It's really not that often that an anime that begins as a video game takes off and becomes insanely popular. When Sega launched the original Sakura Taisen back in 1996 it created a cultural shockwave and simply grew in popularity. In total there have been eight games in the franchise but what's really astounding is the fact that many OVA, a manga and animated TV series have been released for the concept. Sakura Wars TV for example is the 25 episode show that has been published by ADV and released once again as a complete collection.
In case you have never seen the anime you should know that Sakura Wars is a rich show with interesting characters and an intriguing concept. Taking place in the 1920's the tale involves life in Japan but not quite in the way that history books tell us. Demons known as Wakiji have come to Earth and a war of sorts has begun for dominance over our planet. The fate of humanity rests squarely on the shoulders of a group of kids who are the only ones that can operate machinery called Koubu, or Spirit Armor. More to the point, most of the cast in this show aren't just teenagers and children but they are almost entirely female. Hence the name of their group; the Flower Troop.
Because the show is called Sakura Wars you can naturally assume that it stars somebody named Sakura. The only current pilot from the Shinguji family is the daughter of Kazuma Shinguji who was a hero from the first Demon War. She possesses an unfathomable amount of spiritual energy which makes her the perfect candidate for a pilot of the Koubu. Because of this latent power that she possesses, she has been summoned by General Yoneda and is inducted into the Flower Division.
At first Sakura seems like a very meek and clumsy character. She keeps getting in the way of herself and others often to the point of causing damage in some form. She makes a less than favorable impression with the rest of the Flower Division despite all of her good intentions. All of that begins to change as the show progresses and she really takes a big step forward when she has her first run in with a Wakiji who is tearing up the city. With little more than a sword in hand she fights the monster and with a little assistance from fellow Flowers Sumire and Maria, she takes the beast down.
Everybody gradually begins to see the frustrating potential within Sakura and before long she is accepted begrudgingly into their ranks. Once she becomes a part of them her training begins and she learns that operating a Koubu is much different than just running around with a sword. Things get worse for our hero when she's forced to become part of the Flower Division's cover as an acting troupe as well. As if fighting demons wasn't bad enough now she has to perform on stage in front of hundreds of people.
Things start out very slowly for the show with Sakura learning the ways of her new position and beginning to form relationships with Flower's other pilots. A rich degree of character development starts from the very first episode and doesn't really let go for the entire series. The only problem is that at first the show can be a little boring despite the promising concept. Fortunately as the anime moves forward more action begins to seep in and we actually get to see more of the enemy. Sadly, for the rest of the show the pacing fluctuates wildly and it really makes things feel unbalanced.
Frequently Sakura Wars will go from slower character development to showing a stage performance to stepping into a fight and then back to the slower bits. It's an effect that leaves you bored more often than not and waiting for the next conflict to arise. I suppose this tale was more compelling in the game where you actually were able to take part in battles in between the story but that's obviously not the case here.
The plot is also another frustrating point; much like the pacing. Things unfold sporadically and you're often left with a carrot dangling in front of your nose as if it's an attempt to keep you watching. What's here is interesting to be sure but since it unfolds over such a length of time and many things aren't explained the viewers interesting will only be held for so long. I suppose a show like this is best if you spread out your viewing of it but since it's a collection you're compelled to watch consecutively.
I thoroughly enjoyed the characters in this show and really grew fond of Sakura as the anime progressed. The rest of the cast definitely helped to flesh out this world and the interesting concept really pushed the envelope at times. To be fair it succeeds more often than it fails and there are times where it becomes evident why the Sakura franchise is so popular. Unfortunately the quality just doesn't keep up for the entire series and I hate to say it but some parts come across as cliché. Still if you're looking for a decent (not great) show where girls pilot mecha and fight monsters you can't really go wrong with this one. Just be sure to space out your viewing so you don't feel the pacing as much or else you'll be sitting there for quite a spell watching weeping and animated stage performances.
Originally produced in 2000, Sakura Wars TV has an appearance that essentially makes the material look older than it is. Everything is blurry, there is a strong amount of grain and at times there was even some aliasing that trickled in every now and then. For the most part it looks like these flaws were a byproduct of the production and not in the DVD's transfer but I can't deny that they are present. Even so, the art direction of this series is absolutely gorgeous and there are times where the picture is crisp and vibrant. An anamorphic presentation would have gone a long way here, especially during the battle scenes, but given the year this show aired we can only expect a 1.33:1 presentation.
There are two distinctly different audio tracks featured on the Sakura Wars TV collection. The original Japanese language is presented in 2.0 stereo while the English dubbing comes in a nice 5.1 surround package. In terms of dubbing quality both are equally impressive with some solid voice acting and an all around enjoyable cast. I personally tend to lean towards the original Japanese tracks when I watch anime but I found myself getting into the English one here. Let's face it though, when you have the choice between 2.0 and 5.1 you're going to pick the 5.1 most every time. The sound stage is used fairly well in that regard but since a good deal of this show is dialogue don't expect to be completely blown away. Even still the rear channels are a little more subdued than I'd like. English subtitles are included as well.
On the first disc there are some ADV previews but as we've come to expect with these thin collector's packs there is nothing else.
Overall Sakura Wars is a decent show with an enjoyable cast and an interesting plot. Unfortunately it suffers from erratic pacing and some cliché concepts which prevent it from achieving being highly recommended. Fans of the mecha genre will enjoy this more than others but I could picture a young female viewer getting into it as well. It's cutesy enough with a bit of action tossed in so I guess you could say that it transcends genres. It is fair to say that if you have ever enjoyed a Sakura Taisen game, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
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