Sakura Wars TV
In the years after World War I, Steam Era Japan faces a serious threat from supernatural beings that menace the countryside. To defend the capital from this threat, the Japanese government forms a secret group of female warriors, the Imperial Flower Division, who must channel their spiritual power into mechanical weapons of war known as Koubu. Recently drafted into this division is the beautiful heiress to the Shinguji family, Shinguji Sakura. Traveling from Sendai in the far north, she knows little of the big city, and her arrival is punctuated by a series of startling surprises.
You see, to hone the spiritual energy of the warriors, they must perform in musical plays. The Imperial Flower Division, therefore, moonlights as the all-female Imperial Flower Troupe, the hottest musical performance group in all of Tokyo.
Will the actress/warriors' egos collide into an irreconcilable clash of spirits? Or can the Imperial Flower Division find the unity and strength needed to save Tokyo from impending doom?
What a goofy damn show.
I could go on a dissertation on the all-female Takarazuka theater troupe and its continuing influence on anime since Tezuka Osamu and Princess Knight, but I'm going to have to resist that urge and ask you to look that up yourself, either on Google, or in the book Anime Invasion. Understanding the appeal of that sort of thing is going to be an integral part of appreciating this show.
Okay, maybe I should give you a bit of background anyway. Don't worry; I'll keep it short. You see, Takarazuka theater is big in Japan - the actresses who perform in these plays are stars remembered for decades upon decades. Therefore, a dating simulation / RPG like Sakura Wars that incorporates Takarazuka style is going to be popular in a market familiar with that genre. Sega hit a gold mine, and the spin-offs came quickly, including the OAVs, and subsequently, the immensely popular live-action Sakura Wars musicals starring the VAs as the characters. Sakura Wars as a franchise is immensely popular in Japan because it's a multimedia blitz on the senses.
However, without that context to fall back on, this series is not going to make a damn whit of sense to the average American anime fan, which is sort of a shame. Unlike the previous anime incarnations of Sakura Wars, the television series actually bothers to develop the characters of the show before going into the action.
You see, this time, the girls aren't quite so cookie-cutter. Yeah, Sakura is pure and innocent as the driven snow, but she's also clumsy, lacks confidence, and is quite a bit more interesting than her OAV incarnation. Tachibana Maria has a very dark edge to her that I missed first time around (did I mention I absolutely adore Takano Urara's voice?), and Iris Chateaubriand, far from being mindlessly cute, is downright psychotic and scary at first. What's neat is watching Sakura slowly bring the others out of their shells by just being a decent human being, but early on it's rather slow going. On the other hand, I still think the entire character concept of Kanzaki Sumire deserves a hearty slap, but then, I've never liked characters like that (and she's supposed to act that way), so that shouldn't be taken as an automatic detraction.
The voice acting of foreign languages, again as in the original, are a mixed bag. Li Kouran's Chinese is still not great, Maria's Russian-accented English is damn cool, and Iris's French is absolutely atrocious (Jian-Poh-Roo!). Since I haven't screened this yet in English, I can't comment on the American VAs, but apart from the Chinese, I'm certain that the attempt will at *least* be more than half-hearted. One can hope, anyway.
So what about those Koubu? Well, you only get a teaser of them in the first episode, and it takes quite some time for the group to even begin to gel, though watching sweet little Sakura take down a demon with just her sword kicks more ass than, perhaps, the entire first OAV series combined. For that alone, I feel compelled to give this a better grade than the original. Besides, the Koubu rank among the dumbest-looking mecha ever designed, so having some action go on without them can only be a bonus. As far as the rest of the whole steam-punk gimmick, I really enjoyed the meld of modern display screens and the vintage "movie-reel" look at the command headquarters. Sure, it's veneer, but that sort of detail is nice when you're trying to unify a universe like alt-history 1919 Tokyo.
Despite some cheap CG effects here and there (a couple of scenes in the opening sequence made me seriously wince), the actual series animation looks pretty good, but not amazingly so. Lots of cute characters, and lots of "dramatic" pan shots, with hit-or-miss effect. The music can be looked at in several ways. If you don't like sweeping theatrical-style musicals, then stay the heck away from this! Personally, I've got a soft spot for songs as anachronistic as the ubiquitous opening "Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan" (slightly updated from the OAV series), and the various musical bits are neat (and plentiful), but incredibly jarring for those people who were expecting nonstop mecha fights like in the opening sequence.
While Sakura Wars may be a huge hit in Japan, I don't really see it being very popular among American fans when compared to series like Nadesico or Love Hina. Most people won't understand the characters, concept, or reasoning behind this show because we don't have anything like Takarazuka to use as a template in our mind's eye.
Explaining Sakura Wars to non-Japanese fans feels a bit like trying to explain Star Wars to an ancient Greek. Sure, they might appreciate the pretty pictures, but the concept isn't going to stick beyond the surface level without some serious and determined effort on the part of the viewer. Frankly, most people just don't have the time (or desire) to work that hard to appreciate an anime, no matter how good they hear it is.
Think about it, though. This is a show about a bunch of girls who train to use silly-looking mecha to defend early 20th century Japan from demons by singing in overblown all-female musicals. Yeah. If you're going to work that hard to try and understand a show involving music and defending Tokyo from invasion, you might as well ditch the alternate history stuff and watch RahXephon instead.
It's really a shame that this show can't transcend its inherent Japanese-ness, because if you dig down deep enough, it's actually a lot of fun. But for most fans on this side of the pond, I'm not sure if the payoff is really going to be worth the effort it takes to make any sense of Sakura Wars.
A solid series that suffers from slow pacing and a marked inability to speak to anyone outside the realm of Japanese culture. Add one star if you're familiar with Takarazuka theater and really dig this sort of thing -- or if you've played and enjoyed the games. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: There is some violence, and some rather interesting rivalry undercurrents reminiscent of shows like Glass Mask and Brother Dear Brother that's surprising to see in a dating sim-based show. Teens and up should be fine.
Version(s) Viewed: DVD, bilingual
Review Status: Partial (4/25)
Sakura Wars TV © 2000 Sega / Red / Overworks
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