Sakura travels to the capital with aspirations of defending the city from the demonic forces of the Black Sanctum Council like her father before her. However, things are not as she imagined as in addition to using her great spiritual energy to pilot a mech called a Kobu, she must also perform on stage as an actor as The Imperial Flower Division's cover is an art theater. Making a fool of herself and ruining a production gets her on everyone's bad side and somehow she must learn to work with them as well as prevent the enemy from destroying several shrines which protect the city.
One of the problems with visual media like anime, TV and movies, is that they are all extremely competitive businesses, with numerous production companies and studios all vying for a share of the viewing audience. The upshot of this is that more and more often the audience is subjected to a remake, a formulaic cash cow, or an adaptation of a successful game. That's not to say there isn't anything original in anime from one season to the next, however the fact that anime is a business means that the shows that are more likely to be produced will be of the type that are
almost guaranteed to make money.
It's unfortunate then, that money seems to have been the driving force behind this series of Sakura Taisen.
Based on the long running and highly successful game series, the original Sakura Taisen OVA was a well thought out addition to the franchise that sought to enhance the game's storyline. However, as with any famous franchise, Sakura Taisen became a victim of it's own success when, in 2000, the decision was made to remake the original OVA into a 25 episode TV series.
The story, as with the game and original OVA, follows the exploits of the Teikoku Kagekidan - Hanagumi (Imperial Assault Force - Flower Division), a team of female "mecha" pilots who protect Tokyo from various supernatural assaults. By day, however, the team work in productions for the Imperial Grand Theater, with several members achieving a degree of fame because of their acting ability.
One day, a new member of the "theater" arrives. She is Shinguji Sakura, the daughter of Shinguji Kazuma (the hero of the previous Demon War), and the master of Hokushin Itto Ryu Kenjutsu. However life in the big city takes some getting used to...
Now, the one thing that really stands out about the plot is how different the first and second halves of the series are. The first half is a tedious, drawn out trawl through mediocrity that lacked the punchiness of the OVA, and to make matters worse director Nakamura Ryutaro (Ghost Hound, Kino no Tabi, Serial Experiments Lain, REC), saw fit to add several filler episodes. The story takes an almost unbearable amount of time to begin explaining exactly what is going on, however, once the viewer reaches the second half of the series, the plot becomes far more active, tense, and flowing.
The unfortunate side effect of the tedious first half though, is that many people may find themselves dropping the series within a few episodes, and even I will admit that I was sorely tempted to do just that. However, if you're able to stick it out, then the second half of the series is well worth watching.
As far as animation goes, the TV series is a good deal better than the OVA, and this shows in many of the action sequences in the second half of the series. However, in terms of character and mecha design, the TV series is simply equal, which is a little disappointing. The designers have done nothing more than copy what has gone before, with no real effort made to improve the look or feel of the characters, settings or mechas. Granted this lends the show the feeling that it truly is part of the Sakura Taisen franchise, but personally I would have preferred a more dynamic approach to the design, especially as this is supposed to be an alternative version rather than a simple remake of the OVA (which means there was scope for some creativity).
One of the high points in terms of production is the quality of the voice acting, as the seiyuu are the same as the ones from the original OVA. Because of this, the acting throughout the series is actually better than the OVA, however this is also due to the fact that the TV series runs for 25 episodes rather than 4. The music used throughout the series is also of a higher standard, however some of the tracks can become a little repetitive over the course of the show.
Given the length of the series, one would expect the characters to have undergone a degree of improvement, however the stolid first half of the series lacks any real effort to develop them in any substantial manner. Given that many of the characters are stereotypes in anime, especially when compared to what's around nowadays, one can only regard this as a lack of planning during the development stages. As a rule, stereotypical characters are the ones that need the most development in order to separate them from the pack.
