Sakura Wars: The Animation has made it’s local debut following the cult success of the 2019 PlayStation 4 title’s surprise (and welcomed) English language release. With such a strong franchise pedigree and featuring a framework so heavily inspired by anime, this latest release has a lot to live up to.
Set after the closure of the recent entry in the video game series, Sakura Wars: The Animation kicks off with Seijuro getting up to some koubu biffo on the top of some moving trains in Eastern Europe. This results in him taking in a young Russian girl named Klara M. Ruzhkova and bringing her back to Tokyo to meet the troupe, with the aim of leaving her with the team to look out for her. However, the Flower Division has no time to sit idle as trouble follows Seijuro with the Moscow Combat Revue captain Valery Kaminski ordered to Tokyo to retrieve Klara, leaving the Flower Division no other choice but to suit up, shout out special attacks and do all sorts of steampunk mecha stuff.
I consider myself to be a long-standing fan of Sakura Wars, having trumpeted it’s innovative awesomeness since I first stumbled across this amazing unicorn of a game back in 1997. There were four games in the first arc that echoed across the Saturn and Dreamcast, three games on the PlayStation 2 (one of which was a remake of the first game), a port Sakura Wars: So Long My Love on the Wii, spin-off games on handheld devices and the latest release on the PlayStation 4 (which logically was titled Sakura Wars overseas, but in Japan was given the name Shin Sakura Taisen, or New Sakura Wars, which makes much more since if you’re a giant weeb).
Being a property so heavily based on adapting an anime narrative into a dating sim/strategy RPG, there has also been extensive adaptations of it back into the anime realm. This has resulted in multiple OVAs, a TV series and a film on top of the gorgeous animated cut scenes in the games themselves. This is where the series’ connections have typically headed to the West as Sakura Wars is an unusual case where the property has a massive and long-standing fanbase in Japan but the challenges in localising the games in the mid-90s meant it was up to ADV and Geneon to get the anime released to Western markets. Being a niche title resulted in poor uptake particularly in Australia, so it was with a sense of excitement that I sat down to get into this release.
Unfortunately, and through no fault of Funimation and Madman, Sakura Wars: The Animation is an entirely CG affair, admittedly a quite impressive one when you consider how other fully 3D CGI anime releases have fared of late such as Human Lost or Berserk. Particularly in still and close-up shots you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching something hand animated, but once the camera pans or the characters start moving you get hit with a fair whack of uncanny valley syndrome.
Admittedly the style makes for excellent continuity with the new Sakura Wars game, especially since the production studio behind this series, Sanzigen, also put the CG cut scenes together for the game itself. Fans could also argue that the use of a fully CGI production fits with the property’s historical pedigree given the use of CGI in the animated cut scenes from Sakura Wars 2 for many objects and backgrounds (including the koubu battles) and the use of similar techniques in the Sakura Wars movie produced by Production I.G. and released 20 years ago to cinemas in Japan:
Apologies for the video quality in the above – there’s another on YouTube with better video quality but it’s the English language release and suffers from gaijin cuts and lacks the stunning, amazing and iconic theme and voice actors. Plus this is the same trailer that I watched back in 2000 and then impulse bought the R2 DVD release of the movie for $120. It had no subtitles, but the beauty of Production I.G.’s work mashed with Sakura Taisen creates the kind of nerd excitement that transcends the need for subtitles. 20 years later I have no regrets.
But let’s return to the focus of this review, Sakura Wars: The Animation…
Even with the above forays into 3D CGI animation in Sakura Taisen, the core characters were always animated by hand, and it’s this which has, rightly or wrongly, left a sour taste in my mouth. As a story it’s interesting and its enthusiasm for extending the game’s narrative into a tight series of episodes is commendable. Perhaps if you are a huge fan of the 2019 video game and don’t have this odd reaction to CGI animated productions trying to fake hand drawn anime this may seem like the whinge of an ageing weeb (which it is).
Anime, as an artform, has often pushed the envelope in so many different ways – stalwarts like Akira and Ghost in the Shell married stunning hand-drawn animation and CG in fantastical ways. Spirited Away was one of the first major proofs of concept that an entirely digital production process could still come across as organic and relatable. The latest (at this time of writing) Dragon Ball film’s stacked with CGI, but thankfully kept the core hand drawn, though recent events suggest a pretty dire future for the adventures of Goku and co on the big screen…
In my heart, my reaction is probably born from a sense of fandom that Sakura Wars deserves better than this (much as Dragon Ball does), and the lack of conviction to push a more traditionally animated adaptation of the latest game is, well, disappointing. The story itself and the revisiting of the characters/locale are all well-executed though, so if you enjoyed the game and are after another visit to the world of Shin Sakura Taisen there’s merit enough with that’s in this release.
The package itself does the job as well – there’s a nice glossy cardboard outer cover with the 2-disc Blu-Ray box held on the inside, pretty standard issue for a Funi Region A local release, and the encoding and audio all checks out. Extras are minimal but round things out.
Sakura Wars: The Animation stands as an objectively acceptable anime adaptation that stays robustly true to its video game roots. In other circumstances this probably wouldn’t be a bad a thing. From a purely subjective view as someone who has been a fan of this crazy mashup of gaming concepts for nearly 25 years, it’s reliance on a fully CGI workflow makes it a disappointing interpretation of something that should have been a no-brainer. In the interest of avoid hyperbole I’ve applied a bit of a curve on the final rating, but I think Sega could have done a lot better with this one.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.