet weirdly modern in places-- is peculiar, romantic, and compellingly weird. The player takes on the role of a young military officer, transferred to the big city to safeguard the nation against all threats great and small. But when our protagonist arrives, he discovers that his unit-- the Hanagumi, or Flower Brigade-- is made up entirely of beautiful, moderately stereotypical girls who all split their time between performing at a popular musical theatre (their cover job) and fighting actual demons using steam-driven, psychic-powered battle suits. Our hero must take command, pilot his own suit, figure out which girl he wants to romance... and rip tickets.

The game is a neat experience, because it really is structured like an anime TV series, with a deviously catchy opening song, title cards, and even next-chapter previews. The gameplay is split between wandering the halls of the Grand Imperial Theatre, chatting with the girls and getting story details, and the battlefield, where you marshal your tiny army of potential girlfriends and fight monsters that look vaguely like the H.R. Giger Alien. The ladies themselves include high-society dame Sumire, karate-chopping Kanna, wacky scientist Kohran, gun-totin’ ex-revolutionary Maria, Iris, a small child with a teddy bear(?!); and lovable country bumpkin Sakura. The dating part is fun and fairly easy to figure out; Sakura likes gentle compliments, while Sumire favors confidence, Kanna responds to machismo, Kohran likes jokes, and Iris just wants to play. No, you don't actually date Iris, you just be her pal and she occasionally creepily mentions wanting to marry you when she grows up. Needless to say, I avoided her like the plague, except on the battlefield where her healing abilities were absolutely essential.

I didn't actually try to woo Sakura first, because that seemed too obvious; I went for karate girl Kanna first, then pursued Kohran, who talks with an ingratiating and somewhat incongruous Osaka dialect, the second time around. Because man, you will play these games multiple times. I went after Sakura when I played the inevitable Sakura Wars 2, which featured more gameplay mechanics (I particularly like the way it allows you to remain silent during conversational branches; you can spend damn near the entire game giving the ladies the ol’ silent treatment) and new characters, the outspoken and bratty Orihime and waifish Leni. Sadly, the translation guide for that one was more than 200 pages, and pretty unwieldy as a result.  I greedily picked up the Dreamcast special editions of Sakura Wars 3 (which moved the action to Paris, featuring a whole new brigade of fighters/paramours) and Sakura Wars 4 (which combined both the Tokyo and Paris branches), even though they got harder and harder for my Japanese-impaired self to enjoy.

See, Sakura Wars wasn't just a bunch of games, or even a franchise-- it was a goddamned phenomenon. The games quite naturally led to anime and manga, which I'll talk about in a bit, but they also led to stuff like pencil boards, dolls, figurines that came with CDs of the actresses chattering inanely, model kits of the mecha suits, model kits of the girls, fine china, apparel, posters advertising the fictional musicals from the games, soundtracks for the same fictional musical, and most compellingly, full-fledged musical performances of those same fictional musicals. Not only was there a big revue show featuring the actresses kitted out in character as their game counterparts, there were stage shows of the characters performing Saiyuki and Kaijin Bessou with musical numbers, scripts, set changes-- the works. There was even a specialty store and cafe. Hell, my favorite Sakura Wars video game was a tie-in product: Hanagumi Columns, a clone of Sega's puzzle game where you could team up with the Flower Brigade gals.

But most of what we got from the Sakura Wars universe on these shores is the anime, a complicated pile of OVAs, TV episodes, and even a feature-length movie. We actually got the first anime release, a 4-part OVA, pretty fantastically quickly, less than a year after its debut in Japan. I still remember seeing the VHS and cracking a smile, because look at this thing:

Sure, I get that it's based on a hit video game, but this was back in 1998, when there wasn't any hope of the game seeing stateside release. This didn't stop ADV Films from hyping the connection. Anyway, these OVAs, as well as a 6-episode sequel, were produced by Radix; they're nicely animated and do a decent job retelling the games, adding a few details here and there and spicing up the combat scenes. The TV series, which would follow in 2000, is kind of underwhelming. Not only was it obviously constrained by budget, it didn't bring much to the table in terms of additional story. The animation, by Madhouse, is solid but extremely spare and workmanlike. We've lately been mourning the loss of Ryutaro Nakamura, the great director of Serial Experiments Lain and Kino's Journey. Well, he directed this TV series, too. He acquits himself well enough-- hell, the show is still in print and available from Sentai Filmworks, so it's certainly durable if nothing else-- but this isn't representative of his work. Just look at how Sakura's depiction in the TV version measures up to how she's animated in the video games:

The TV version is naturally not going to look quite as good, but this weird flatness and lack of detail persists throughout the whole show. What these Sakura Wars anime projects are very representative of is the work of the screenwriter and story supervisor, Satoru Akahori. He's been less active lately, but he was everywhere in the 1990s, creating Sorcerer Hunters and Saber Marionette J, scripting favorites like Nadesico and K.O. Beast, and supervising the story development of the Sakura Wars games and anime on behalf of their creator, Ohji Hiroi. There's a relaxed, linear progression to these shows, particularly the TV series-- Sakura argues with one of her teammates, they make up just in time to save the day-- or did they?!-- that shows up all over Akahori's works. It's formulaic, but when the formula is just so reliable, it's not always a bad thing.

