Review for Samurai Girls
The first major new anime release from Manga Entertainment in 2012 isn't actually a Manga release at all. Last year, they began distributing titles in the UK for European publisher Kazé Entertainment. Basically Kazé author the discs, set the price, and use Manga Entertainment's infrastructure to get them onto UK retail and e-tail shelves, rather than starting up their own network from scratch. Kazé made a big splash with their entry into the UK market with Professor Layton, which proved to be one of the biggest sellers with a Manga logo for that year. After that came the Vampire Knight series, which Kazé gave a budget treatment to with low priced single volume discs offering barebones content. While I enjoyed the Vampire Knight series, I found the quality of the discs lacking, so I was interested to see just what treatment Samurai Girls would get from Kazé Entertainment, which going against the recent announcements from Manga Entertainment is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray. To sustain that Blu-ray release, Kazé have set the retail prices of both DVD and Blu-ray £10 apiece higher than the usual equivalent Manga Entertainment releases, but you can draw some comfort from this as Kazé have stated on their Twitter feed that "So the £34.99 [price] after discount guarantees that no release from Kazé announced for BD will be cancelled.". You can also see the economy of scale become apparent for the first time with this release from Kazé, as for the first time it is a multilingual release. Shifting a minimum Blu-ray print run across Europe is easier than trying to sell it to UK audiences alone. I only received the DVD check discs for review.
I have to admit to a certain trepidation about Samurai Girls, as it occupies an anime niche that may have been a little oversubscribed last year, and also a niche that isn't one of my favourites. It's the sexy girls combat anime genre, one which caters to a common denominator of anime fans, with a combination of action and fan service, and the more exploitative the fan service, the more that its fans appreciate it. Last year we saw the absolutely dire Master of Martial Hearts, the dull and predictable Ikki Tousen: Dragon Destiny, the surprisingly entertaining Sekirei, while it was only Strike Witches that managed to transcend its genre. In fact this genre is so over-subscribed that Samurai Girls has to timeshare its name. This is Hyakka Ryoran: Samurai Girls, not to be confused with the completely unrelated Majikoi - Oh! Samurai Girls!, which is currently streaming on Crunchyroll (although not to the UK), and I believe is actually licensed for physical release in the US.
In this Samurai Girls, the world has followed an alternate course of history, one where the nation of Great Japan stands proudly in the world, where the Tokugawa Shogunate remained resolute and strong against all challengers, and where in the 21st Century, the Samurai still protect the nation against all its foes. Actually, in the 21st Century, the Samurai lay down the Togugawa law in all of the high schools, and they inherit the names of famous Samurai warriors of the past. All that is about to change when Muneakira Yagyu returns to Edo's Buou Academic School to be reunited with his childhood friend Princess Sen (sister of the next heir to the Tokugawa Shogunate). Only he gets sidetracked first by a couple of young 'rebel' samurai, Yukimura Sanada, and Matabei Goto, who are currently wanted by the state for an ominous prediction that Yukimura made. She saw in a vision that a darkness was coming that would smother Great Japan. That prediction appears to come true when Muneakira is drawn into fleeing with Sanada and Goto from Princess Sen's ninja assassins led by Hatori Hanzo. For Muneakira is being watched, judged, and is found worthy. There is a flash of light, and a cute, vulnerable, naked, red-haired girl literally falls into his arms. Except when she kisses him, all hell breaks loose as Master Samurai Jubei Yagyu is unleashed.
All twelve episodes of Samurai Girls are presented across 3 discs for Kazé Entertainment by Manga, along with some intriguing extra features.
1. The First Kiss
2. Naked Body Incarnation
3. The Identity of the Master Samurai
4. Hey, Give Me a Kiss
5. Here Comes the Warrior of Love!
6. The Sea Monster Attacks!
7. The Shadow Over Great Japan
8. The Slave of the Kiss
9. The Return of the General
10. The Prison of the Evil Eye
11. The Samurai From France
12. The Goodbye Kiss
Samurai Girls gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer onto DVD. It's a native PAL transfer, with the 4% speedup that implies. It also means that the animation is smooth, of good, high resolution, and free of any ghosting or blended frames that the old NTSC-PAL conversions were so often plagued with, or the judder that made last year's Vampire Knight Guilty discs so awkward to watch. There is a bit of the usual digital banding, but the one annoying issue is with aliasing and shimmer, which is more prevalent here than on the usual anime releases. It results is a slight wavering effect to fine edges that manifests strongly when the image pans or scrolls. It's not a crippling issue, but it can be irritating at times.
Samurai Girls has a somewhat peculiar visual style that makes it stand out against the countless similar combat girl fan service offerings. Its conceit is that it's presented as an artwork, an animated painting. There's very much a 2D look to it, scenes and backgrounds will be presented minus perspective, often as parallax layered planes, or just a simple single 2D plane, and the pale pastels of the palette, the bold outlines of the characters call to mind ink and watercolours. It looks a little like Blade of the Immortal in tone, but the style is made all the more obvious with touches like ink blots staining the surface of the animation, with the drops flying during the action sequences, and the whole screen filling up with black ink stain during the scene transitions. It's an arresting way of doing things, and it certainly grabs the attention.
