Sakura Wars Anime Review
US Release By
4 30-minute episodes
1997-12-18 - 1998-07-24
The story takes place in Japan of the 1920s... sort of. In this world, after the great demon war, humanity took to technological development, and steam technology reigns. Humanity has not sat idly by as the demons prepare secretly for a new assault--an internationally agreed upon, semi-secret organization has been formed to defend Tokyo, and only the best and brightest will join its ranks. At the heart of this organization is the Uba Spirit Armor, robotic suits developed by Kanzaki Heavy Industries powered by the operators' own spiritual energy. Only one problem: No one in the army seems to be up to the task. Fortunately, a handful of people are.
Hence, Ikki Yoneda and Ayame Fujieda set out to round up the world's most impressive group of misfits--the only ones with enough spiritual energy to mobilize the armor: Sumire Kanzaki, the spoiled granddaughter of old man Kanzaki and a highly trained warrior, Maria Tachibana, a deadeye Russian markswoman, Kanna Kirishima, a good natured street brawler and Karate master with inhuman strength, Iris Chateaubriand, a young girl with some very capable telekinetic abilities (plus a teddy bear and a cute streak a mile wide), Sakura Shinguji, a girl in training to become the master of a powerful ancient weapon, and Ri Kohran, Hong Kong watchmaker and steam-powered-weapon fanatic... er, specialist. Oh yeah, and there's also Ichiro Ohgami, who spends the early part of the series mopping the decks of a boat and reading about the fledgling group's exploits in the paper, but he eventually gets cooler.
The group is going to have a heck of a time not killing each other before they start saving the world...
Quick ReviewSwitch to Full Review
Sakura Wars is a well done series with a blend of fun alternate-past demon fighting and more serious character-driven themes. The characters are great (and well acted), the art is top-notch, and the animation is solid. Unfortunately, the plot only touches the surface of the large-scale themes, has essentially no conclusion, and takes a turn for the weird at the non-end, leaving you wishing there was more to it. The series also starts off a little slow, and you might not see as much action as you would expect--true to the games it's based on, it's more about character development than combat.
But, it's still worth a look for anyone who likes steampunk-style stories of alternate pasts, or goes for the motley demon hunting crew stuff. And if you do have fun, there is plenty more in the franchise to see.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Sakura Wars is yet another game-turned-anime series, but other than an initially confusing glut of characters, this initial entry in the sprawling Sakura Wars franchise feels pretty good in terms of plot, and the setting is original. It unfortunately has the teeny problem of being a prequel to the first game in the series, so it has no conclusion to speak of and a rather weird final episode, but there's plenty of steampunk goodness to whet your appetite for the many shows that follow this one.
Having no prior knowledge of the games, I was a bit confused by the number of character introductions that take place in the first episode, but I never got that "this guy's only here because some people liked him in the game" feeling. It helps that none of the characters are silly or seem too much like caricatures. (Well, except Kohran, but she's not around much and every secret organization worth its salt needs a steam-bazooka-toting mad scientist.) After things get going, the cast meshes into a diverse and enjoyable group with some rather unique dynamics that go a long way toward making the whole thing work.
To me, though, the most interesting character is the world that the story is set in. A steampunk take on early 20th century Japan, it feels a little like the Wild Wild East and works quite well. I've always loved the idea of steam-powered robots and the like, and Sakura Wars does it properly, with a hefty helping of demons and supernatural powers on top. (If you enjoyed the "Tale of Two Robots" section of Robot Carnival, you're almost certain to love this.)
The story is rather slow to get going and kind of vague, though the latter isn't necessarily a bad thing--I liked not having the whole history of this alternate timeline laid out early on. Don't expect a whole lot of action, though--we get one good fight in the first episode, but most of the second part centers around mastering a sword technique. Interesting, but not action-intensive, though things do perk up some by the end of the series. The first two episodes basically have two stories going on: the introduction and training of the group in Tokyo, which is light-hearted (though not quite comedy per se), and the more serious story of Sakura's training.
An interesting blend, to be sure, but it leaves the story in a slightly awkward place between a high-spirited action/adventure and one of those personal growth/martial arts training stories. Both have merits, but they seem at odds with each other. In the remaining half the focus turns more toward character-building issues (centering on Sakura, but involving everyone). Demon fighting takes a backseat, which shouldn't be much of a surprise given that most of the games are dating sims. Definitely not what I was expecting, but it works fairly well if you don't come looking for a wacky comedy or action-fest.
