Sakura Wars TV
Okay, so it's a series with everything, an origin from a (assumedly) popular video game, pretty women, mecha and evil monsters to fight. It's got everything...but I'm not sure the writers have quite come to terms with it all.
The first thing to realise is that the setting is cyber-spiritual steam-punk, which isn't a phrase you hear every day. It's set in an alternate Japan in a 1950'ish style era. Except they not only have high tech, barring it all works on steam power, but they've also identified and to an extent controlled spiritual power itself. Of course, being Japanese, the natural result is that they've built steam powered, spirit enhancing mecha. Although the mecha are of course in the style of the period, clanky iron construction and gouts of steam when they act, plus hand-to-hand weapons as armament.
And with mecha go pilots and some dire evil to fight. In this case it just so happens that the people with strong spiritual powers happen to be attractive young women. They've got fairly strong personalities though, and it's not going to be easy for them to act as a team. They're also, as a cover, the leading actresses for a theatre company. And, last but not least, there's rumors and signs of a massive and organized evil force rising up, although what it's aims are remain mysterious. However since it has monstrous bio-organic mecha and spiritual powers of its own, which may well be greater than those of the team, some serious and deadly combat is likely.
I've never played the game, but it's fairly obvious that all sorts of elements have been inherited from the original source. To start with each of the women is quite different, with the sort of aggressively strong personality, and corresponding lack of subtlety, that often seems to result from this process. Whether it's because the game had simple personalities, or because they need to be aggressively given personalities, they end up being a strange bunch. At least 3 of the the 4-6 member team appear to be borderline psychotic, which is dramatic and atmospheric but not very reasonably. Meanwhile the lead, Sakura, has power and a decent personality but has been given a double dose of ditz and klutz to make up for it.
It's really surprisingly hard to empathize with these characters. Although I'm beginning to suspect the writing has a lot to do with it. It really wants to impress, to be dark, gloomy and dramatic, but it almost tries too hard. This also shows up in various aspects. The eternal mystery of what the `acting troupe' is all about, apart from being a nice excuse for some character dramatics, is a question I've always want answered. What are the powers and aims of the enemy? The origin of the mecha and the seemingly casual organisation of the defenders? It doesn't seem to be in any hurry to start giving clues and connections so far. Indeed it feels a little bit disconnected at times.
However the most serious problem is not the air of mystery or the clash of characters, that's quite entertaining. The real problem is the mecha themselves. They're very appropriate to the setting, and time, but they look pretty ordinary. Imagine a big metal dustbin on stumpy legs and you've more or less got it. Add in small arms gripping a melee weapon of your choice (a different one for each character) and the picture is complete. They try hard to make it all look exciting, but it's obvious they've got their work cut out for them. And besides, I'd rather watch Sakura with her katana than a metal bin with Sakura hidden inside.
Still, at the end of the day, it's not bad and could turn into something quite interesting once the story and characters settle down. While the story isn't clear yet it does have a sense of atmosphere, danger and mystery that makes you want to know more. While the characters are somewhat over-dramatic and the dialogue abrupt you do want to see them come together as a team and discover what made them the way they are. And the design, while not the most attractive, is original and quite unusual.
The animation itself is also interesting. It's actually got some weaknesses in it. Often it's quite simple and the action is often abstracted or a bit jumpy. But it works really well with these limitations. The way it adapts an attractive style for the character work, a dark and smoky style for the mysterious and spiritual action and some nice `set piece' battles for the action is pretty good. While more money would have been nice it does support both the action and the mood of the show. The voices are alright, although the dialogue is often limited, and some of the music is quite nice.
There's quite a few reviews around for the earlier, and even more confusing, Sakura Wars OAV. However none of my regular sources have reviews for this newer, and hopefully superior, version.