Hopefully the Blu-ray will lack that odd shimmer, and will bring out the subdued shades to more striking effect.
Samurai Girls gets the usual options of English and Japanese, but this time joined by a French audio track as well, all three offerings in DD 2.0 Surround format, with player forced subtitles and signs in English and French depending on which audio track you pick, and from which menu. You get English or French subtitles with the Japanese audio, or English and French signs only tracks with the English and French audio. If you are hard of hearing, and want the subtitles to accompany your native language track, then these discs are of no use to you on a regular DVD or Blu-ray player. I chose the Japanese audio as always. The dialogue is clear throughout, the action comes across well enough, and the show's catchy themes are here in their glory. I sampled the English dub and found it pretty run of the mill for English dubs, certainly there isn't anything immediately iffy about it. A couple of subtitles, one line in episode 10, and a text caption in one of the early episodes only stay on screen for one frame, which is annoying, but not an immediately fatal flaw.
Dubtitles? The thing about UPOPs locking up a disc is that it makes it harder to check for dubtitles, or subtitles that follow the English dub. But usually I can spot dubtitles within a few minutes of watching a show, just because they vary wildly in terms of dialogue or timing compared to the Japanese audio. It was just curiosity that got me to stick a disc of Samurai Girls into my laptop and test it on VLC, which defeats the idiotic lockouts. And Samurai Girls has pseudo-dubtitles, or subtitles that seem to follow an early version of the English dub script. Fortunately the English dub from Sentai seems to be a pretty close translation of the original Japanese, so the resulting subtitles never had me quizzically scratching my head.
Place a disc in to your player and you are offered up the choice of French or English menus. The menus are pretty to look at, very nicely animated although the options aren't all that clearly labelled. These being Kazé discs, they will lock up your player tight with UPOPs. You can't change audio or subtitles on the fly, you're stuck with Japanese audio with English subtitles or English subtitles with signs from the English menu, French audio with signs or Japanese audio with French subtitles from the French menu, and your player's time elapsed display will also be inalterable during playback.
This offers you two of the OAV episodes for Samurai Girls, running to about 3 minutes apiece, and focusing on the comedic raunchy aspects of the set-up. First Jubei comes to Muneakira for a breast exam, and then Princess Sen finds Yukimura's guide to kissing. The only audio options here are Japanese and French.
You'll also find 12 audio dramas set to manga art, divided into 6 selections running to around 11 minutes in total. It's more silly comedy, and the only audio option here is subtitled Japanese.
Here you'll find two more OAV episodes, again running to about 3 minutes. Kanetsugu goes bikini fishing at the beach in one, while in the other, she shares a bath and compares breast sizes with Yukimura.
This disc also offers two Japanese trailers for Samurai Girls, and the textless credits, with the option of English or Romanji subtitles. Thankfully, this is one place where the UPOPs are disabled. After all, you can't call a credit sequence where you are stopped from switching off the subtitles truly textless.
You get the final two OAV episodes here, this time running to 3½ minutes apiece. Gisen and Jubei's innocent game of hide and seek loses its innocence in Gisen's imagination, and then Muneakira is confronted by the girls over some of the images stored in his camera.
This disc's extras conclude with the Promotional Video for Samurai Girls, and a Video Clip, both running to 2 minutes in length. That weird shimmer that I noticed in the main programme is absent here.
If you want to experience pure jealousy, select the French menu options at the start of each disc, and you'll also see the Kazé adverts for the French content that the company releases. Whereas the UK menus load straight away, on disc 1, the French get to sit through trailers for KZTV, the One Piece: Strong World movie, and Redline, while on the disc there are trailers for Kazé home video titles like Roujin Z, Pandora Hearts, Bleach: Fade to Black, and Le Pauvre Coeur des Hommes, Wasabi Records offerings including soundtracks for Arriety and a rock album from Anna Tsuchiya, Manga titles including Sprite, Gale 7, and Beelzebub, and France's VOD service offerings including Tiger & Bunny, Blue Exorcist, and Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan. Most of the trailers are on disc 1, but there is also a little extra French only promotional material on discs 2 and 3. Almost makes you wish that Napoleon had kicked Nelson's butt!
Samurai Girls is going to sell and sell well, if prior precedent is any indication. Its staple ingredients are sex and violence after all, and if there is one thing that UK fans latch onto, its sex and violence. It doesn't even matter if the content is any good, as long as there is sufficient boobage to keep a young, teen, male mind bubbling away in its own hormones. Samurai Girls has breasts in excess, and it has girls beating up on each other until they are naked. And it's got a masochistic lesbian in... I believe the word ka-ching is appropriate at this juncture. It's only a bonus that it has a budget behind it. Not for Samurai Girls the static shots, and triple pans of something like Ikki Tousen, and not for it the hideous character design and inconsistent artwork of something like Master of Martial Hearts. This has had some serious Yen spent on it, and you can see it all on screen, with a very striking design ethic, appealing character designs, and a high quality and consistency in its animation that makes it a delight to watch, as long as you don't think about it.
