The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Sakura Wars the Animation
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sakura Wars the Animation ?
What is this?
In Japan in the Taisho era, a group of maidens protected Tokyo as the Imperial Combat Revue, doubling as both stage performers and pilots of steampunk mecha called Koubu. 14 years later, a new Imperial Combat Revue has been formed to carry on that tradition. Led this time by Sakura Amamiya, the team performs on stage and then is joined by a new junior member: Klara, the only survivor of the recently-obliterated Moscow Combat Revue. She's lost her memories and was being actively pursued by two parties when recovered by Seijuro (their male counterpart), so they will have to both protect her and give her a sense of family to help recover. And the protecting comes quickly after when a horde of demons attack.
How was the first episode?
The Sakura Wars franchise combines a number of my great loves — musical theater, steampunk robots, anime, pretty girls decked out in the fancy costumes of the early 20th century — so it's a shame that so much of the franchise has been locked off from Western audiences for so long. I never saw the original anime or OVAs, though I did manage to get my hands on the one PS2 title in the franchise that was localized for the U.S., Sakura Wars: So Long My Love, and I really enjoyed it. So I was very eager to check out Sakura Wars: The Animation, though it has me at a several disadvantages going in. You see, this new Sakura Wars anime is a sequel to the new Sakura Wars game, which is coming out in the West, but not until the end of April. In other words, this anime is the sequel to an unreleased video game that is a soft-reboot to a mostly untranslated game franchise and its one anime series from twenty years ago (that I've never seen).
So, how does the premiere of Sakura Wars: The Animation hold up for a neophyte like me? Surprisingly well, as it turns out. I suppose the very existence of this show is bound to spoil some things for the video game I absolutely intend on playing, but I'm fine with that, and I picked up on the basics just fine: The series has transitioned to the 1940s, and the new Imperial Combat Revue is going strong in their fight against all manner of evil demons, and they put on some snazzy musical productions in their spare time while they're at it. There are a bunch of different girls whose personalities are admittedly very one dimensional here, but fans of the most recent game will likely greet them all like old friends. The new character is Klara, who's got a mysterious past and some very inconvenient amnesia that is related to all of the demon shenanigans going on lately, and the ladies of the ICR will have to do battle with their steam-powered Kobou machines to uncover the truth. Simple enough.
It's a straightforward and entertaining enough setup — it ought to be, given how many games and spinoffs its generated — and I'd probably be giving the premiere a higher score if it weren't for the series' most glaring flaw: It's mediocre CG animation. The character work itself isn't atrocious or anything; a little stiff and plastic, maybe, but I've seen much worse. In the era of Studio Orange, though, even perfectly middling character models and choreography seems that much more disappointing, and they aren't helped by the positively embarrassing backgrounds, which look like they were pulled out of a video game from well over a decade ago. The world feels dead and sluggish, even when the action is trying really hard to convince you that it isn't. I'm sorry, but there is no universe in which a story about a company of steampunk-robot piloting actresses who fight demons should feel so lifeless. Ah well, at least we still have the game to look forward to.
The first thing that stuck out to me about Sakura Wars was, unfortunately, its thoroughly unconvincing CG character models. Though its opening scene is able to somewhat mitigate their issues through some dynamic direction and fight choreography, for most of this episode, Sakura Wars' characters look like stiff and under-expressive dolls, incapable of conveying either emotive body language or convincing expressions. When you couple that with the show's generally weak background art, you end up with a show that feels visually stiff and uninspired on all counts, with a central “performance sequence” that only emphasizes the show's visual limitations.
Unfortunately, things aren't much better on the writing front. Though I'm not familiar with the original Sakura Wars game franchise, it wasn't hard to pick up on the general concept of this show's Taisho-era super agents premise, or the dynamics of the main cast. That itself might actually be the problem; Sakura Wars is easy to parse because it's a string of cliches, featuring a heroine who's head-over-heels for her commanding officer, copious jealous woman gags, a young girl of destiny suffering some very convenient amnesia, and an assortment of other canned beats from stories much like this one. Using cliches is certainly not a crime, but you can't assemble a compelling narrative out of just cliches - you must either ground your familiar beats in narrative and aesthetic craft that give your show a sense of distinct identity, or combine them in such a way that you present something we haven't seen before.
Failing to distinguish itself through either of these methods, Sakura Wars' premiere feels strictly functional, without any narrative or visual distinction to elevate it over the bare-bones “a group of female secret agents fight crime” template. Sakura Wars is not going to be the worst premiere of the season, but it has a fair chance of being the least distinctive premiere of the season. And personally, I might actually prefer a unique narrative trainwreck to a flavorless show like this.
The 2019 Sakura Wars PS4 game is a soft reboot of a long-standing game series whose ground-breaking original game debuted on the Sega Saturn in 1996. The franchise has seen previous anime adaptations in OVA, movie, and TV series form, and this direct adaptation of the new game marks the second TV series version. Because this is not a hard reboot, a certain amount of familiarity with the franchise is expected going in; I'd say that anyone who is familiar with either the original game (or its PS2 remake, Sakura Wars: In Hot Blood) or the earlier TV series or movie will be fine here, and those who have played later installments in the game series might be. Newcomers might be able to follow what's going on here, but the particulars of the whole set-up are not explained well in the first episode.
There are also definitely some big bones thrown to established franchise fans. One of the main team members from the original game/anime versions – Sumire Kanzaki – is back and serving this time as the Revue's commander, and I think I spotted one other returning character as well. Also, the opening song for this series is a remake of the classic opening theme for the earlier TV series. The structure of the cast and the style of the mecha are also very similar to the earlier iteration, with Seijuro taking the role originally filled by Ichiro, the new Sakura looking almost identical to previous one (once she takes her blonde wig off, that is) and the team otherwise still consisting of a tall, princely type; a tall, more physically imposing type; an elegant one; and a very short member, although the latter is now a ninja instead of a child prodigy (a role which now apparently falls to Karla). A mix of stage performance and both mecha and non-mecha-based battle scenes also carries over.
As fanciful as the whole set-up is, there is at least a bit of a historical connection here. Back in the Taisho era there was an actual all-female performance troupe in Japan called the Takurazaka Revue, and they were successful enough to have obtain their own theater. (The troupe still exists today, although the original theater has been replaced.) Many naming conventions from earlier content were based on that revue, and some of that still carries over to this series. However, like earlier versions, this series colors that with mystical and steampunk elements, with the signature boxy mecha ultimately being a combination of the two. (This point is not at all explained in this episode and one of the main places where newcomers will be lost.) This Sakura starts out clearly head over heels in love with Seijuro, instead of their relationship building over the course of the story, so some romantic elements can be expected as well. The events of this episode concentrate on introducing Karla and establishing both the stage performance and fighting sides of the troupe, so not much room is left for establishing any other characters, but that should follow.
The most interesting artistic aspect may be that the main character designer this time around is Tite Kubo, the mangaka behind Bleach. The animation production by SANZIGEN Animation Studio is very pretty, with gorgeous renderings of character and mecha designs, but the animation is heavy on 3DCG (which makes sense, since the game it's adapting is also done in 3D). That aesthetic didn't bother me but might be a problem for others. On the negative side, the insert song that was part of the stage performance did not impress.
Overall, the main flaw of this first episode is that it jumps too directly into the middle of things. Especially if the intention was for this to be accessible to franchise newcomers, some more up-front elaboration and background establishment might have worked better. Still, this looks like a promising start to the franchise's newest iteration.
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