Ok, I won’t lie. I didn’t know a single thing about Sakura Wars until the latest anime based on the new game that I probably won’t play came out. (I’m not that much of a video gamer, so….) I suppose I could have spent some time to research about what Sakura Wars was about so I could dive into it sooner. That’s very true and you should blame my laziness about that fact. Or you can say that I was watching other things and I got too busy. Regardless, the fact is that I am here now and have watched it while I was watching the newer series. It was a very interesting experience seeing a franchise from the beginning and a newer beginning at the same time. Neither of them perfect for their own reasons. I’ll get to the latest adaption in my season stuff, but this series has so very early 2000’s, post Eva issues holding it back from being great.
This Sakura Wars series is an adaptation from the first game and directed by Ryutaro Nakamura. The guy behind the infamous Serial Experiments Lain, Kino’s Journey (2003), and quite a few others here too. The series in question starts when Sakura Shinguiji, whose father was a demon war veteran who passed away during the fight, was summoned to Tokyo from Sendai in order to join Tokyo’s Imperial Combat Revue. She is becoming a member of the Flower Division of revue to be precise. A group of teenage girl warriors who fight in colored robots and also act on the stage in different plays and different roles. Of course, Sakura has the worst entrance ever when she ruins everything and makes all the girls almost instantly hate her. Well, starting from the bottom is fun. Ok, it’s not, but it’s a place to start where you can only go up.
The series itself is very early 2000’s in a lot of ways. It follows the tried and true formula of having the first half explore its characters and hint at the major threat which will appear in the second half. The second half deals with that threat. The first half of it is a little slow in terms of story because of this, but there are some pieces of excitement there. The threat of the Kouma demons and their attacks on Tokyo where pretty surreal and honestly horrific in its construction. They came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, sometimes were surprisingly human, and some were monsters that are mecha sized. The Flower division fought them with their robots, the Koubus. Not a lot happens in those fights or they don’t look great, but the atmosphere around the Kouma is full of darkness. I just wish the show didn’t try to push things in a more mysterious and vague direction than expected though. Not sure I am a fan of having everyone hate Sakura first either. At least it doesn’t stay that way.
Still, the introduction and exploration of the cast itself in the beginning was pretty great after all the hatred lessened a bit. Sigh, I guess Eva made writers and directors think had to be pushed to think about protagonists in different directions back then. Sakura Shinguiji is a great newbie and/or way to introduce the whole cast. From how they reacted to her in the beginning, you can see who a lot of them are. Sumire Kanzaki is the self proclaimed ace of the group. She’s selfish, is rich as hell, and feels threatened by the fact that the governing body thinks leadership needs her. She and Sakura have a rivalry only in her mind. Maria is a quiet, thoughtful, veteran from a Russian Revolutionary background who quietly decides to help Sakura in acting and fighting. Iris, of course, is the cute, young girl of the group who is scared of everything, but is eventually woken up to Sakura’s kindness.
Then of course, the rest of the cast shows up later around episode 6. Kohran Li is a chinese mechanic that can fix any problem the Koubus, their mecha, run into once they’ve broken down. She’s also super kind and enthusiastic about everything. At the same time, Kanna Kirishima showed up. She’s multiple heads over the second tallest person, is insanely muscular, and could be called a shonen protagonist in personality. Very nice, simple minded, and endlessly kind. She also has a small rivalry with Sumire which makes sense considering how her easy going personality clashes with Sumire’s uptightness. The young, male officer Ichiro Ogami shows up to get the girls to work together (with Maria’s jealousy,). The commander, Ikki Yoneda of the original flower division leads and used to work with Sakura’s father. He’s harsh, but far. Ayame is his second in command and while she defers to Yoneda, she’s pretty awesome when it’s her turn to lead.
The first half was a little uneven with how It was handled, but it’s aesthetics and characters were able to pull you through at a slow, uneven pace. The second half is for more interesting in provoking and developing a major Kouma threat agaist Tokyo, but ends up flat in the end. This half was dedicated to Sakura and her relationship with the villain Aoi Satan. Aoi Satan knew her father and pushed her forward to achieve more. So, Sakura goes through a lot of trials in order to be on a similar level to fight against him. The first one is servicing her sword that Aoi Satan damaged during their first encounter. It required a balanced mind to get that far. The second one was Sakura on the stage playing Cinderella in Cinderella. Finding her comfort on the stage helps her to fight. Two sets of relationships Sakura has to face in a small amount of time and yet connect to each other. She can’t be that clumsy girl anymore.
