Samurai Girls Review

If you are a fan of Japanese anime, or have even sampled only a few titles, you will be well used to all manner of cross-genre hopping that goes on, as well as the rapid changes of tone and pacing that can even occur over the course of a single episode, never mind a whole series. Set in an alternate present-day Japan where there are certain technological advances on the one hand and a return to the samurai ethic and tradition on the other, Samurai Girls doesn’t particularly stretch those genre boundaries to any great degree (a recent futuristic anime series based on The Seven Samurai has already been there – Samurai 7 – as have several others), nor does its big-bosomed, short-skirted, panty-flashing heroines whose skimpy dresses have a habit of falling off during fights appear to offer anything more than the usual fanservice titillation that forms a substantial genre treatment on its own. It can’t be said that there’s anything particularly new in Samurai Girls then, but within those boundaries that the creators have set, it remains surprisingly well-structured, consistent and, most importantly, a highly entertaining series.

Set against the background of historical threats to the Japanese nation from outside invaders, Samurai Girls invokes that samurai spirit of resistance through the protecting deities the Hyakka Ryouan, when Great Japan is faced with an ominous “dark shadow” in the alternate era of the 22nd year of the Heisi Period (2010). Ruled by the Tokugawa shogun clan, the nation is however ill-prepared for the unknown danger that faces them, as the samurai are in decline and only a few master samurai still exist. Muneakira, a samurai serving the Tokugawa clan, arrives at the dojo in the Oedo Special Administrative District at the edge of Mt. Fuji, expecting to find the martial arts academy empty, but there he encounters – in a state of undress, naturally – 15 year-old Lady Yukimura Sanada and her guardian warrior Matebei, two important figures from the rival Toyotomi clan, wanted by the authorities.

The initial battle to capture them, instigated by Hanzo Hattori, the ninja commander and devoted (in more ways than one) servant of Princess Sen, is disrupted by the arrival of a naked girl who falls from the sky and into the arms of Muneakira. Jubei, is a master samurai, her powers awakened by a kiss from Muneakira, but she has no memory where she has come from, or even the extent of her skills, acting like a child when not “powered-up”. Eventually, when it is learned that Sanada and Matebei have come to warn of the augured dark shadow threatening Great Japan, Hattori and Princess Sen reluctantly join forces with Muneakira and the other two warriors, suspicious of the order to capture them that has come from Sen’s brother, Yoshihiro, who is destined to be the future leader of Great Japan.

That’s the set-up basically, but there are a couple of interesting points that arise from the above description that are worth going into in a little more detail. First of all, you’ll notice – if the title of the series isn’t enough of a clue – that there are rather a lot of female characters here (and there are quite a few others who show up later) and only really one prominent male figure. This, as you might expect, leads to complications of a romantic and/or female competitive nature, not least due to the realisation that it seems that the kiss that awakened the inner master samurai in Jubei, could bring out similar powers in the other women. This obviously leads to a lot of female scheming, wiles and no small amount of fantasising of a sexual nature. If there is to be a force of Samurai Girls that moves on to other action adventures in further seasons, we’re in first for a lot of the usual domestic and romantic situations in this opening season that, since the characters here like to take hot baths a lot, provides ample opportunity for “innocent” nudity and sexual situations.

There’s no hiding the fact then that this fanservice element plays a large part in the overall content of Samurai Girls, and it’s certainly gratuitous, but thankfully it’s not its entire raison d’être, otherwise – sexy and fun though it is – it would get tiring very quickly, and be indistinguishable from countless other otaku-oriented series. With a main character, Jubei, whose childish playfulness and innocence hides dangerous and violent powers that are off the scale, there’s some similarity here for example with Elfen Lied, particularly in Jubei’s unawareness of the effect that her nakedness has on her “big brother”, Muneakira. Nor does she seem to be aware of how hot under the collar Muneakira’s old childhood friend, Princess Sen – who is equally generously endowed in the chest department – is getting over this. So all the expected sexual, domestic situations are there, rather well orchestrated with some amusing touches, a delightful sense of comic timing and no small amount of inventiveness and skill on the animation front.

You wouldn’t think it then, but Samurai Girls does actually take the time also to really develop the characters, giving them backgrounds and personalities, all the more to have some fun when those conflicting personalities – strong, jealous, highly-strung, and mostly large-breasted women – run up against each other. And despite the fact that there is a lot of fooling around in this respect as they each step up to their transformations, with naked hi-jinks as their clothes tend to fall off in battle, the underlying intrigue of the story and the dark shadow facing them is nonetheless not forgotten, but remains active throughout, keeping the drama moving purposefully forward. The story is extremely well-developed and balanced in this respect, the darker tone when those menacing creatures of omens and portents start arriving not coming as any surprise, but delightfully fitting in with the seemingly incongruous nature of those blistering and sexy action sequences.