I do have one very major complaint about the series: The plot basically goes from A to B to D to Φ or some other Greek letter that nobody can pronounce and isn't anywhere near the end of the alphabet. The first two episodes flow pretty well, and although the third jumps ahead a bit, it still fits. The fourth not only seems to skip a large chunk of story (which I could forgive), it brings a lot of rather odd symbolism and borderline-surreal stuff to the series that just wasn't there before. Worse, that's the abrupt end of it.
Now, the series was intended as a prequel to the game, so I suppose the lack of any conclusion whatsoever is to be expected. That doesn't make it any less frustrating, though, and it feels downright weird to have the main bad guy (who only shows up twice) put into motion a bunch of evil-sounding plans that never go anywhere.
That lack of a large scale plot is disappointing. It's fine that the series is really more about the main characters and their work in a theater troupe, but it short-changes the potential of the world and external conflict in the story. What we end up with is basically a light character drama, but it could have had that and tied it together with something on a grander scale. That seemed to be where it was going at first (and I suppose it does if you include the game as part of the story), but if you look at the anime alone it feels like a few random vignettes mashed together without much continuity. While fans might enjoy this, and it certainly whets your appetite for the games/sequels, it's pretty annoying if you just want to watch some good steampunk anime.
Getting to more technical aspects, the series is built on solid ground. The character designs are memorable and well done, as are the backgrounds. The costumes are even better--lots of detail, and they capture the mood and culture of the era beautifully, from elaborate kimonos to flashy military uniforms. All of this is drawn very nicely, too. The animation is not particularly high budget (leading to slightly rough frame rates), but it is nonetheless attractive, with nicely-executed character animation and good-looking bits of action. On the down side the one big action scene toward the end is peppered with blatantly "from a video game"-style moves, a couple of which are just silly. The monster designs also look exactly like Aliens with wings tacked on, right down to the acidic spit. Scary enough, but you'd think that somebody could have come up with a slightly more original demon. The robot samurai later on are better, and I do like the spirit armor--clunky and period-appropriate.
The acting in the dub is, for the most part, quite good. There are lots of accents and even a few bits of Russian or Chinese dialogue (for which we get to see both the original Japanese subtitles and the new English ones). These range from pretty good to "where's she supposed to be from again?" Most of the main characters sound quite good (I particularly liked Tachibana's Russian accent), but Ri Kohran and Ayame Fujieda just don't cut it. I thought it was a bit ironic (though it does make some logical sense) that the Japanese characters all have American accents, while the foreigners (to Japan) speak in their countries' respective accents.
The acting in the Japanese is top-notch, with a lot of high-profile talent. Backing the diverse collection of characters, most of the casting is quite good and at the very least distinctive. I was quite fond of Tachibana's dry voice, although Kanna's voice took some getting used to--much higher-pitched than you'd expect, and although I ended up liking it, I could imagine some people just being annoyed. As in the English version, there is a spot of Russian, French, and some English, too. Even though it amounts to about 75 seconds of screen time, I'm going to take a minute to harp on it. Ai Orikasa fans take note--although her character doesn't have a big part and is a bit overacted, you get to hear her taking a shot at English and French dialogue. More impressive is the fact that I would have been willing to believe that Tachibana had a Russian accent for her few English lines (her Russian sounded convincing to my untrained ear, too). As for the rest of the foreign dialogue, they may not pass for natives (not that most of them should), but it was actually believable for a change (I've heard some pretty sad attempts at English dialogue by Japanese actors).
The one thing that I can say without qualification is that the music in the series is just plain great, which really shouldn't be a surprise, since that's always been a central point of the franchise. The opening theme is a lively and appropriately grand song (plus it's actually about the series, rather than a random love song), and the end theme is a mellow jazzy piece that takes advantage of Ai Orikasa's sultry voice. But, somewhat unexpectedly, it's the orchestral background music that really stands out. Again keeping with the duality of the setting, there are two basic feels to the music--traditional Japanese to accent the spiritual training of Sakura, and a light, old-fashioned sounding movie score to go with the bustle of life in a thoroughly modern Tokyo, with occasional hints of Japanese themes at the right moments. The music both sets the scene and enhances the feel of the world, and works marvelously in my opinion.
