Sakura Diaries Anime Review
US Release By
Erotic Romantic College Comedy
12 25-minute episodes
1997-5-21 - 1997-10-22
It's a classic love triangle: After meeting the beautiful Mieko and deciding that she's the only one for him, Touma is desperate to get into a prestigious college... but can't cut the exam. And of course, she's only interested in college guys, so before he can either get up the guts to explain the situation or finish enough cram school to weasel his way in, he's going to have to do his darnedest to pretend he's not as dumb as he is. Enter Urara: She's as interested in Touma as he is in the other woman, but to keep him happy her only choice is to back up his ruse. And making things just a little more exciting, she's also willing to do just about anything to get his attention in the mean time...
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A nosebleed comedy meets Melrose place, Sakura Diaries is sexually charged but tempers the titillation with honest emotion and real substance. The result is an emotionally messy, romantically involving romp that is more than it first appears. Among its most impressive features are how much erotic mileage it gets out of a minimum of action--it's hardly modest, but for all the overt come ons, there's little nudity and almost nothing explicit shown. Other strengths are how involved the characters are--particularly a number of more realistic minor players--and how the situation comedy set-ups frequently play out in ways both less funny and more emotionally messy than you'd expect. It does well visually on a limited budget, and features a number of impressive performances in both English and Japanese, though the dub makes drastic changes to the story and characters (the changes feel quite natural, but it is nothing like a literal translation).
In all, Sakura Diaries manages to be funny, racy, and erotic, all without marginalizing itself by being too silly or dirty. More surprisingly, it also develops into an emotionally affecting romance. If you can handle the frank, adult, and occasionally fairly extreme material and enjoy slightly quirky, mature laughs along with romance and honest emotion, Sakura Diaries is definitely worth a look.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
A nosebleed comedy meets Melrose Place, Sakura Diaries is sexually charged but tempers the titillation with honest emotion and real substance. The result is an emotionally messy, romantically involving romp that is more than it first appears.
Sakura Diaries is not modest--the camera stares along with Touma, and it pushes some limits in early episodes. But, while deserving of ADV's 17+ rating, it gets a lot of erotic mileage out of a fraction of the action of a hentai series.
For all the overt come-ons, there's little detailed nudity and almost no explicit sexual activity. It's interesting, then, that Sakura Diaries feels so much "dirtier" (that's not exactly the right word, but it'll suffice) than any number of mainstream series that feature an abundance of nudity and crude jokes. This is partly because the realism of the characters and situations brings the sexuality a lot closer to home. The characters also don't hide behind flirtation or innuendo--when they throw themselves at each other they mean it.
The other reason is that Sakura Diaries is honestly erotic instead of crudely titillating. Instead of volumes of casual nudity, the (visual) eroticism is both more pointed and more suggestive. The Japanese word is "chiralism"--it's as much what you can't quite see as what you can. Touma catching a glimpse of underwear under a skirt, for example, has more impact than a scene full of casual nudity.
The basic story, like most romantic (or erotic) comedies, is nothing new, but there's more to it if you look past the humor and formula.
On one level, it's symbolic of the uncertain path from youth into adulthood in Japanese society, illustrated though three social groups: Urara, the high school student willfully growing up too fast but still clinging to an idealized version of reality; a group of easy-life college students on the fast track to adult success and excess; and the cram-school students stuck in the middle. This framework provides a sort of parallel for the romantic and emotional progression of the characters, but is interesting on its own.
One of Sakura Diaries' strengths is its touching look at the oft-derided "losers" in Touma's no-win situation. "Ronin" like him fall between the cracks of Japanese society, out of high school with nowhere to go but a desperate last-chance shot at a good college and a dead-end service industry job waiting for those who don't make it. While more relevant in Japan, most of us can relate to being in a situation with nothing but friends and dogged determination to keep you from throwing in the towel entirely.
The characters on which the story rides are notably more mature than those in your average anime comedy, and not just sexually--many, particularly Mieko and her friends, have more or less believably adult personalities. Similarly, the amusing lesser characters are weird or quirky in a way that makes you feel like you know people like them. Even the apparent caricatures often aren't--Mashu, the super-cool player, and the cram school's resident guru both have much more to their outwardly superficial personalities than I expected. Mieko, likewise, seems to be playing Touma for what he's worth, but you (like him) could almost be convinced that there's more to her than that... and there is.
The two main characters--Urara and Touma--are actually somewhat less realistic but equally interesting.
