Judge Adam Arseneau enjoys his Taisho cherry blossoms amidst a fanciful storm.
Taisho cherry blossoms amidst a fanciful storm!
Based on a 1996 game for the Sega Saturn, Sakura Taisen (aka. Sakura Wars) has become a massive, complex, and intertextual franchise in Japan, spawning original video adaptations, numerous video games, a television series, endless amounts of branded swag, and a manga series that still runs to this day. If you are newcomer to the series, trying to get your head wrapped around which version comes first can be a trick.
Well, you can start here. Essentially a retelling of the original Sakura Taisen videogame, Sakura Wars TV: Complete Collection is the perfect place to start for a fresh pair of eyes and will no doubt be a stylized nostalgic trip down memory lane for fans of the OVAs. If you made the mistake of watching the movie first, Sakura Wars TV: Complete Collection will explain a whole hell of a lot, which is a good thing indeed.
Facts of the Case
Set in an alternate Taisho Era Tokyo, where steam powers modern technological innovations, the Imperial Capital is being threatened by mysterious organic, non-steam powered machines rising up from the ground. The defenders of the capital are an elite group of female warriors known as the Imperial Floral Assault Force—Flower Division, who rise to the challenge of protecting the city from invasion. The women selected for the unit have high levels of spiritual energy, which allows them to damage the invaders when channeled through weapons, or via giant steam-powered mechanical robots called Koubu that the girls pilot. The Flower Division also doubles as a famous theater troupe, holding sell-out performances and delighting the citizens, which serves the double purpose of perfecting teamwork between the team and channeling spiritual energy.
Traveling from the countryside to the city for the first time, the newest recruit in the Flower Division is Shinguji Sakura, a naïve, clumsy girl with exceptional swordsmanship skills and a famous war hero for a father. She finds it hard to integrate into the tightly knit and polished Flower Division, both in Koubu battle and dancing/acting skills, but the organization but cannot deny that her spiritual energy, once properly trained, will be a terrible and glorious sight to behold. With the growing attacks on the capital, the Flower Division needs all the help they can get!
As mentioned before, trying to get your head wrapped around the order in the Sakura Wars series is a bit of a headache. To summarize: the video games came first, followed by the OVAs, followed by the television series, and finally the full-length feature film. Where does the manga fit in? Well, you're on your own for that one. Since the television series essentially starts at the beginning of the series, this DVD set is a superior choice to start with if you are new to Sakura Wars—especially since none of the video games are available in North America and the OVAs operate under the assumption that the audience is familiar with the subtext of the games and characters. If you start anywhere else, you're just going to get a headache.
Sakura Wars TV isn't just for newcomers. There is still material here to appreciate for hardcore fans of the franchise, as the television series makes some key departures from the original lightheartedness of the video game and OVAs, making it more of a reworking than a strict remake. Darker and more somber in tone, certain plot points have been altered to make the television series a fresh and new experience for those experienced in the ways of the Flower Division of the Imperial Floral Assault Force. It's a shame the way the series has been marketed in North America, for had they released Sakura Wars TV: Complete Collection first, opinion of the show would be a lot higher than it is now.
I admit, my first impressions of Sakura Wars TV were less than flattering. The series starts off with a few light, whimsical, and frankly quite boring episodes; I settled myself down into the groove of my couch with trepidation and a yawn, mentally bracing myself for 20 more episodes. Sakura Wars was shaping up to be a boring girl foray into dull, occasionally action-oriented mech fighting, with an emphasis on the world "dull." Ho-hum.
Then about five episodes in, things take a turn. Kind of like NASCAR drivers take a turn. With virtually no warning, the series metamorphoses into a dark, somber, dramatic foray into freakish demon technology, mysterious enigmatic enemies, steampunk mech battles, and existentialist ramblings, like an estrogen-infused teenage girl version of Neon Genesis Evangelion set in the 19th century. The show slowly adds such elements into the storyline episode by episode, so gradually as to be almost unperceivable until they boil over in steaming bubbles; it's not exactly action-packed by modern animation standards, but always compelling and intriguing. It kind of took me by surprise exactly how much I enjoyed this series and how it always managed to give back just the right amount of wholesome cuteness and softness to even out the outright crazy and twisted bits.
There is something uniquely feminine about Sakura Wars, though I'm cautious about using the term, since linking the word "feminine" with "anime" sets off all kinds of preconceived notions in most North American fans, most of which equates to stinking out loud. Well, not this time. The show balances itself quite nicely between character development, enigmatic plot points, robot battles, and, well…dance sequences. Still, trust me, it makes sense in context. All the elements are reached in equal relationship with one another, sensitive touches and all, and nothing feels particularly lame or out of place. In Japan, it goes without saying that Sakura Wars is immensely popular with young women, but it also has a strong fan base in the male audience and the same will no doubt apply in North America. Sakura Wars occupies territory comfortably between female-oriented group ensemble anime like Sailor Moon and male-oriented giant mech battling anime like RahXephon, staying true to both elements. Trust me…you won't even mind the dancing.
