It’s difficult to know the best way to approach a review for episode 1 of Sakura Wars: The Animation because, well, where do you start? The series has a dedicated fanbase in Japan and a small, passionate group of admirers internationally, despite the series being mostly inaccessible outside of Japan aside from the underperformance of the PS2/Wii entry and a few older anime adaptations. It’s a long-running franchise for SEGA, but if you’re not in this small group of people, you likely haven’t heard of it.
This anime isn’t the most accessible, either. This series has been made to coincide with the release of the franchise reboot and the first new game in over a decade, New Sakura Wars, yet despite the name isn’t a direct adaptation of this new game. This series acts as a canonical sequel, telling a brand new story set 1 year after the events of this reboot. This game, although it released in Japan at the end of last year, is also unavailable in the West until the end of this month, and who knows whether the current coronavirus pandemic will have an impact on the planned release considering other games are currently being delayed.
This leaves me discussing this anime without having played more than a demo of the game at Tokyo Games Show back in September. Considering this, I think it’s best to discuss the premiere thusly: can you enjoy Sakura Wars: The Animation episode 1 without prior knowledge to the iconic-yet-inaccessible SEGA franchise? To that question, I would say that yes, you can, but it’s too early to make a judgment on the series more broadly.
An Ambitious Opening
The Sakura Wars franchise is an ambitious project. While the new title is an action game, older entries in the series have been tactical role-playing games, with all entries utilizing dating-sim and visual novel elements within the alternate Taisho-era steampunk Tokyo setting of the series as they follow a theatre troupe called the Imperial Combat Revue. They’re based on the Takurazaka Revue and secretly fight in giant mechas against forces that threaten peace alongside putting on extravagant stage performances.
It’s a lot to take in for an audience, and the series’ approach to throwing audiences into the action without much of an introduction, assuming that viewers will understand this world without explanation, is a risky one. Right from the opening moments of Sakura Wars episode 1, we follow an attempted train hijack by a mysterious opposing force, and we’re introduced to the theatre troupe as they prepare for a show with their relationships already established. This is, after all, set one year after the newest game in the series.
Aside from the name-dropping of various characters and the use of the amnesiac girl saved from the train attack, Klara, as a vessel to briefly explain the troupe’s secret double-life as an army battalion, audiences are left to put together the pieces if they’re unfamiliar with the franchise at large.
Mostly, this works. The episode is well-structured to ease those both familiar and new to the franchise into the world and characters. We get to see all their various activities, from stage plays to mech battles, in a slow-yet-interesting progression, while the forces of power and their roles, such as WOLF, are integrated naturally into discussions of mission operations.
A key component of the series is character interaction, with the cast a key selling point for the game and a major reason why fans have become so attached to the franchise. For the series to represent the franchise it’s based on and convey this appeal without interactivity, we have to get to know the personalities of the main cast almost immediately. This is better achieved for some than others (some characters simply don’t receive enough screen time), yet it’s clear each character is a powerful and unique addition to the troupe, if reliant on cliché. I’m pretty sure I’d lay down my life for Sakura, while I want to get to know Claris and Mochizuki more.
Animation, too, is strong. Utilizing 3D CG animation mostly made up of improved models from the original PS4 game, the style suits the series’ premise and high-octane action. To create the grandeur of the stage shows and the fast-paced bullet-hell action against large enemy forces would be much more difficult with traditional animation to pull off effectively. Recognizing the extra things they can do that aren’t possible or simple-to-achieve in a 2D medium, the play is made more extravagant through sweeping camera shots that soar over the stage and around our main cast, and the smooth 3D animation makes battles more impressive. This artistic choice perhaps works best because, with its origins as a newer game and the dedication to recreating its style, it doesn’t drastically alter what the original game had been trying to achieve.
Sakura Wars: The Animation Episode 1 – An Interesting, If Inaccessible, Intro to This Alternative Taisho-Era Tokyo
Sakura Wars episode 1 may be light on story (aside from the train sequence the episode is more of an introduction, with the opposing forces barely mentioned), but it holds strong in other areas. The series, like the games, retains its 90s-era charm in its tone and characters, and as an introduction to the world of Sakura Wars, this premiere does the job well enough. From this episode alone, I’m desperate to explore this alternate, steampunk Taisho-era Tokyo.
The issue so far is that there’s little to ease the uninitiated into the world. While, as I’ve noted, this isn’t much of an issue so far, I fear that as more concepts are introduced and, in particular, if the story of the new video game becomes more relevant to the events of this new series, then this inaccessibility could become an impassable roadblock that hinders its popularity and, in turn, its success. This is an interesting opening episode, but I’m so far holding back judgment on the title until we know more.