*Spoiler warning* Do not read story section unless you've finished the series.
"Hakuouki" is based on a PS2 romance adventure otome game (games targeted toward girls).
The story starts with Yukimura Chizuru, daughter of a doctor in Edo (Tokyo's old name), arriving Kyoto in search of her father. She is saved by two Shinsengumi members from zombie-like demon, and gets taken into custody. Eventually she gains their trust and helps them out while looking for clues of her father.
Shinsengumi is an organization that actually existed in the late-Edo-period that acted as a 'special police' that served to suppress any anti-government movement in Kyoto. The actual organization only existed for less than a decade, but their legacies have been depicted in various novels, movies, and TV doramas that they have become something of a symbol of justice in the Edo-era. The latest Shinsengumi hit has been the NHK Taiga dorama "Shinsengumi!" starring SMAP's Katori Shingo in 2004. NHK, the government-owned TV station's Taiga dorama series are known for practically guaranteed 15%+ viewership ratings and A-list actors.
This anime's events and characters are inspired by the actual Shinsengumi, but the story is completely fictional.
The title "Hakuouki" is a made-up word comprised of kanji "Light-colored Sakura" and "Ogre". It describes the fictional vampire-like white-haired (light color) undead (Sakura) demons (ogres) in this series. Sakura (Cherry blossoms) symbolizes death or short-lived beauty for the short span in which the pink flowers blossom in spring. (Sakura also symbolizes farewells and new meetings since they bloom during graduation and new school year, which is April in Japan, but that is probably not the case in this series)
Animation in general lacked detail, and characters' faces were really deformed in some scenes while they were extremely well-drawn in close up and action scenes.
One thing they really succeeded in this show was use of lighting to create mood. From hazy moonlight to orange glow in the daytime to bloody red sunset, the light always seemed to shine from one direction, and matched the atmosphere they were trying to create.
One fatal flaw in the animation... was character design in the sense that they were all too idolized. Sure, all the main characters wore Shinsengumi uniforms with swords around their waist, but all I saw was a bunch of host and a school girl in cosplay. It all comes down to fan service, and they all seemed out of place amid peasants and lowly Shinsengumi members who looked legitimately from the Edo-era.
They even went as far as trying to have Chizuru pass for a boy. I know back in the day, it was unthinkable for a girl to be dressed like a boy, but please, you must be joking.
Main characters looked like hosts, at least they sounded like hosts too. Despite the fact that they were totally out of place, they stayed consistent by speaking modern Japanese the whole way and and all the characters sounded like they should.
Music in slice-of-life scenes had a serene, calming flow that worked very nicely in the background, which intensified in plot twists or confrontations, enhancing drama in every occasion. Powerful drum beats are added in action scenes, which not only fit the era well, but also made them all that more exciting.
Theme songs were ridiculously good for this series. OP song was epic with extremely catchy tune, elegant lyric, and great vocal. Amazing piece of contemporary Jpop-Enka hybrid that really blew me away. ED was pretty good, the somber song worked nicely for this series since many episodes ended with a tragedy. Sound and Marketing department sure have a lot of work ahead of them if they're to match or surpass the theme song quality and compatibility in season 2.
Before we even get to the story... there was a major problem with power balance in this anime. I can accept Oni villains being insanely strong because they're not human, but how are some of the Shinsengumi members able to fight almost evenly against them? What's even more puzzling is that those fighters struggle against lowly samurai when outnumbered. From their performance against the Oni, they should be able to easily defeat 10 minions by themselves.
This leads to the main problem with the story: Irrational character motives and too much sudden story developments between events.
- Oni can so easily penetrate Shinsengumi's defense, as proven by Kazama and Nagumo. Why didn't they just come in and kidnap Chizuru anytime they wanted? There was nothing there to stop them from second or third tries after the first attempt failed. (Why did it even take that long to make the first attempt?)
- I didn't exactly see how Chizuru fell in love with Hijikata. Seemed just like Hijikata was being excessively strict few times, and got persuaded by other members to bend the rules. It was a WTF moment for me when Chizuru started blushing when her twin sister asked her if she's staying for love.
- Overly gullible characters. Gets tricked so easily by villains and has no self-discipline when given the choice with the elixir. These guys are definitely not leader materials, and it's a wonder Shinsengumi can last so long with such incompetent commanders.
- You're trying to kill Chizuru for seeing a classified subject, and the next second, you're trusting her to send messages in a life-or-death situation.
- Chizuru, do not walk toward vampires when you're bleeding! Use common sense.
- Chizuru, run when you see danger! You're helpless, and you staying around is not going to help the injured or dead.
- Chizuru, PLEASE TRY TO ACTIVATE SELF-DEFENSE INSTINCT OF YOUR BRAIN! Help will not always arrive out of blue.
- Hijikata drinking elixir in the last episode came out nowhere. Where did he even get it? And his motive makes no sense, I mean... you're not human anymore, just because someone (who you knew didn't kill your best friend) provoked you.
Making a non-cheesy fictional story based on historical events is difficult. Add vampires, Oni, rushed storyline, and this feat becomes practically impossible.
The least they could've done was provide more backgrounds to each incident rather than "XXX advanced their troops to Kyoto", battle scene, "And this will eventually come to be known as Battle of YYY" before jumping to another historical event.
I think they should've just used the Edo-era setting with original events rather than try to camouflage an actual event.
The DBZ-style talking during battles, or talking for so long that backup arrive certainly didn't make the story any more believable.
Another unrealistic jidaigeki, I would have to say this is girl's version of "Sengoku Basara". Instead of mindless battles, you have mindless melodrama, which starts to get pretty predictable even without knowledge of Japanese history. In the end, it was a bidanshi cosplay fest, as expected of a shoujo anime. The story jumps from one historical battle to another, it's easy to tell this is just another "Rurouni Kenshin"-inspired piece that hopped on bandwagon of the latest Shinsengumi craze initiated by the 2004 NHK Taiga dorama.
However, I have to say that the characters are charming as intended, and the Oni villains are cool enough to have me watch this season to the end, and if I have a lot of time to kill, I'll be able to tolerate another season just to see how bad it gets.