The release of this review for Sakura Wars: The Animation episode 4 coincides with the release of the newest game in the Sakura Wars franchise today on PS4 in English-speaking territories. A common complaint I’ve held throughout my reviews of the series to date is the inaccessibility of the series for those without an awareness of the franchise through either this game or general awareness of the history of the series to date. Acting as a sequel to that game only makes this issue worse.
Perhaps ironically, this episode lacks such issues by telling a mostly-self-contained story, and though it feels incidental in the scale of the grander narrative of the series bar a few key moments, benefits from this approach with one of the better episodes of the anime to date.
Closer to Home
Episode 4 of Sakura Wars mostly covers the aftermath of the events of last week’s episode, which saw the arrival of the New Moscow Combat Revue to Tokyo and a mysterious fixation on the identity of the amnesiac Klara who has been with the team since her rescue in episode 1. After a demon attacked the city and the Tokyo Imperial Revue failed to defeat it, the Moscow team jumped in to save the day, much to the chagrin of Hatsuho who failed in her attempts to tame the beast.
Ashamed and feeling like her actions were to blame for the failure, she runs off home to the shrine she grew up at for their festival, with the intention never to show her face again as she deals with the emotions of letting her team down.
This shifts the tone of the series with this episode. While much of the anime has focused on the team’s actions and the role of Klara, introducing us to the characters and world with admittedly mixed results, we’ve yet to make that personal connection with the characters. I feel the show does a great job of making us care about these characters, as seen in episode 2, but unless you played the game beforehand, you have no reason to hold a deep personal connection to any of them. The closest they’ve come to success here is with Klara, mainly because, by being a blank canvas due to amnesia, we know as much as the characters and want to protect her.
That’s what this episode achieves, at least for Sakura and Hatsuho. By removing us from Tokyo, Sakura Wars episode 4 places the entire episode’s focus on just these two characters, allowing us to learn more about their childhood together and their feelings for one another. Last week, we saw Hatsuho become jealous of Sakura for being the acting leader of the troupe and for taking the lead when she felt she was more qualified, but we never had any reason to understand why she felt so passionately about it. It’s not as though she was an otherwise aggressive or competitive person, even if she was fiery.
The reasons stem from their closeness in childhood playing and dancing together. Sakura was not as gifted or talented but they cared for one another and were close. Seeing her now pushing ahead made her feel jealous and left behind. As a result, we spend the episode flicking between their current discussions about Klara, the team, and their issues, while we’re also treated to flashbacks of their past.
Interestingly, these flashbacks are animated not with the 3D art style of the games or series to date and instead with a 2D art style more reminiscent of a modernized version of the classic Sakura Wars art style, something which allows the character designs by Tite Kubo and others to shine.
Even if these moments of reflection can feel like filler, they serve the purpose of bringing us further into the team and becoming more invested in these characters. With Klara acting as a surrogate for the audience to observe their friendship, you feel closer to the team as a result.
Underlying all this is the occasional hint at a larger narrative that capitalizes on the intrigue of the Moscow team, with discussions about the lack of cooperation by the WLOF and the mysteries surrounding Klara being occasionally interspersed within this more self-contained narrative. While these issues suffer from similar issues surrounding the lack of details given to the audience regarding how the world functions, it at least feels a bit more accessible compared to last week and doesn’t overwhelm the audience.
Sakura Wars: The Animation Episode 4: Slowly Bridging the Gap
Sakura Wars The Animation episode 4 is still a flawed episode. Issues with how it handles references to the wider world still exist as the geopolitics of this alternative Taisho-era Tokyo remain unexplained, while there’s the niggling feeling that, for all the benefits this week’s events have in bringing you closer to these characters, the episode is essentially filler in an already-short single cour anime.
I can’t say it was bad, though. The characters are the thing that carries the series in many respects, so episodes with a focus on them will inevitably shine stronger. I can’t complain too much.