Indeed, Sakura Wars has a theatrical style about it, by which I mean it resembles live theater, literally; not only in its subject matter of the Flower Division constantly putting on plays, but even down to the character designs, lighting, and camera angles. This is intentional, but may not be immediately apparent to a Western audience as to why. Sakura Wars as a franchise draws heavily from the infamous Takarazuka Revue, an all-women Japanese theater troupe formed in the 1910s who continue to operate to great success to this day and have inspired millions of fans across Japan…mostly women. Think of the Sakura Wars as the anime embodiment of this unique gender inverse in a male-dominated society, a female interpretation on the mech anime genre the same way the Takarazuka Revue inverses the male-only tradition of Kabuki. It dances the same dance, but with a gender twist.
Like most two-season anime shows, it takes a good solid 13 episodes before anything significant starts happening plotwise, and Sakura Wars has its share of lame, character developing episodes that fail to actually do anything interesting—like Iris being bummed out because nobody celebrates birthdays in Japan—but always manages to right itself during even the most pedantic and tedious moments with humor and a quirky enthusiasm. To use the same example, the gang indeed throws Iris a party, but being Japanese, have no idea how to approach the affair, turning it into a "Birthday Anniversary Commemorative Gathering," complete with a whole cooked red snapper and taiko drumming. Silly and pointless, yes, but this kind of thing makes the difference between being a boring show and one that holds your enthusiasm and interest until the momentum starts picking up. Overall, the series stays surprisingly enjoyable and strong until the last episode, which kind of feels rushed, but that's what happens when you spend 24 episodes hyping up something and then wrap it up in 15 minutes. Oh, well.
The animation style chosen for the TV adaptation is a puzzle at times. Different from the OVAs, the old-fashioned character designs and facial expressions tip their hat in a retro-style sort of way, but look oddly dated and stuffy compared to the more vibrant animation style emerging in the last five years in Japan. Still, the artists made a choice and you have to respect their dedication to old-fashioned animation; the small subtle nuances, tiny bows, and tilted heads of polite Japanese society have been captured with eerie precision and realism. The Koubu alternate between looking like stylish, retro-kitschy steam machines and big walking trash cans carrying swords, depending on which angle you see them at. Anyway, it only feels weird for a few episodes and then things feel nice and normal.
Though the animation is barely ten years old, the artistic style and extreme softness to the transfer give the impression of great age, which is both nostalgic and distressing at the same time. It works with the whole 1920s Japan retro look Sakura Wars has, but lacks the fidelity and definition we have come to expect from anime titles as of late. The hazy softness is so extreme at times that one can barely discern any detail at all, like a Vaseline-smeared lens from the…well, the, 1920s. I imagine the look is intentional, but it irked the heck out of my finely-tuned DVD transfer sensibilities. Still, all these issues are related to the source material and, indeed, probably were intentional decisions to stylize the appearance of the show. The color tone is very stylized as well, strong pinks and purples, occasionally dotted with some minor print damage and dirt.
As with many recent ADV Films releases, the original Japanese language gets a remedial stereo presentation, while the English dub gets a thicker, beefier 5.1 surround job. There isn't a great deal of difference between the two, save for the inherent corniness of the English-language dub; both are moderate on bass response, sharp in the treble range, and focus strong on center channel presentation. I like the ambient distribution in the surround soundtrack, as well as the increased volume, and I wish the Japanese-language track received the same presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As of late, ADV Films has been re-releasing older series in similar handsome slimline box sets, often for reduced prices (like D.N. Angel: Complete Collection), which is a fantastic trend. Fans that missed out on the original single-volume releases can now get the entire series of Sakura Wars for the same price as two single discs, or one-third of the stand-alone release. This is to their credit.
However, compressing a series that was previously released over multiple discs into one set comes with a sacrifice: extra materials. By sacrificing "extra materials," I mean there's none of any kind. Zilch. For most, this will be a small price to pay for such handsome packaging and concentrated financial value, but it offers little incentive for dedicated fans to upgrade or hardcore fans who crave a little something extra. Like candy. Mmm, sweet candy.
Sakura Wars TV is steampunk anime at its finest; a delicate balance between masculinity and femininity rarely seen in modern animation and this box set is a fantastic introduction to the series. Actually, this box set is the only introduction to this series. It isn't really optional. Trust me; you will definitely want to spend time with the television series before tackling other features in the series, as Judge Rob Lineberger found out the hard way with Sakura Wars: The Movie.
Lucky for you, Sakura Wars TV: Complete Collection is pretty awesome, so it should be a painless experience. It may be a bit girly, but girls are awesome. And you know…they um, smell nice and stuff.
Not guilty at all.
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