I thought about it... Samurai Girls is really only just another in a long line of these shows, a rapidly put together reason for a bunch of girls to engage in cloth rending combat, a harem to form around a hapless teen male, and a legion of fanboys to sit slack-jawed in front of their televisions for 5 hours. Jaws will be slacker than usual as Samurai Girls isn't shy about nudity, and it doesn't need much of an excuse to reveal ample flesh, buttocks and boobs. It's also not shy about sexuality, if you were thinking that it's one of those shows that looks but doesn't touches, where guys are prone to faint at the slightest hint of an actual relationship. In that respect alone, Samurai Girls is a little refreshing compared to most other shows of its genre, but not by much. It does deserve its 18 rating from the BBFC though.
The premise itself is quite interesting, an alternate history where the Japan of the Shogunate survived and prospered into the modern day, mostly because of the bonds that form between the Generals and the Master Samurai. The Master Samurai are the ultimate warriors, and we see them introduced in the prologue to the show, fending off Admiral Perry's fleet in the 19th Century, and cutting B24 bombers from the sky at the end of WWII. It's this pact between the generals and the samurai that have kept Japan inviolate, and drive the story in this series. For where there is the ancient pact, there is an ancient menace that threatens Japan when the outside world cannot. And as we begin the story, it transpires that tradition has developed that the pact can only be formed between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Samurai. For reasons that become clear as the story unfolds, the number of Master Samurai in Japan has been on the decline.
When Samurai Muneakira Yagyu returns to Edo to be reunited with his childhood friend, Sen Tokugawa (princess and sister to the next Shogun in waiting) he gets thrown straight into conspiracy and intrigue when a flash of light heralds the arrival of a Master Samurai named Jubei Yagyu. Of course at first she's just a naked girl that falls into his arms, but it's the kiss that seals the pact between them and reveals her warrior personality. Her arrival, coupled with the ominous prognostication from a couple of would be rebels, Yukimura Sanada and Matabei Goto puts them in the middle of various factions and groups struggling for the fate of Japan. It's down to Muneakira to understand his strengths and abilities as a General, as well as awakening other potential Master Samurai, that will decide the fate of the nation.
What that means in actuality is that he quickly gathers a group of girls around him, Jubei who fell in love with him even before she appeared from the sky, Princess Sen who's been secretly sweet on him since childhood and her bodyguard Hanzo (the lesbian masochist), Yukimura, the Lolita character who also develops a crush on Muneakira, and Matabei (modelling an intriguing line in loincloths), and for two-thirds of the series a harem comedy ensues. They're soon joined by a clumsy, idiotic, hammer wielding spy named Kanetsugu, and then Muneakira's powers call forth Jubei's little sister Gisen, who would love to get Muneakira's sword between her assets. The usual jealousies, conflicts, and friendships of the harem apply, with the guarantee that at least once during an episode, Muneakira will be caught in an awkward situation with one of the girls by all the other girls. This being Samurai Girls, there's a bit of action as well, and in the background the story unfolds.
It's in the final four episodes, when Sen's brother Yoshihiko returns to Japan that the overall tale comes to a head, the threat to the nation is revealed, and it's up to General Muneakira and his warrior harem to save the day.
Despite it being a staple of the anime medium, made to exceedingly high production values, I didn't like Samurai Girls all that much. I'm probably picking nits when I say that the striking visual style actually distracted from the base comic elements of the show. It's like a SHAFT comedy gone wrong, where the insane and crazy visuals overpower the narrative. I found the inkblots used to excess at times. Perhaps they were actually meant to distract me from the thinness of the characterisations, in which case they failed. Jubei is the central female of the harem, Muneakira's 'true' love, and as such is devoted to him unconditionally. All the other female characters embody some form of tsundere, the hard shelled, soft centred archetype. We have the classic tsundere, the quiet tsundere, the loli-tsundere, the idiot-tsundere, the slut-tsundere... It gets pretty tiresome, pretty quickly. Add to that the sheer blandness of Muneakira. The hapless teen male in such situations is meant to be a cipher for teen male audiences to identify with, but it helps the story if there is a little meat to the character, a little back story at least. There's nothing to Muneakira, he may as well not be there.
That's Samurai Girls' whole problem, there's just nothing at all beneath the surface. It's animated brilliantly, a unique visual style, with a whole lot of production value, and it's definitely fun to watch once. But the idea of a 'general' forming a 'pact' with a 'warrior' isn't a new one. Sekirei has a similar premise. The production values may be lower, it's much more traditional looking an anime, but the characters have more depth to them, the visual style doesn't hamper the comedy, and above all that show has heart, which Samurai Girls lacks. I cared about the characters and the story in Sekirei. I didn't in Samurai Girls.