Bamboo Blade Anime Review
US Release By
26 episodes, 24 minutes each
2007-10-02 - 2008-04-02
Muroe High School's female Kendo team is going through some hard times. Nearly all of their members have quit after a lousy season, while coach Toraji Ishida, beset by job insecurity and financial woes, seems to have little heart of motivation for keeping the team afloat, let alone turning it into a top quality competitor. But one day he gets a visit from his old high school teammate from his own Kendo days, Kenzaburo Ishibashi, who has become the coach of a rival high school's Kendo team. Determined to avenge a loss to Ishida in a key match years ago, Ishibashi bets a year's supply of free food from his father's restaurant that his team can defeat the best Ishida has to offer. Now with renewed vigor, Ishida sets out to fill his team's vacancies and whip them into shape as a top notch organized Kendo club.
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With an unfamiliar (to non-Japanese) sport like Kendo, and a cool title like Bamboo Blade, you'd think it would be hard to go wrong with this show. Sadly, instead of a serious sports anime, it's actually an unoriginal action/comedy hybrid, and not a particularly good one. The cast of characters are generic plot devices who aren't even particularly likable, with invincible Kendo machine Tamaki being particularly hard to root for and relatively uninteresting. The sports rivalries aren't any better--the competing teams get little screen time and are composed of cheesy villain stereotypes. The plot fares no better, but it's not a total wash; there's a parody anime show-within-a-show that's enough fun you'll probably wish the whole thing was about it. It's also got a good soundtrack and excellent animation; the best of the Kendo matches look so good you'll wish there were more of them (and that they actually had something to do with the plot).
Overall, Bamboo blade is a below-average sports show that that utterly fails to take advantage of its dynamic title or original subject material. Kendo fans deserved better, and no anime fan should be satisfied with such a dull and uninspired series.
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When I heard about Bamboo Blade, I thought I had a guaranteed winner on my hands. While many anime shows have Kendo in them, this is the first one I'm aware of where Kendo is the central theme. It's long enough to go somewhere big, while the use of a lesser known sport (outside of Japan) gave it a lot of original potential, especially for those of us who are unfamiliar with it. And just look at the title: Bamboo Blade. It makes a wooden stick sound badass! There is no way they could let me down, right? Well if there is one thing I've learned about anime, it's that it always has the ability to surprise with the unexpected, and not always in a good way. Just as I've seen my share of great anime that I never thought had a chance, I also occasionally come across those that manage to screw up things you wouldn't think it was possible to. Sadly, this is one such case. In fact, I'd call it one of the worst.
The problems are apparent right from the start. The title makes it seem like a serious sports drama, but it's actually an action/comedy hybrid. Or really it's more of an attempt at one, since it doesn't seem to get either concept down very well. As a result, the comedy isn't particularly funny, while the action and plot aren't particularly dramatic. Most of the characters aren't particularly likable either, as they attempt to form a mix of lovable losers, sympathetic underdogs, and an invincible demon who wins virtually every match with no effort. They come across as contrived plot devices who never stray from their assigned roles or do anything genuinely surprising.
Coach Ishida comes across as a rather sad and pathetic figure, and usually not in a funny way. His team consists of four girls who range in talent from competent to initially worthless, and the newest member, Tamaki, who is essentially an invincible Kendo fighting machine. She never comes close to taking a single hit, let alone losing, until very late in the series, which makes her pretty hard to root for, and pretty much ruins what could have been her interesting personality contrast: Being the best member of the team despite being the smallest, cutest, shyest, and most reserved.
That's not to say it's all bad. The characters aren't complete stereotypes, and have a few interesting traits: The one character with glasses actually has the most trouble with her grades, while another has a subtle but slightly amusing Jekyll/Hyde complex. I also kind of liked the team captain, Kirino. She's charming, friendly, and good-natured, while also fairly competent and extremely dedicated to the sport. In many ways I thought she would have made a better coach than Ishida, and I often found myself wishing he shared her best qualities.
The rivalries with other teams and individual members don't work out very well, either. The other teams don't have enough screen time or significance create a legitimate rivalry for Muroe's Kendo club, while the individuals who manage to stand out feel forced in cheesy bad guy roles. They might as well walk on with introductions like "Hi, I'm Konishi, and I'll be playing the Snidely Whiplash villain who doesn't fight fair," or "Hi, I'm Carrie, and I'll be the cocky American chick who wins big and rubs it in your face to fill you with a burning desire for revenge."
