Movie: Fans of anime know that the setting of most series is either in the vast expanses of Outer Space or in Japan. While there are a few exceptions to this rule of thumb, the whole idea is that the primary market for the shows is the Land of the Rising Sun so just as most television shows airing on broadcast television in the USA focus their attention locally, we'd expect other countries to do the same. Today's review is of the FUNimation release of Sakura Taisen: Ecole De Paris; a show that breaks the general rule. Set in the 1920's in Paris, France, the show continues the themes of the Japanese based Sakura Wars TV and Sakura Wars: The Movie shows. For those who are unfamiliar with the basic premise, here's a quick overview:
The Sakura Wars franchise goes beyond an anime series or two, incorporating several videogames as well. The idea is that during the earlier part of the 1900's demons attacked the Earth and mankind was caught with its collective pants down. As history has shown us, war time is when most technological advances are made and such was the case here too. Combining some advances with steam powered mech-robots and a need for some kind of mythical mana that only a small portion of the population seems to have, groups of young, mostly female, pilots took the fight to the enemy. Battling them head on, the various shows detailed the exploits of the Imperial Fighting Troupe in Japan; known for their fanciful singing and dance routines since their cover was as a group of opera performers. The lead character of the show was a gal named Sakura and she seemed to be the most even tempered one of the adolescent bunch as she assisted them in cleaning up Japan. It's a bit more complicated than that but the general premise has been done a hundred times (or more) with regard to the fighting of evil beings by youthful saviors of the planet.
In an effort to branch out and sustain the franchise, the Sega company (you have to understand that the videogames have sold big in Japan and form the original basis for the anime series) offered up this new show set in Paris, utilizing a set of mostly new characters and situations as a new team is formed to fight the then largely unknown menace. Here's what the company's box cover said about it: "An unseen evil lurks in the streets of Paris, and unless something is done, the darkness will unleash its destruction and consume all that is good. The City of Love will be lost to her people forever. All hope rests within the hearts of five young ladies. The only problem is, they don't even know it yet!
But will an apprenticed nun, a reserved aristocrat, a hardened criminal, the daughter of a wealthy Japanese Baron, and traveling circus emcee set aside their unique differences and come together as one for the defense of many? The war continues and the Paris Floral Assault Division is born!"
To me, the stand alone nature of the show was a bit mixed; meaning those who haven't been familiar with the previous Sakura efforts will likely find some of the basic concepts a bit weird to swallow. The show jumped around more than I cared for and as a three part OVA (original video animation for those new to anime) it did precious little to bring a newbie up to speed. That the initial episode, Flowers At Daybreak jumped years at a time at the onset only made matters worse (in the blink of an eye you could find yourself completely lost). The following episode in this three part DVD, The Black Cat and the Bad Girl at least had some action going on as the team members started to form but it left out large portions of background that even a viewer familiar with the original material will be left scratching their head. Finally, in the last episode, The City of Love, the formation of the team out of the elements gathered in the previous two was just about as clichéd as could be but done at such a breakneck pace as to tell me the director seemed to think the show was a full season in length but suddenly trimmed back; forcing him to propel the characters as quickly as possible through their designated rounds.
Essentially, it looked like Sega tried to reinvent the wheel so as to be kept apart from the history of the franchise but that's a large part of why fans keep coming back. As a calculated move, it could've worked but seemed pointless in terms of disregarding all that took place before in hopes of regaining a chemistry already present (in short, why go to all that trouble when they could've just brought the characters back, made a few changes, and proceeded as if another threat came up or even gone the prequel route to keep the ties of the leads alive). The plot of the OVA reasonably established the Paris team but missed so much of the details that could've been fleshed out that I was disappointed with the outcome (and I liked the previous material a whole lot).
So, for all the faults it had, what can I say about the better points of the OVA? The extras were top notch, the animation style was appealing (combining some decent CGI and more traditional anime to make the series better), and the voice acting by almost everyone in the Japanese track was superior. The English dub had a lot of rougher edges this time but it was pretty good too (a few of the cast weren't well suited to the locale used). I'm going to rate this one as a Rent It to big fans of the franchise but if you haven't been exposed to those previous efforts, do yourself a favor and get them first. I think you'll see why once you become more familiar with the franchise.
Picture: Sakura Taisen: Ecole De Paris was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in by director Ohji Hiroi for release in Japan. It looked colorful and interesting with few visual problems encountered except some grain and minor pixelation in a single scene set at night. There was a combined use of CGI and traditional animation that worked well in large part, except for the tunnel fighting scene that looked almost as if it came out of a PS2 videogame. Otherwise, the blending of the two styles came off fairly well, yet it was clear that a couple more breakthroughs would go a long way to improving this area of production. I saw no compression artifacts or other problems worth mentioning.
Sound: The choice of audio tracks was the same as I expected with the original 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track sounding the best in terms of the vocal performances and the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English dub sounding better in terms of the sound effects and music. I tried the 2.0 dub on a television without the home theatre set up and found it also had a place when the 5.1 dub lost a lot of detail so essentially, your own tastes will guide your decision here. The 5.1 track had superior separation and dynamic range but it seemed that only during an action sequence did it make a noticeable impact on the presentation. Both dubs had a few voice actors that sounded as though there was a shortage of talent in the Dallas area studio but by and large, I liked the dubs almost as much as the original tracks (I'm not a snob). The subtitles seemed to work nicely but a few liberties were taken with the translation that left me hanging, not good with a show already bouncing around thematically.
Extras: For all my fussing about the content of the actual movie, the extras were superior to almost every single disc anime release I've watched since the beginning of the format. The trailers and television spots from Japan were pretty generic for me but the inclusion of three featurettes from the original Japanese cast and crew really worked nicely for me. They were, On Bringing the Paris Flower Division to the Screen, Ecole de Paris: The Black Cat and the Bad Girl, and A Conversation With Producer and Director Ohji Hiroi (also the cast and others involved in the production of the OVA), and together they added almost an hour of time to the show. I only wish that more releases, especially better releases, would employ such extras as they add a lot of value to me. In this case, the Japanese cast and crew gave their thoughts to the show and the games released in Japan based on it. Some of the comments had me reading between the lines but overall, I liked the extras better than the show itself.
Final Thoughts: Sakura Taisen: Ecole De Paris was a deeply flawed show that appeared to be made primarily in support of the videogame release from the franchise instead of the other way around. If done properly, as the beginning of a full season series, this wouldn't be as bad a DVD but it just offered so little compared to the previous related efforts. I gave it a Rent It as much (well, more actually) due to the extras as I did to the show itself but I just couldn't get over the change in venue with regard to how so much was discarded to bring it all about. With completely unbalanced (in terms of power) characters, a weak plot and set of circumstances, and an approach that rarely worked, this was a low point in the series but worth a look for fans.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk