Production Studio: Production I.G.
Was this provided by the publisher? Yes
More Info: Anime News Network
In its home country, Sakura Wars is a franchise that few dare to oppose. The series, which began as a Sega Saturn game, quickly blossomed into a vibrant multi-media franchise that includes manga, anime, and even live stage shows. It captivated audiences young and old, and continues to live as an important part of Sega’s catalogue. In the west, though, Sakura Wars is a relative unknown. While all of the anime titles found western releases at one point or another, the rest of the property lingered just outside of the public eye. It became a darling of importers, and earned a cult following from those willing to brave the pages of Japanese text. The series received its big break in 2010, when NIS America released a translated adaptation of Sakura Wars V. It died at retail, though, and doomed the franchise to obscurity in the west. With this in mind, it’s difficult to really recommend Sakura Wars: the Movie. While it’s a gorgeous film that builds on the storied franchise, those who aren’t invested in the property will be utterly lost in the first ten minutes.
Sakura Wars takes place in an alternate version of Taisho-era Japan, where the embrace of steam power created a technology boom. Modern conveniences unheard of in the world exist in great numbers, thanks to the rapid development of steam technology. Despite the gains, though, the world is a truly dangerous place. Demons prowl the world, and attacks on city centers are a fairly common occurrence. Common weaponry is useless against the beasts, leaving the military generally powerless to stop them. For this purpose, the Imperial Assault Troop, a covert battalion of spiritually gifted individuals, was formed. These special people come from all walks of life, but share the ability to successfully combat the demonic forces and pilot special steam-powered assault robots known as koubu. To keep the organization under wraps, the Imperial Assault Troop operates the renowned Imperial Operetta Troupe as a front. From Ginza’s Imperial theater, they work day and night to protect the nation from evil on the battlefield, and to fill the country’s hearts with light through their shows.
The film’s story begins on a peaceful evening in 1926. Christmas is quickly approaching, and people are celebrating. Imperial Assault Troop leader Ohgami is in France, helming the organization’s newest branch in Paris. Still, the home group remains vigilant under the watch of second-in-command Maria. It’s during this period that a mysterious blonde beauty makes her entrance at the theater, and requests to see the head of the organization. She introduces herself as Ratchet Altair, the first recruit to the Assault Troop’s New York division. She traveled to Japan in order to learn from the greats that successfully defended Japan from two demonic invasions. Her addition to the crew is met with resistance, though, as ghost from the past arise. Reni and Orihime, teammates from a previous failed attempt at the program, have become valued members of the Japan division. While they try to remain civil, the two are distrustful of her. Onstage, Ratchet is a dominating presence, and quickly takes control of the scene. On the battlefield, Ratchet is a lone wolf that works on her own idea of what’s most efficient, and will gladly sacrifice her teammates as collateral damage if it means accomplishing her goal.
In the offices of the cultural élite, political forces are trying to make a power play. The Douglas-Stewart Corporation, an American firm, is rolling out their own automated anti-demon weaponry known as Japhkiels. Unlike the existing koubu units, the Japhkiels are fully automated, and don’t need pilots. Those in power are initially skeptical, though they’re quickly won over by the efficiency of the units. Lingering suspicions are quickly silenced, and the units are adopted, leaving the members of the Imperial Defense Troop out of a job. The girls have their doubts, though, and take it upon themselves to investigate. What is the Douglas-Stewart Corporation hiding, and what are the motivations of its leader? What is their relation to the increasing demon attacks in Tokyo and, more important, will they be able to save the day while dealing with their renegade newbie?
Normally, a film review shouldn’t need a full paragraph of background information to prime the reader. In this case, though, the addition was a necessary exception. Sakura Wars: The Movie was originally screened in Japanese theaters during the Christmas season of 2002. When the film debuted, Sakura Wars 3 was already in stores, and Sakura Wars 4 was due out in mere months. It was made to serve as a bridge between the two games, and to tie up a few loose plot threads that lingered in the aftermath of the first three games.
For fans of the franchise that knew the characters and major plot points, the film is a treat. The tale of the Japhkiels and the power-mad industrialist behind them provides a fun, John Henry-ish framework. Unfortunately, it’s not adventurous by any stretch. The film is predictable to a fault, and is about as deep as a puddle. Still, it provides enough drive to keep the viewer invested. The main draw, though, is to see the cast come to life on the silver screen. The introduction of Ratchet, who would later become a major player in Sakura Wars V, was just icing on the cake.
For those that haven’t been exposed to the Sakura Wars, be it through the games or the animated features, the film is an incomprehensible mess. The film does little to introduce the cast to newcomers, nor does it give any real background information. Characters are brought in with no introduction, and often disappear as quickly as they arrive. The villains, which were are under-developed to even franchise devotees, become little more than boring, flat husks. The entire experience devolves into “a bunch of girls in mecha fighting some guy in a suit and his magical assistant, who apparently shops at the same stores No-Face from Spirited Away frequents.” The whole film becomes a frustrating experience that will leave many hopelessly lost, as they try to piece together just what the hell they’re watching.
While the film’s storytelling is a contentious point, it’s hard to argue that Sakura Wars: The Movie isn’t a gorgeous film. Hidenori Matsubara breathes new life into the characters, whose designs are given an aesthetic that, while familiar, show a level of delicacy and refinement not found in other adaptations. The backgrounds are detailed and vibrant, and make incredible use of color and shading. The koubu battles are animated with cel-shaded CG, which helps to preserve the overall look and feel, as the film switches between hand-drawn scenes and mecha-powered action. The animation is clean and smooth, and the film looks fantastic, regardless of whether it’s animated traditional or in CG.
The experience is further enhanced by a magnificent soundtrack. Much of the score is comprised of orchestral arrangements of the game’s iconic melodies. Familiar themes are given new spins that retain the catchy melodies, but elicit entirely different emotions. For example, the mellow Hanasaku Otomo is transformed into a haunting piano melody. The film’s vocal pieces are well-performed, with the highlight being a truly decadent version of Miracle Bell.
As a fan of the franchise, it pains me to say that Sakura Wars: The Movie isn’t a film that I can outright recommend to most anime fans. While I enjoyed it immensely, I’m one of the converted. I’ve been playing Sakura Wars for well over a decade, which means that the characters and over-arching plot made sense before I even hit “play.” Most people don’t have that luxury, which means that they’ll be essentially ignored, as the film goes through its motions. While I do want to see Sakura Wars reach the broadest audience possible, I can’t, and won’t recommend this as a starting point. Play the games, read the manga, or even watch the TV series before jumping into Sakura Wars: The Movie, as it will make for an infinitely more satisfying experience.