Pinpointing the biggest problem with a TV series has never been so easy as it is here. In this case, all you have to do is read the back of the DVD box, which proudly and irrationally proclaims "SOME FIGHT FOR HONOR. THEY FIGHT FOR SUSHI?!" There you have it. The major thing that cripples this series is the fact that virtually nothing of any significance is ever on the line. There are only a few official matches that take place in the entire series, and I never got the feeling that success in any of them was required, or even rewarded. As such, it was rather hard to get behind the team and root for them, as their intense training routines and practice regimens didn't seem to be going anywhere or working toward a well-defined goal. That this glaring flaw is present is bad enough, but the fact that they actually advertise it is mind boggling. It's like bragging about lousy animation or a weak plot.
And, sadly, the plot is in fact fairly weak. Tamaki easily carves through her opponents one by one, and then suddenly loses all faith in her abilities and desire to compete when she's finally defeated in a close, hard-fought match. Really, it never occurred to her that one day she might lose? We're supposed to believe her losing one match is the end of the line in her mind? There's also an exceptionally absurd story angle late in the series when two former members of the team who never show up for any practices or matches get in trouble for fighting and risk bringing repercussions on the team itself. Ishida and Kirino are given the option to completely disassociate the two students from the team in order to avoid punishment, but feel conflicted because neither of them ever officially resigned. In reality, there should be no moral conflict at all. Since neither of the two students were ever showing up to practices or matches, they clearly were no longer on the team and should have been cut lose right away, whether they officially resigned or not. But the series treats this as a major moral dilemma that takes multiple episodes to resolve.
Fortunately, there are a few positive elements. The soundtrack is good, with music well-suited to the situations where it's used. The animation is excellent. The uniforms and Kendo sticks all look realistic, the Dojos where the events take place seem authentic enough, while the animation during the actual matches is well-paced, colorful, and fluid. Some of the matches do get pretty intense and exciting, which is why there should have been more of them and they should have had a lot more significance in terms of what could be gained by winning them.
Oddly enough, though, the best aspect of the show, at least in regard to the comedy end of things, is Tamaki's obsession with a hilariously generic and campy anime series called "Super Sword Squadron: Blade Bravers." It's a brilliant parody of the action anime genre, and anyone who is familiar with anime in general will recognize exactly what it's making fun of. As the series goes on, Blade Bravers gets a lot more focus and bigger emphasis than it probably should have in a series that's supposed to be about Kendo. Normally that would be a bad thing, but in this case it works out pretty well, because it's so enjoyable. In fact, I think this series would have been better if it was exclusively about Blade Bravers and had nothing to do with Kendo at all.
One final thing to note is that Bamboo Blade doesn't explain the sport of Kendo very well. I'm not really going to hold it against them for that, since it could be that the series was made for people who are already familiar with it. But still, it would have been nice if they included a quick explanation of the rules, including how the scoring system works and the significance of the position names for the team lineup. Since they don't, it makes the series a little hard to get into for people like me who come in with no knowledge of the sport at all.
Overall, Bamboo blade is a below-average sports show that that utterly fails to take advantage of its dynamic title or original subject material. As the sole series made specifically about Kendo, I'd say Kendo fans deserved a lot better. But, then again, so do anime fans in general, none of whom should be satisfied with such a dull and uninspired series.
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For a better action/comedy sports series, go with Eyeshield 21. For a better all-girls sports show, go with Taisho Baseball Girls.
Notes and Trivia
Based on a manga series written by Masahiro Totsuka and illustrated by Aguri Igarashi, consisting of 14 volumes published between 2004 and 2010. It's available in English from Yen Press. There's also a sequel by Totsuka, with art by Neko Sutajio, Bamboo Blade B.
Some of the characters' names are based on the names of real-life professional Kendo players
In addition to a DVD release, Funimation has the series available streamed free, both subtitled and dubbed, on their site (through Hulu).
US DVD Review
Probably my favorite thing about the series is how effectively it's packaged and marketed by Funimation. While virtually devoid of special features, the whole series is on four DVDs in a single-disc-sized case sold for roughly $30. Quite a contrast to other anime shows of near-equal length from other companies, such as Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight (from USM) or Rune Soldier (from ADV), which were packaged in a box set of individual DVD cases, taking up 3-5 times as much shelf space and often costing significantly more (Lodoss War cost me over $100 back in 2002).
I can only hope this ergonomic and cost effective method is part of a new trend across the industry.
About as non-violent and non-objectionable as a sport involving hitting people with sticks can be; Funimation calls it TV-PG, meaning about 10-up.
Violence: 1 - People hit each other with sticks. That's Kendo for you.
Nudity: 0 - No skin at all.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing significant.
Language: 0 - Clean language as well.