Non fans of the series proceed at your own risk!
The Sakura Wars franchise includes console video games, a television series, OVAs, pencil boxes, cute toys, etcetera. The newest entry is this feature length film. Sure hope you're familiar with the former entries in the franchise, because this latest entry explains nothing. Viewers such as myself who are unfamiliar with the world of Sakura Wars should prepare for a frustrating experience.
Facts of the Case
A bunch of impossibly cute girls are part of a theatrical troupe in Japan. They dazzle a packed crowd with sophisticated song and dance numbers. Later in the dressing room, they converse (in ever-respectful tones) about Sakura Wars gossip. Soon, we discover that these girls are actually covert and highly trained mecha pilots who conduct clandestine battles to defend Tokyo from slobbering demons. They have secret train tunnels and silos that support a massive infrastructure of complicated military technology.
Meanwhile, the private Douglas-Stewart Company wants a piece of the healthy defense budget. They design unmanned mechas to fight demons. One of the senior executives wears a grim reaper suit and runs around with a midget in a jester outfit. This unlikely pair intimidates and threatens government officials. Uncool!
Soon, we realize that the increased demon activity is part of a sinister plot…a plot that leads to the disbanding of the Imperial Fighting Troupe Flower Division! Unfortunate, because our handful of adolescent girls knows more about the defense of Tokyo than the seasoned generals who run things. Will Imperial Fighting Troupe Flower Division be able to save the day when confronted with this totally unfair downsizing?
Sakura Wars: The Movie has a lot of heart and ambition. Fetching young ladies don pastel military uniforms, jump in archaic mechas, and fight demons in full 3D animation. It is obvious that the makers of this film bumped the stakes up a notch, giving Sakura Wars fans more eye candy and greater cinematography that the series. The end result, however, is unsatisfying.
To be sure, part of my frustration with this title has to do with the lack of courtesy extended those unfamiliar with the series. Some "The Movie"s play a delicate word game that gives diehard fans exciting insight while letting newbies infer what is going on. But Sakura Wars's "The Movie" expends lots of foreshadowing and gasps of shock on plotlines that are a complete mystery to the uninitiated. Not only are they mysteries, there aren't enough contextual cues to even guess. For example, a fair French lass named Lachette joins Flower Division to the consternation of many. Every time she walks onscreen, someone whispers behind their hand or gets hot under the collar. You'll never find out why. The movie simply dances around the issue without directly addressing it. Equally disturbing is the missing Captain. Why he is missing and why it is a problem is never stated. We must have faith that it is a big deal because the girls seem distraught over it. This is to say nothing of the basic premise…why are little girls flying steam-powered mechas around Tokyo? Does the steam engine somehow require the delicate touch of small hands and prepubescent hormones? Where does a steam engine fit inside these robot suits anyway?
Cinematic discourtesy is not the only problem. It isn't even the primary problem. That honor goes to pacing.
Sakura Wars: The Movie dwells too long on complex 3D animations that, while undoubtedly expensive to create, further neither plot nor pace. For example, the girls are summoned to an emergency meeting by throbbing lights and blaring klaxons. They arrive in the conference room in full uniform and are given orders to defend Tokyo from marauding demons. After sitting through the briefing, they jump into individually marked tunnels and emerge in three-dimensional robot regalia. The robots are loaded onto a detailed three-dimensional train that pulls out of the three-dimensional station and rushes to a massive underground switching station, with a (you guessed it) three-dimensional multi-spoked track heading to each quadrant of Japan. The train waits for the proper track to snap into place, and then picks up speed again. Finally, the train emerges and launches the girls into the air to fight the demons.
This lengthy sequence is not only painfully boring, it is riddled with logistical problems. Time is of the essence, yet the girls change into uniforms. Then they sit in a conference room. They get into the robot suits, which are then loaded onto the train. Why didn't the girls proceed immediately to the train (which was already loaded with the mechas) and receive instructions in transit? Why wasn't the track moved to the proper position as soon as the alarm went off? Since these mecha suits can fly, why didn't they simply fly to the fight? Tokyo is not so huge that it would take that long to fly across it. I have a high tolerance for outlandish anime. I sat through a six-hour marathon of the freaky psychobabble at the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion. But watching a 3D animated train crawling down a track and waiting at intersections is not a good use of my entertainment minutes.
This unfortunate pacing plagues most of the movie. When the climactic battle is finished, we see the girls onstage again. Instead of a peppy song and credits, we are treated to a long operetta. Eventually it becomes clear that an important plot point is yet to occur. The problem is that the audience is already mentally heading for the exits. The finale has cued, the battle won, the happy song ready to play. But we have to absorb this heady opera overture and figure out what is happening. Not good. There are brief moments of beauty and action that redeem the production, but the pacing is simply wretched throughout most of the movie.
The extras are not spectacular either. The only extras created for the DVD are artwork galleries, which get kind of ridiculous at times: the mecha gallery is the same picture repeated with different colors. It reminded me of the Commodore 64 games where you could pick the color of your racecar, shirt, armor, whatever. You know: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Aqua, White, Black, Green…the basic 16-color palette. The TV spots are okay because you get a sense of what Japanese commercials look like. Otherwise, we get to see trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The strengths of Sakura Wars: The Movie are visual artistry, sound, and lots of goodies for Sakura Wars fans. Production I.G. tried to imbue this two-dimensional franchise with their signature blend of 2D background and 3D models. The result is mixed. The biggest problem is the mechas, which stick out like sore thumbs from the rest of the animation. But other integrated 3D effects are fantastic, such as the three dimensional pans over Tokyo and the sweep around the stage during the dance number. These are truly beautiful applications of three dimensionality to the 2D characters.
The visual clarity is equivalent to other Production I.G. efforts. The lines are crisp; colors are bold and vibrant without being oversaturated. The animation is not as good as in Blood: The Last Vampire, but it is a notch above most animated efforts. If only those mechas and train had integrated a bit more subtly, I'd be raving about the video quality overall.
The dual 5.1 audio track is in both Japanese and English, and sounds great in both. The thumps and clangs are authoritative, and decent use is made of the surrounds. The overall mix is not completely enveloping; it sometimes sounds like artificial studio sounds were mixed to form an environmental effect. But like the video, when the audio works it works well. The showpiece is the song at the beginning, and some of the battles sounded great as well.
I have to admit that the Sakura Wars references form a two-sided coin. My annoyance at all the hidden themes and agendas will probably delight diehard fans of the series. There is a wealth of integration with previous events and people, so fans should be pleased.
The divide is simple. If you are acquainted with Sakura Wars and like the premise, this movie should please you. If not, you might have more fun rearranging your DVD collection, surfing the web, or taking a walk. This DVD won't harm you in any way, but it isn't the best use of two hours either. I realize that Sakura Wars fans may not appreciate this take on this movie. I don't appreciate the violation of unspoken "The Movie" etiquette, in which the writers throw non-fans a bone or two to clue them in.
The court finds Sakura Wars: The Movie unable to function in mainstream society. The DVD is remanded to Social Services, where upon completion of social skills retraining it will be sent to an appropriate foster home.
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