It’s interesting seeing so how characters react to Sakura’s raise in prominence. Whether it’s her improved combat on the battlefield, or being forced to be a lead in a play in a position she doesn’t want to be, Sumire showed the most growth through it all. Sumire does see Sakura as a rival because Sakura is pushing in her own perceived lime light, but she grows past it in a way. Never completely. Somehow, she is able able to help Sakura on her own quest by setting her own pride aside for now. There were even small arcs between Sakura and other cast members too. A formation is formed around her to empower everyone, which Kohrun needs to find out how to allow the Koubu to generate the spirit energy possible to fight Aoi Satan and his forces. It’s too bad that the finale doesn’t really support to any of this build up in any meaningful way.
Along the same time this was all going on, there was also the growth of Iris. A young girl that is a literal dues ex machina character. She doesn’t fight in a Koubu against Kouma until the rest of her group is over powered. That isn’t a problem because she is small kid, but her sense of spirit power would have greatly helped the team when fighting earlier on. I mean, she can literally teleport herself and other people around which is something that nobody else can do. Before that, it was literally Sakura everyone wanted to use in the center and not her. In the end, instead of Sakura seeking revenge against Aoi Satan, Iris took center stage and the group just over powered him easily. So, you had all this dramatic build up with Sakura with time invested in her only for Iris to take center wheel and ruin all of that. Wow, so thoughtful. It’s a punch to the face and a massive why bother.
I also feel like how the show was tonally and the content involved felt wrong with the material that the show was going for. Or at the very least, it didn’t feel right at all because it didn’t commit to any sort of tone or idea. Madhouse put Ryutaro Nakamura as the director and Ryutaro ending up making something that was originally very Lain like visually and somewhat physically where it’s girls in robots against demons in a horror like Eva way if that makes sense. I feel like the material at hand should have tonally have been something like Sakura Wars (2020) where it’s energetic girls in a cheesy quest to save the world. This show half committed to that with the interactions between the girls, but also tried to do something different and thoughtful like Evangelion and the end result is just confusing. Not in the way the show wanted to be.
For what it’s worth though, Sakura Wars does look mid-tier for a 2000 anime series visually. The show covers its flaws by loving its dramatic night scenes, it’s shadow work, it’s very Lain like computer monitors, and a cool sense of style and atmosphere. All of this over some really expressive character designs with their own color designation and the amount of time and work put into backgrounds to make it feel alive somehow. The animation is hit and miss though. What I can tell you that is that I can believe the setting the show is selling to me. A 1920’s era Tokyo with Steampunk technology and everything because the characters interact with different parts of this city a lot. All of this happened up to the point where Iris (who is from Europe) was saddened that the Japanese members of the Flower Division didn’t know how to celebrate a western birthday. Like I said, a lot of thought put into this world. From backgrounds to details, it all feels alive.
Can I just admit that I really don’t like the Koubu units at all? I don’t find them functional on any level because they just look like enclosed death traps which the pilot can’t any see out of. There are a lot of monitors and things in the cockpits which helps with that feeling of being claustrophobic and stuck. Something the show plays with as much as it can concerning Sakura’s dislike of them in the beginning. At the same time, that doesn’t add anything to the functional of them or getting the show to make me like them. I realize that they are steam powered and mecha are usually death traps anyway, but I would not like the show to remind me that they are at all. Especially when it’s not interested in animating good Mecha fights most of the time. These moving boilers on with arms and legs with their pilot’s customized fighting style put into that mecha. That last part is cool at least. The Kouma are really cool though. They could in all sorts of designs, human to organic mecha like, and have some abilities that still frighten me. They are the real winners here.
As you can tell, I do have a lot of mixed feelings about Sakura Wars (2000), but I did generally enjoy my experience with watching this show. Even with the tonal and story problems the show had, the cast members in the show are very good girls that create a good back bone for the story to go on. The finale did hurt my feelings towards the show a tiny bit though. Feels so wasted to me and maybe that’s the point? Either way, it’s questionable story telling. The girls arguing with each other, fight together, fight against each other sometimes, and so on. It’s a very good characters piece for them and Ohgami. The show happily doesn’t allow you to forget that fact because their moments together are gold. Sakura Wars TV does a decent job playing around with the elements that it presents, it just doesn’t congeal together that well either. The end result is that the show is good, just not great or outstanding. More than watchable for sure, just nothing special at all.