One of the problems with the characters is that there is an assumption that the viewer is already familiar with either the games or the OVAs, and it's unfortunate that this lack of foresight was prevalent during production as the latter half of the series really does make all the difference. If the same effort to develop the plot and characters had been made in the first half, then this could have been a very good show
That said, I found that once I got over the hurdle of the first half, Sakura Taisen TV turned out to be a rather enjoyable series. The fact that the series remains one of the few steampunk shows available earns the series a degree of kudos, especially as the genre is a rarity in anime. The initially dull, filler strewn episodes may be a huge turn off for anyone who isn't already a fan of the franchise though, however fans of steampunk may find the show, especially the latter half, to be worth watching. On the whole, the show is worth a try if you're willing to get past the first half as while it really is slow to start, there are some entertaining moments along the way, and the second half really makes up for a lot.
In all honesty, I'm not sure how to compare this to any other series. The combination of steampunk and samurais, "romance" and mechas, theater troupes and the supernatural, makes for a very interesting mix, and one that works very well with the right sort of effort and planning. It's just unfortunate that, given the fact that this is not simply a remake, but more of a re-envisioning, the opportunity to improve the series was wasted in favour of retaining the the authenticity of the original games and OVA, a decision that I can only assume was spawned from a desire to cash in on the franchise once more.
Ultimately, Sakura Taisen TV is a bit of a mixed bag. The original OVA had a certain charm that lifted it from mediocrity, and the fact that it wasn't simply retelling a story, but was instead adding to it, made all the difference for me. While the TV series does have its plus points, the fact that it takes so long to get started is a big let down.
Apparently based on a popular video game franchise in Japan, Sakura Wars focuses on six girls from different nations teaming together to combat demonic threats using their spiritual abilities to pilot mecha. It appears part of the anime's influence comes from a popular all-girl theatrical group in Japan called the Takarazuka Revue, considering the girls occasionally perform drama performances in theatrical plays as a means to hone their spiritual powers. The series offers enough depth on all the girls to explore their personalities and backgrounds, devoting episodes to focus on aspects of each character. While their characters are somewhat cliched, they are still a likeable
bunch and undergo differing degrees of growth throughout the show's run such as Sakura learning to gain confidence in her skills, Sumire learning to value Sakura as a teammate and Iris learning to trust use of piloting the mecha.
However, the battle with Aoisatan and his group are too cliched and shallow to get attached to and is the major weakness I found with the series as a whole. The whole thing plays out as a traditional "good vs evil" battle with Aoisatan desiring the destruction of Tokyo for rather shallow reasons when more of his past is revealed and his allies don't get much in the way of fleshing out as their only roles are to serve as obstacles in Sakura and her group's efforts. The series plays out the typical cliches you can expect of this storytelling approach where the team get random power-ups and get conveniently saved in the nick of time in situations where the odds seem dire in their efforts.
In terms of presentation, Sakura Wars is somewhat standard for a early 2000s TV anime, but has its high points. It sports beautifully drawn scenery shots of 1920s Tokyo with character designs looking well designed and pleasing on the eyes with subdued color tones. The series employs a steampunk-like style in depicting the technology and mecha used by Sakura's group which work well with the anime and is a unique style that sticks out from many anime titles of the mecha genre. Animation is a bit subpar with some use of CG animation that is poorly rendered and sticks out like a sore thumb, with action sequences not being too engaging since the choreography plays out in a typical style and occasionally employ shortcuts.
The soundtrack to this series certainly sticks out enough, consisting of musical-style lyrical tracks and traditional insert music playing along to the time period of the series. It works nicely with the historical setting of the series and the theatrical theme that gets employed in some episodes, but there were no particular tracks that stuck out for me to make the series memorable.
Overall, my reception to Sakura Wars is rather mixed. While having some nice fleshing out of characters and the Takarazuka-like premise being a rather unique one for an anime title, it still sticks to conventional territory to a good extent with the mecha anime approach it takes and the good vs evil approach it does with its storytelling. I think I would have liked this anime more if it was more focused on the Takarazuka-like performances and character developments/ bonding than trying to mix it up with the mecha genre.