The year is around the 1920's and the darkness of the demons have arrived. Now, only the people with large amounts of spirit energy can save the Earth. The Flower Division is now going to be sent out destroy the demons for they're our only hope for survival with their new steam-powered machines and unique fighting techniques.
If you ask any anime fan these days what the most popular franchise is (and by that I mean not simply anime and manga, but also games, figures, costumes, etc), then you'll probably be answered with something like Full Metal Alchemist, Bleach, Naruto, Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, etc, etc. However, this was not always the case.
Back in 1996 a phenomenon occured in the console games market. Making a game that had anime style graphics wasn't a new thing at the time, and the trend has continued to this day. No, the phenomenon wasn't based on how the game looked, it was based on the
fact that, for the first time, there was a game that blended several popular elements into one new and shiny whole. The game in question mixed tactical wargaming with dating simulator, samurais with steampunk, theatre with demon hunting.
That game was the first in the Sakura Taisen series.
Released by Sega for their Saturn console, the game enjoyed immediate success, and the re-release for the Dreamcast only served to cement it's place in the gaming world. It's success was such that in the year it was originally released only one game was considered better - Final Fantasy VII. Since then the game has placed #13 in Famitsu's Top 100 Games of all time, with the following three games also taking places within the top 100. Sakura Taisen V was the best selling game in Japan in 2005, and the latest installment has become the most wanted game of 2009.
So with all this success and popularity, where are the reviews of the series? There aren't any, so is it really that good?
The anime (OVA), version, released in 1997, follows the formation of the Imperial Assault Force - Flower Division, a group of young women with high spiritual energy who work on the front line, defending the city of Tokyo from attack by demons. These women work by day as actresses and singers in Imperial Grand Theater, beneath which is their base of operations and the place where they store the tools of their real trade - the dual powered steam/spirit armour developed by Kanzaki Heavy Industries.
Okay, the premise doesn't sound too bad and, to be honest, the whole story is pretty decent (and a damn sight better than much of what's around today). The plot is reasonably well paced, especially because this is an OVA, however it can feel like it drags from time to time. One nice thing about the show is that rather than simply lifting straight from the game, the anime is actually set within it's timeframe (the last epsiode takes place around the middle of the game), so watching the series only enhances the gaming experience (unlike a lot of game tie-ins).
One of the things that originally set the series apart was the fact that it wasn't just a supernatural series, but that it was also one of the early attempts to include steampunk in anime. This set it apart from almost every other sci-fi series of the time, and even now there are still only a few anime that fall into that category (Steamboy being a recent example). The mecha designs were taken straight from the game, with a few minor revisions, but the essence of the game remains within the OVA. The characters from the game are also directly transferred to the anime, again with a few minor revisions. Now, one would think that this would hinder the design aspect in certain ways, but the fact is that the original game was well thought out and designed from the start. This meant that the character designs were pretty decent to begin with, thus making any "tweaks" easier to do.
Animation is good for the entire series. The game featured very little actual animation (compared to modern games), but the animators took their cues from that reference material, as well as their own experience. The characters and mechs move in a free manner that is great to see, but there are occurrences of unnatural body positions and sometimes overly "clunky" mech combat. The backgrounds are colourful and nicely detailed and, as with the costumes, are highly reflective of the alternate 1920s setting.
The voice actors are a bit of a sticking point with me, in particular, the English cast. The Japanese dub had a certain "je ne sais qua" that made the comedy work and added some weight to the more serious scenes. The English dub, on the other hand, was a complete failure as far as I'm concerned. The English cast, while being pretty good in terms of acting ability, managed to really ham up the show. Many of the scenes in the English dub suffer from wooden or over acting, all the while maintaining a distinctly juvenile attitude.
The unfortunate thing about this is that by the time the OVA was released inthe West, we already knew that anime could not only be dubbed well, but that it could actually be made into something better and more accessible to us. The Western reception ofthe OVA was far from favourable because of the dub.
Musically the series is actually pretty good. The fact that the show is based around a theatre troupe adds a whole new dimension to the musical possibilities, and those that were chosen for the OVA are well used and often add some depth to the scene. The effects follow much the same pattern as the music, with many being well suited to their purpose, again enhancing the atmosphere of the show.
Characters for the OVA are a big plus, but also a big minus as well. The characters are individuals in almost every sense, however they are also stereotypical in many repects. This isn't a bad thing as many shows have used stereotypical characters and still turned out to be good. The problem here is that this is an OVA so there is no room to become involved with the characters, so they feel shallow and underdeveloped. On the positive side though, the mass appeal of the game meant that most of the people who originally watched the OVA were already familiar with the characters, something which the producers were hoping for.
As a slight aside, I'm going to touch on an issue that should be raised. Because the OVA ties in directly with the game there should be no need to devlop the characters over the course of the anime. That said, no one actually expected the franchise to be as popular as it is (yes, it's still one of the most popular anime and gaming franchises), but this is only within Japan. Most viewers outside of Japan will have little knowledge of the game or it's impact, and this means that they will watch the OVA without any background information. When viewed from this perspective, the flaws with the OVA are exacerbated, and most viewers may find the series unsatisfying.
However, if you're a Dreamcast owner then there's a good chance that you'll have at least heard of the series. Likewise fans of the games for both the Saturn and the Dreamcast will need no introduction to it.
Sakura Taisen presents me with something of a quandary. The obvious flaws with the scripting of the OVA preclude the unfamiliar from fully appreciating the series, yet it is still a good introduction to the franchise. The fact that it's a game tie in should prevent it from having a decent plot, story and design, yet it does. The English dub makes you want to scream, but the Japanese dub has you paying attention. The OVA has so many contradictions that at times it seems a bit unfair.
It's not easy to recommend this to any but the hardcore mech fans and Sakura Taisen junkies, yet I will. Although the series has it's problems, it also has action and drama, and in these two areas Skaura Taisen is up there with the best of that year. Unfortunately the cons outweigh the pro's in this series, something which is only really forgivable and less relevant if you have played the games.
In the end it's up to you if you want to watch this, but if you do then you should remember that this OVA only really tells half of the story.
And for those of you who are wondering about the score, I've based it on knowing the game rather than the other way around. If I had no knowledge of the series, then the score would be slightly lower.