In summation, Sakura Wars is a well done series with a blend of fun alternate-past demon fighting and more serious character-driven drama. It starts a little slow and there's less action than you might expect, but the characters and acting are great, the art is top-notch, and the animation is solid. Unfortunately, being a prequel to the game, the plot only touches the surface of the large-scale themes, has no conclusion, and takes a turn for the weird at the non-end, pretty much guaranteeing you'll end up wanting more. It's still worth a look for anyone who likes steampunk-style stories of alternate pasts, or goes for the "motley crew of demon hunters" stuff, and on the bright side there is plenty more in the franchise if you like what you see.
Have something to say about this anime? Join our newly-resurrected forums and speak your mind.
Would fit right in to the world of "A Tale of Two Robots," from Robot Carnival. Very different, but has some themes in common with the sci-fi series Iczelion and Battle Athletes. There is also a follow-up OAV series, as well as a TV series.
Notes and Trivia
This first Sakura Wars OVA series is based on--or more accurately the prequel to--a 1996 video game of the same name from Sega, which was a combination dating simulator (you played Ichiro, who interacted with the various ladies) and RPG-style combat simulator. The series is now absolutely huge, consisting of 21 games as of his writing (5 main games, eight side-stories, and 8 branded spin-offs), a half-dozen OVA series including this one (most are prequels to various games), a 2-season TV series, a movie released toward the end of 2001, several light novels, a short manga adaptation, and a number of CD and live stage productions.
The earliest games were originally released for the Sega Saturn, but there have been countless re-releases over the years for every system from cellphones to the Game Boy Color to the Wii. The games were not available in the US until well after the anime adaptations, but several are now on the market. Most of the anime adaptaitons have been released in the US at some point, although several are out of print as of this writing, and the last couple of OVA series are still unlicensed.
Depending on who's releasing the game/anime adaptation, the original Japanese title of "Sakura Taisen" is sometimes used (Funimation used that for the OVAs they released).
If you enjoyed the music in this series, you're in for a treat, because one of the defining features of the franchise is its assortment of character-themed songs. There are quite a variety of lively songs with international overtones--everything from jazz, to traditional Japanese, to Chinese. My personal favorite of what I've come by is a vocal version of Kana's theme: a slightly Okinawa-flavored boogie that's so catchy you can't help but tap your foot (I'd rank that near the top of my all time favorite anime songs, in fact).
On the topic of music, there have been a number of live stage shows featuring the voice actors of the series performing various songs. There are also, of course, many soundtracks and vocal albums full of various in-character songs.
If you want a detailed rundown on the plot, here it is, just because I felt like it:
We begin the story by witnessing the inaugural test of the Uba Spirit Armor with an unlikely pilot, and the formal creation of Tokyo's new self defense force. We then get to meet the first three members of said defense force, and the christening of the first three suits of (rather colorful) Spirit Armor (dubbed the Pansy brigade, of course). The trio's first assignment seems to be an easy one--just see the sights of Tokyo and enjoy the beautiful weather. Well, that would be fine and dandy if it weren't for one of those pesky demons who's just itching to mess up a perfectly nice walk in the park. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a miss Sakura Shinguji, who lost her father when he left home to battle the demons, and now begins her training to become the wielder of the spirit sword Arataka--but will the sword accept her as its master?
The theater house that will be the base of the newly formed defense force is nearing completion, and the current members are put to work on their next assignment--learning to dance (hey, they've got to do something to maintain their cover and keep the natives happy, right?). Things are going acceptably well, until Sumire Kanzaki joins the team--let's just say that her rather pampered upbringing doesn't mesh with one of the free spirits on the team. Meanwhile, back at the ranch... er, dojo, Sakura has been accepted by her father's sword, and instructed by it to travel to Tokyo, but she must master the ultimate technique before she leaves, which proves to be more difficult than it would first appear.
The team is almost complete, but now that Sakura's finally made it to the team, things have gotten a little messy behind the scenes... literally. You see, Sumire is more than pleased with her own performance in the team's recent stage productions, but Sakura wants to be more than just a stage hand: she wants to act! Maria, the current team leader, decides that this is the best way to improve on Sakura's lack of self-confidence, but Sumire is outraged. Worse yet, the team's first encounter with the robotic legions of darkness is on it's way, and no one knows how the Spirit Armor will fare...
The Flower Brigade has a new leader, Ichiro Ohgami--apparently the only guy with enough spirit energy to get the armor movin'. He's doing his best to please everybody, but that is no easy task, and he ends up feeling more like a world-class gopher than a leader. But, things are going pretty well as their next production approaches. Until, that is, the forces of darkness decide to attack on opening night. What will become of the team, its new leader, and their production of A Midsummer Night's Dream?