The "hero" (really a complete loser in many ways) supplies the bulk of the comedy in the series thanks to his penchant for wild flights of fantasy and overdramatic internal torment. His reactions to Urara's over-the-top come-ons may be ridiculously dense, but they're also plenty funny and the comic timing is spot-on. On the other hand, he has a bit of Everyman in him--dreaming big, failing miserably to attain those dreams, yet still desperately clinging to his idealized fantasy world. He also gets so carried away with things that he's rather hard to empathize with, although acting like a jerk and realizing it in the morning is something most of us have done at some point.
Now, if you can't stand anime guys who run from the woman who's throwing herself at them and chase the one that's not worth it... well, Touma takes it to a whole new level. Nonetheless, his non-relationship with Urara is one of the most memorable parts of the series.
The series' closer attachment to reality takes Urara's rather extreme methods from initially farcical to almost sad. She's so willing to (almost) naively put herself into degrading positions for the benefit of a more or less worthless guy that it's hard not to feel sorry for her. Certainly, her pain is far more palpable through her superficial smile than it would be were she traditionally melodramatic.
On the less realistic side, her not-exactly-socially-acceptable methods don't quite fit with the rest of her personality. Similarly, her occasional bouts of modesty, though not entirely unbelievable, have more to do with making the plot work. Still, despite Urara's apparently simple character and some incredibly cute moments, her personality and emotions are more realistic than they seem at first blush and her upfront sexuality is rather more erotic than similar stuff in many sillier series with the same theme.
From the beginning it seems obvious where the series is going, and that the journey will include a few touching moments, a few raunchy ones, and a lot of situation comedy. As it turns out, the situations are often as emotionally messy as funny, and it slowly evolves into a touching yet uncomfortable romance. It's a little like real life--not as silly as a normal comedy, and not as much raw emotion as a shoujo series. Instead there's a remarkably mellow balance of racy situation comedy and awkward moments, with a foundation of honest emotion.
The series does weaken a bit at the end. For the most part the pacing is relaxed, maintaining an even-handed flow and never rushing or pushing a situation to develop too quickly. However, while the conclusion isn't hurried by any stretch, it doesn't wrap up at the same comfortable pace. For the sake of balance the earlier episodes could have been tightened up a little to leave more breathing room at the end. The conclusion is also a bit unsatisfying. This seemed intentional, but a few extra minutes would have been nice.
Visually, Sakura Diaries does well on a limited budget. The generally attractive character designs are creative: The supporting cast features several appropriately odd-looking yet realistic folks--almost good-looking but unshaven and disheveled cram students, super-studly players, and more. Urara is just cute, but Mieko is an old-fashioned anime beauty. The character animation suffers from budget constraints, but it is quite nice on occasion. The simplistic backgrounds are too heavy on light pastels for my taste, but they are realistic enough to capture bits of Tokyo flavor.
The background music isn't significant one way or the other--quiet and light. The opening theme is a simple, very pretty tune sung (by Takako Kuwata) to a mellow acoustic guitar riff that captures a little too much innocence, if anything. The somewhat more lively end theme (also by Kuwata) is similarly laid-back and pleasant.
The Japanese voice cast offers a variety of believable and (mostly) well-acted minor characters, and good chemistry between the three leads. Individually, Urara (Kyoko Hikami) is chipper yet fairly believable, and Mitsuaki Madono is hilarious as Touma--normal guy on the surface, studly and overdramatic when he's talking to himself, and properly goofy when hit with reality. The subtitles, although not quite perfect in terms of accuracy (the newest release remedies this), follow AD Vision's "fan-friendly" style with occasional use of "-chan" suffixes, a nice touch given the setting.
In English the casting is somewhat different (Touma is much more nasal and Urara sounds by turns a little more mature and a little more annoying), but the voices work equally well, and the two leads are acted marvelously. Unfortunately, Mieko is a little stiff in English--not on par with the rest of the cast.
However, the English version is basically a different show. The writing is funny and makes sense with the visuals, but details small and large are changed in just about every scene. The basic progression of the story of course remains the same, but the topic of several scenes is changed and the characters are significantly different. I'm not complaining that much, since the alterations make it feel quite natural in English and the overall experience is enjoyable, but on the grounds of literal translation the dub fails completely.
In all, Sakura Diaries is an interesting and somewhat unusual racy comedy. It manages to be funny, rather edgy, and definitely erotic, all without marginalizing itself by being too silly or dirty. More surprisingly, it also develops into an emotionally affecting romance. It's certainly not for younger viewers--the material is frank, adult, and fairly extreme on occasion--and it's not the sort of thing everyone will enjoy. But if you like slightly quirky, mature laughs along with romance and honest emotion, Sakura Diaries is definitely worth a look.