The animation, I’m happy to say, is also fully up to the task. The character designs are attractive and never generic, each of the characters exhibiting distinct personality traits. The fanservice elements in the nudity certainly cater to a traditional style of presentation – if I can put it that way – but there’s also a certain amount of inventiveness in evidence here and the copious nudity and panty-angles never serve to be a complete distraction from the main action. Those action sequences are, in particular, thrilling to watch, being exceptionally well choreographed and animated – although the added effects make the dramatic conclusion somewhat confusing. With this first season of 12 well-paced episodes being perfectly balanced between being knockabout comedy with mild nudity and moving the plot forward, the viewer should find themselves carried effortlessly through the introductions and eagerly looking forward to more of the same, with an expectation of the series developing these characters and this situation even further.

Samurai Girls (“Hyakka Ryoran: Countless Flowers Blooming in Profusion” to give this series its complete title) is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray, collecting the complete 12 episodes of the 2010 series so far on a 3-DVD set, each disc dual-layered. The DVD set, reviewed here (Blu-ray unseen), is Region 2 encoded and is in PAL format.

Generally, the quality of the DVD set is quite good, even if it exhibits a few minor motion artefacts. For the most part, the image is clear and stable, the bold outlines and colouration coming over well in Standard Definition, the 2010 series presented anamorphically in 16:9 ratio. Some colour banding is evident now and again, but not to any distracting degree, and grain shifting motion artefacts seem to occur in vertical pans, introducing a slight wavy fluctuation. This however is only really evident during transitional scenes and rarely affects the main action sequences. I was unable to obtain a review copy of the Blu-ray set for comparison, but I would expect that these issues shouldn’t be an issue in HD, if they are a consequence of NTSC-PAL standards conversion. There is however no interlacing or anything else to suggest that this hasn’t been properly mastered for PAL.

The set is authored for UK and French editions, the choice of language made at the start-up. When English is selected, there is an option to view the original Japanese track with English subtitles or to watch it in the English dub (with selected subtitles for signs). These choices are only available from the main menu. Subtitles are yellow, with occasional white subtitles for off-screen dialogue. Captions are also translated, some of the cultural references and plays on words are explained, but the screen never gets too busy. Subtitles are literal, not dubtitles, and can be a little stiff and formal in this respect, but it’s adequate.

Audio tracks are Dolby Digital 2.0 in Japanese and English. I’m not sure why there aren’t surround options, although my amplifier attempted to play the 2-channels as discreet surround. Both are fine as far as sound quality goes and actually quite punchy. My preference was for the Japanese track, which seemed rather more lively and varied in the characterisation. I watched one episode in English dub for comparison, hoping that the translation might be a little more idiomatic and funny, but it’s not really an improvement, and – for some of the voices at least – it lacks the dynamic and spirit of the original Japanese track. Whichever track you choose however is a matter of personal taste, and either option seems fine in terms of quality.

There are a few more extra features for this release than is typical for an anime series.

Disc One contains two three-minute OAV episodes, entitled Picture Scroll, which put the characters through some comedy situations with even more gratuitous nudity. There is also a 6-episode 4 Cases Manga adaptation, each running just under 2-minutes, which is mostly just talking heads with animated captions. As usual in these comic-strip episodes, like those often found at the back of manga books, the humour is obscure and/or untranslatable.

Disc Two contains a further two Picture Scroll OAV episodes featuring, inevitably, beaches, bikinis, boobs and bathtubs. Also included are two 13-second Trailers and the standard Opening and Closing Credits, but not even Textless, rather with the English translation and Japanese transliteration of the song lyrics that you’ll find on alternative episodes anyway.

Disc Three has another two OAV episodes that contrives some more saucy scenarios to get our heroines bursting out of revealing outfits. A short Promotional Video proves to be a compelling appetiser for the series, while a Video Clip sets some of the best moments from the series to a new theme song.

Featuring quite a bit of gratuitous nudity and sexual situations, Samurai Girls is not for everyone, and to be honest, it’s not usually the kind of anime I would have a lot of time for myself. If you can take this element in the spirit in which it is intended however – and it’s well enough balanced that it doesn’t get in the way of the development of the storyline – there is however a lot more to the series, namely a strong plot-line, well-defined characters, good voice acting and superb animation that is particularly inventive in the action sequences. All in all, at this point in the set-up of the series, Samurai Girls is nothing less than fabulously entertaining, taking us through those introductory passages with a great deal of sexiness and flair, with no shortage of action and entertainment and with the promise of plenty of further developments to come.

8 out of 10
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