US DVD Review
This very early ADV DVD is a big step up from ADV's first attempt, but not perfect. The video transfer is sharp, bright, and generally quite impressive, as is the audio (although the volume tends to jump around a little). This one includes both the Japanese and English soundtracks, and (unlike ADVs first disc, Tekken) it has real subtitles, rather than the "dubtiles." On the down side, the subtitles seemed to kind of freeze up a couple of times, and although it wasn't severe, it was definitely annoying. The credits were a bit on the creative side, with two sets of opening credits--depending on which angle you have set, you get the Japanese or English version. Unfortunately, for some reason they didn't feel like doing the same for the end credits, so while you can read who the primary voice actors were in either voice track, if you want to know who all the minor players were, you'll have to settle for the dubbed cast only. The menu is animated and soundtrack-equipped, and includes an animated chapter index as well as a large selection of ADV trailers.
There has since been a re-release with remastered 5.1 channel audio.
A little bit of violence and conflict (and some relatively scary monsters), but not much objectionable. Probably deserves a 10-up rating.
Violence: 2 - Not terribly violent, but has it's share and is fairly realistic.
Nudity: 1 - A nightshirt or two.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Zip.
Language: 1 - Mild.
Staff & Cast
English Dub Cast
Sakura Shinguji: Amber Allison
Sumire Kanzaki: Sascha Biesi
Maria Tachibana: Catherine Berry
Iris Chateaubriand: Jessica Schwartz
Ri Kohran: Boni Hester
Kanna Kirishima: Sheila Gordon
Ayame Fujieda: Amy L. Gamber
Ikki Yoneda: Bill McMillin
Ichiro Ohgami: Brian Gaston
Aritsune Hanakoji: Garrett Schenck
Gonji: Robert Rudie
Sakura's Mother: Diane Perella
Sakura's Grandmother: Patricia Goldwater
Tadayoshi Kanzaki: Steve Shearer
Morita: Mark Lovell
Kaneko: Charles Campbell
Nagata: L.B. Bartholomee
Woman on the Phone: Ellie McBride
Limo Driver: Gary Dehan
Additional Voices: Christopher Shea, Jeanette Sieh, Robin Balkwill
Based on Story By: Ohji Hiroi
Producers: Emi Sasaki (SEGA), Kazumi Kawashiro (Bandai), Masaki Sawanobori (Animate Film), Yasuaki Nagoshi (Red Company)
Director: Yorifusa Yamaguchi
Screenplay: Hiroyuki Kawasaki
Original Character Designs: Kousuke Fujishima
Character Design: Hiroyuka Matsubara
OVA Character Designs: Kazuya Kuroda
Mechanical Designs: Futoshi Nagata (Red Company)
OVA Mechanical Designs: Hitoshi Fukuchi, Goro Murata, Hiroshi Ogawa, Shin Matsuo, Eiji Ishimoto
Art Design: Takaaki Ishiyama
Art Director: Yukihiro Shibutani
Animation Director: Shinishi Yoshino
Photography Director: Yurifusa Yamaguchi
Music: Kouhei Tanaka
Opening theme: "Geki! Teikoku Kageki Dan"
(Go! Imperial Flower Attack Team)
Lyrics: Ohji Hiroi
Music: Kouhei Tanaka
Arrangement: Takayuki Negishi
Performed by: Chisa Yokoyama (Sakura Shinguji) and The Imperial Music Group
End Theme: "Watashi no Aozora"
(My Blue Sky)
Lyrics: Ohji Hiroi
Music: Kouhei Tanaka
Arrangement: Takayuki Negishi
Performed by: Ai Orikasa (Ayame Fujie)
Act 4 End Theme: "Hanasaku Otome"
Lyrics: Ohji Hiroi
Music: Kouhei Tanaka
Arrangement: Takayuki Negishi
Performed by: The Imperial Music Group
"Kanpan Fura Fura"
(Wondering on the Deck)
Lyrics: Ohji Hiroi
Music: Kouhei Tanaka
Arrangement: Akifumi Tada
Performed by: Akio Suyama (Ichiro Ohgami)
Animation by Radix
By Sega Enterprises, Ltd./Banda Visual/Animate Film.
Available in North America from ADV on "anime essentials" bilingual DVD, currently out of print. There was previously a collection that combined both this OAV series and the 2nd one into one set, and an original bilingual DVD release (one of ADV's earliest) that lacked the 5.1 audio. Even earlier, there were two subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes of this series (only).