Review: Sakura Wars: The Movie

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A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment

I’m a sucker for 90s mecha anime–I think it comes with the territory of just being a 90s kid with Gundam and Voltron and such running rampant on TV. So when I first heard the dramatic, rock-opera riffs of Sakura Wars‘s famous, Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan theme I was hooked. It had everything little me could want: cool girls with the fate of the world on their shoulders and steam-punk mechas. Plus the series has an awesome soundtrack with one of the best ear-worm anime OPs in existence. Suffice to say, I fell in love with Sakura Wars and really, haven’t turned back.

Still, Sakura Wars lives in relative obscurity state-side–besides the latest game on Wii/PS2 a few years back, not much else has been released. But it’s been a long-running franchise with plenty of video games, manga, weird doujinshi, OVAs, and even live stage shows as a special nod to the series’ Takarazuka inspiration. Yet, despite its many accolades and long-standing franchise force, there’s something to be said about the franchise’s movie and its conflicting strengths and weaknesses.

“Evil never gets an encore” may be the DVD/Blu-ray combo’s clever tagline, but sadly, lackluster story-telling combined with flat voice acting may close the curtains on this film.

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While I don’t like the argument that an anime–especially a dubbed anime–can never compare to the experience in Japanese, I might have to make an exception for Sakura Wars: The Movie. The dub’s voice cast has a rather impressively bad story to work with, one that falls into one of the pitfalls of any movie for a long-standing franchise: it alienates the non-fans. While the premise of Sakura Wars is in general pretty easy to get into–demons attack the world circa early 1920s, only hope for survival are through steam-powered mechas that can only be powered by women (and some men) due to their higher spiritual energy–the tension between making a film that can please fans old and new is unfortunately skewed towards viewers who are vaguely familiar with the characters.

There is little rhyme or reason to explain the motivations and struggles of these girls. For instance, the struggles of quiet Leni and why they are important to the reactions of other characters are downright mysterious to non-fans who don’t know her backstory. Not to mention several other “hints” and special little Easter Egg-type cameos that will surely have fans cheering, but perhaps are not terribly integral to the story, which flounders into the realm of uninteresting. To streamline plenty of steampunk mecha action, musical moments, and have some semblance of plot within an hour or so we lose moments to reflect–moments to explain our main girls or at least reintroduce and explore motives. Not only are the girls lost in the “story”, but our main “big-bad” villain is less than stellar–taking the sort of greedy, flat, “Ooooh I am the bad-guy” stand as a one-dimensional plot point to have something for the girls to hack at.

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Potential viewers drawn in by promotional images with series star Sakura standing back-to-back with blonde and beautiful newcomer, Lachette, may be disappointed in the lack of character development or explanation that actually goes on in the film–but this is a film weakness that is fortunately remedied down the line within the games.

With this kind of floundering story to work with, it’s not hard to blame the dub-cast for hamming up their performance. From Crispin Freeman’s gritty, over-the-top performance as not-really-threatening Brent Furlong to Wendee Lee’s take on the typical hyperactive optimist heroine, Sakura Shinguji, there is something that is both cringe-worthy about the performance and, in many ways, nostalgic of “bad” dubs. There is a particularly memorable scene that definitely played out much better in the Japanese version for a quick laugh but fails to deliver the same punch in English. Basically, it’s one of those “oh no I can’t speak English” moments. But in the dub, the effect is kind of ruined when everyone is speaking in English, and the only way to salvage distinguish that the main cast is speaking in Japanese involves resorting to “Engrish” for a few moments.

It’s terribly awkward, but in light of the hammy nature of the film itself it’s understandable.

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Still, there are a few good things about the Blu-ray combo pack that are key to any Sakura Wars fan, in particular the special creator interviews that shed interesting light on the vision and creation of this long-running franchise. What strikes me the most about the interview is a snippet shared by series creator, Ouji Hiro, who remarked that he wanted to create something that plays on nostalgia. Inspired by his mother’s stories of an older Tokyo riddled with play-houses and a bustling night-life, Hiro placed the series in the good old 1920s, which seems to be recognized internationally as this time of great change, upheaval, and opportunity that is both “modern” and “old” enough to support steam-punk aesthetics (Korra, anyone?).

And really, I think the nostalgia factor is what this movie boils down to. If you overlook the lackluster plot there’s plenty here that evokes those good old feelings of 90s anime in terms of art style, and even character form. First of all, the animation for the movie is superb–something that is only heightened on the Blu-ray disc, although the DVD quality is pretty excellent in its own right. Besides the great animation, there’s also plenty to praise Sakura Wars for its character designs. I mean coordinated outfits that also fit suit their specific tropes–from the tough girl with a heart of gold, to the smart one that outfits everyone, and of course, the sword-wielding badass. Arguably, even the hammy English dub can be seen as a special sort of nod to the anime dubs of our youth that play up emotion more readily than in the subtleties of the original Japanese.

Overall, Sakura Wars: The Movie is by and far not the strongest anime franchise movie out there; however, for a moment of 90s anime nostalgia (and if you are a huge fan of the series) it may be worth a watch. Just be sure to check out the rest of the media in the franchise that’s out there, too because really, it is a pretty fun series, even if this particular spin-off film just doesn’t do the entirety of Sakura Wars justice.

Pros:

The extras: If you are a Sakura Wars fan, you will love the bundled extras, especially the creator interviews for amazing insight into the design and direction of the series. Also be sure to check out the Japanese commercials and promo videos–especially if you can’t get Geki! out of your head 

Art: If there’s one thing that the movie definitely gets right, it’s art and animation–definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of the series’ aesthetic!  

Cons:

– Weak story – The biggest con that hits the hardest. Fans may be able to overlook the plot holes, however this film has plenty of basic story-telling weaknesses that make it rather lackluster. This weakness stretches into the very script and beyond–resulting in a pretty hammy performance that may serve to only repel the audience.

For the fans – This perhaps not the best introduction to the series since it is paced based on the assumption that the audience knows enough about the premise as well as the characters to understand the lack of explanation, or moments to reflect on motivation and struggles.

Rating: 2.5/5

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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