One thing that is interesting to behold about this first wave of anime projects is ADV's dubbed versions. For a variety of reasons, the OVAs and TV series sport differing approaches-- the staff gamely tries to tack on a zany French accent to Iris and a Chinese one to Kohran for the first OVA, only to walk this back in later installments. The name of the big bad guy is Satan, so they opt to call him “Satani” in the TV dub. Also, for some odd reason, Sakura herself is voiced by three different actresses across the two OVAs and TV series, and she's not the only character to have cast changes. Meanwhile, the Japanese cast has remained constant, which makes sense; they're one of Sakura Wars’ bigger selling points.

This didn't really hit home with me, even as I was imperceptibly being brainwashed into associating Chisa Yokoyama's voice with comfortable weekend nights camped in front of the Saturn, controller in hand, until I met a member of the cast. Maya Okamoto, the voice of Soletta Orihime, made a visit to Anime Central in 2003, and was just as outspoken as her character when it came to how important the role was to her. For the franchise's principals, it's not just a recurring job-- it's almost like becoming the voice of a Disney character, where you go back to the booth over and over again. Okamoto hasn't been as omnipresent as some of the other leads-- she's taken a miss on some of the musical shows-- but anytime there's a game or anime with Orihime, she's there, unleashing ciaos with hurricane force. It'd be nice to see her at a North American convention again-- someone get on that, would you?

Sakura Wars-mania hit a fever pitch as the millennium turned, with the third game installment landing on Dreamcast in the same year that Production IG's feature film hit Japanese theatres. I just watched that movie again recently, because I've been trying to decide if I'm going to buy the blu-ray from Funimation when they release it in a couple of months. The movie's villain, an American industrialist with comically bad hair, raises a few goofy questions about the franchise's background-- we're presented with a bad guy who's a domineering imperialist, even as we know full well that 1920s Japan will eventually make way for its own imperialism. That historical detail occasionally treads on the narrative, which depicts the Hanagumi and the Japanese government as unambiguously heroic. Still, the animation is pretty great-- I'm especially fond of the film's first big deployment, with Sakura and company changing into their combat uniforms by way of 60s-Batman-style chutes and hitting the city by way of underground steam locomotive. Looking back at the film and the franchise as a whole is also interesting in light of the whole steampunk business. Steampunk's a full-fledged subculture of its own now, but back in 1998, the franchise was almost never referred to as steampunk. The term existed, it just wasn't in vogue yet.

One aspect of the Sakura Wars movie that's aged exceedingly well is the final musical number, a duet between Sakura and itinerant squad commander Rachet, playing characters in a musical. Yokoyama's Sakura plays a princess, sweet and plaintive, while Rachet, voiced by accomplished stage actress Akiko Kuno (who's had lead roles in national productions of West Side Story and Cats), booms out her role as a domineering prince. This scene's been replicated on stage, too. I'm intensely curious to see just how good this film looks on blu-ray, though to be honest I found myself engrossed with the old Pioneer (yep, this was pre-Geneon) DVD extras, featuring trailers for upcoming hits like Licensed by Royalty and Patlabor WXIII.

Funimation actually threw their hat into the Sakura Wars arena, releasing the Sumire and Ecole de Paris OVAs some years back. They actually went the extra mile with Sumire, sending the dubbing job west to ensure that the same English actresses from the movie would be given the chance to reprise their roles. But that's about all we've gotten in terms of anime-- a second set of Paris OVAs and a New York installment never made their way here. Tokyopop released Hiroi's old manga adaptation, which I've never really liked; like the TV series, it brings little to the table, and I've always found it kind of ugly.

The whole Sakura Wars deal came from video games, and we did get a bite of that apple a few years back thanks to NIS America. I was pretty damn excited when they announced plans to release Sakura Wars 5 for PS2 and Wii; yeah, it was an odd choice to start with instead of the earlier games, but it had a solid reputation and all of the ingredients that made Sakura Wars great. But there was just one problem: it wasn't popular. Even though there were multiple editions to satisfy even the most puritanical of fans (the PS2 version had the Japanese voices) and dub-lovers both (the English version had several actresses from the movie reprising their roles, plus the fabulous Laura Bailey as lead character Gemini), NISA pointed out, after its release, that it just didn't meet their sales expectations. This bums me out, but a few things give me hope. First of all, we've got at least one group of fans slowly chewing their way through an unofficial English patch for the old PC version of the original game. Secondly, while we never got the PSP and Nintendo DS versions of the games, a 3DS or PSVita port, one that might be released in English, certainly isn't out of the question. Thirdly, I personally think Sakura Wars games would work pretty great on iOS devices, so you never know; maybe it'll happen! And finally, we've at least got Sakura herself in our corner, because she shows up in Bandai Namco's recent Project X Zone.

See, that's the real allure of this damn franchise. I got the original games, I own most of the anime, I've even got a cabinet full of those great Tsukuda Hobby dolls, keychains, and even weird stuff like coffee mugs. Just hearing Yokoyama's voice playing a completely different role brings the series to my mind, and now that Project X Zone is out in English, I'm quietly saving up for a Nintendo 3DS. It's not because I want or need a 3DS, it's because the handheld has a game with Sakura in it, therefore I must play it. Please don't spoil me on whether it's good or bad; if it's lousy, I want to discover that disappointment all on my own.

How about you, dear internet? Have you seen the Sakura Wars anime, or played the games? Who's your favorite member of the Hanagumi? Ever go to absurd lengths (like printing a huge guide) to import an awesome video game that you just knew wouldn't come out locally? Let me know in the comments!

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