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Has some things in common with most love comedies, but probably the most similar overall to Golden Boy. It also bears a number of similarities to Welcome to the NHK--older characters, frank sexuality (though Welcome to the NHK is not an erotic comedy), and a humorous concept that develops into something more emotionally substantive. It's also rather like a very raunchy Kimagure Orange Road without the psychics in terms of emotional tone, particularly the OAVs and the New KOR movie.
Notes and Trivia
Interestingly, while produced like a standard TV series, Sakura Diaries was originally sold as an OAV series (on VHS and LaserDisc) in 1997. Later (late 1998) a slightly toned-down version was shown on Japanese TV--the main changes are a bit less nudity.
As far as the ADV releases go, the first version they released (on 4 individual DVD volumes) is the TV version, and the "collector's edition" 2-disc DVD set is based on the "uncut" OAV version. If you've already seen the TV version and aren't wild about seeing a bit of extra nudity, then it's probably not worth hunting down the special edition--the changes are not substantive.
Sakura Diaries is based on a lengthy (1995-2000) manga series by U-jin (also written Yujin), not available in English as of this writing. There's also a 1998 video game adaptation for the Sega Saturn. U-jin is a writer/artist responsible for some of the more tasteful anime and manga erotica around. One of US Manga Corp's earliest releases, U-jin Brand, and Visionary (Anime 18) are the only other animated U-jin works released in the US as of this writing.
Finally, since ADV didn't go into much detail about the Japanese educational system, here's some info to clarify. In Japan, there is (though things are changing slightly in the 21st century) a very fixed progression: You go through high school (and even before) preparing for the incredibly difficult and comprehensive college entrance exams. You study like crazy right before the exams, and if you do well, you get into a good college. One you're in a good college, you're more or less assured a comfortable, well-paying job at a good company (which you might keep for the remainder of your working life), so college students tend to spend their "education" relaxing before hitting the grindstone of business life.
People who don't manage to get into any college become "ronin" (an old word for a masterless samurai, used frequently in Sakura Diaries), with the prospect of doing something unglamorous like running a family inn (in the case of Touma) unless they can retake the exams and get into college. There are, therefore, a variety of cram schools--places where students do nothing but study for the entrance exams. Many cram schools cater to high school students getting ready for exams, but in the case of Sakura Diaries, Touma's school focuses on people who already graduated but failed the exams--the dregs of youth, so to speak, widely considered to be losers or dropouts.
US DVD Review
Talking about the original "TV Edit" set of four discs, this was another solid ADV DVD release for the era. Basics include very crisp Japanese and English soundtracks, a proper subtitle track (important since the English dialogue is entirely different than the Japanese), a bright video transfer that suffers a bit from compression artifacts, and menus backed up by clips of the soundtrack. Also nice for the time was that ADV finally started included both the English and Japanese casts in the credits, without having to deal with any alternate angles. As for complaints, in those credits the song subtitles are hard-coded (a minor annoyance probably left over from the VHS version), and you've got to be careful, since there is no chapter stop after the opening credits--if you hit skip, you'll end up at the halfway point of the episode. On an amusing note, they spelled Mieko's name wrong (as "Meiko") in the alliteration-filled text on the backs of the boxes.
There have since been two additional releases by ADV: First a "special edition" 2-disc set that includes the entire, original, uncut version of the series originally released on LaserDisc in Japan (the main difference is slightly more nudity). This set is subtitled only, since it wasn't considered worth updating the dub for what was considered a limited-interest product.
Much later, in 2005, ADV closed the loop with a third release, this time on two separate volumes ("Secrets and Lies" and "Love and Kisses") of the uncut version with both Japanese and English dialogue.
Little actual nudity or direct sexual content, but a lot of innuendo and some more explicit material make this deserving of the 17+ rating that ADV gave it. The "uncut" version includes somewhat more nudity.
Violence: 2 - Mostly limited to a slap or two, but one episode features sexual tension taken too far.
Nudity: 3 - The TV version only warrants a 2; a lot of underwear gets screen time, but only brief flashes of actual skin. The uncut Collector's Edition has more nudity, particularly early on.
Sex/Mature Themes: 4 - Plenty of direct mature themes, and some non-graphic sexual content.
Language: 2 - Not severe, but some profanity.
Most recently available in North America from Section 23 (ADV) on two bilingual DVD collections ("Secrets & Lies" and "Love & Kisses"); this is of the original, unedited, OVA version.
Was, previous to that, available in a confusing range of editions from ADV: a 2-disc, subtitled-only, "Collector's Edition" set of the uncut version, and before that on four individual bilingual DVD volumes containing the cleaner TV version. Finally, along with the original 4-volume DVD release there were four matching dubbed VHS volumes produced. There was also a subtitled VHS version, but only of the first tape.