Sakura Diaries Review

18 year old small-town boy Touma arrives in Tokyo to do some college entrance exams, excited by the possibilities that life at university in the big city will open up for him, not least of which is the prospect of romance. That opportunity comes unexpectedly on his arrival at the hotel, when he is visited in his room by a young girl who proceeds to take off her clothes and offer herself to him. A virgin, Touma is torn between the idea of having sex with the girl and the ideal of giving himself for the first time to someone he is in love with. Struggling against his better instincts, he throws the half-naked girl out.

The young girl however is not just some anonymous call girl. As Touma finds when he goes to stay at his uncle’s house, she is his cousin Urara who he once shared a brief childhood romance with many years ago. Clearly Touma has long forgotten the incident, but Urara is convinced that the encounter was meaningful and that he is the one true love of her life. She’s going to do everything in her power to make sure he realises that they were meant to be together, and now 18 years of age, she has the looks and the body to make just the right impression.

Touma however has fallen in love with the glamorous Meiko while sitting the entrance exam for a prestigious university. Everything seems to be falling into place for him, living in Tokyo, having met a beautiful girl who seems to be attracted to him also. There’s only one problem. Touma has failed the entrance exam and won’t be going to university with her – unless he can find some other way of getting close to her. But will she still be interested in him when she finds out what a loser he is?

U-jin’s Sakura Diaries is standard high-school teen comedy romance material, a staple of Japanese manga and one that they usually do so well, with notable examples being Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku and Urusei Yatsura, as well as Masakuza Katsura’s Video Girl Ai and Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess. The character types and situations are quite familiar – usually featuring a geeky/awkward/small-town boy with no experience of women, who falls head over heels for a beautiful girl who is his unattainable ideal, while being oblivious to the charms of a lovely girl-next-door who is secretly in love with him.

Having none of the fine cast of eccentric secondary characters of Maison Ikkoku or the science-fiction elements that spark the other above-mentioned series to life, Sakura Diaries is however rather bland and predictable rites-of-passage material – Touma getting drunk for the first time, falling in love for the first time, visiting a love hotel with a girl for the first time and, as a virgin, constantly worrying about just exactly what one does the first time, hoping that no-one realises how gauche and inexperienced he really is. Unfortunately, despite the suggestiveness of the material, it offers up these familiar situations in a morally responsible, goody-goody instructive manner that is certainly admirable, but more than a little dull. With all these beautiful young girls who taunt, tease, flirt and spend a lot of time in the shower and walking around in a towel or little else, Touma never takes advantage and, despite his confusion, he always does the right thing.

Regardless of the unlikelihood of the situation – particularly so in this case withs Touma, who is such an oaf, clumsy, hysterical and prone to wild flights of fantasy that it is impossible to understand just what any of the women in his life find so attractive about him – it is a fantasy that any young man of similar awkward and unsociable tendencies (i.e. a geek) at an uncertain stage in their adolescence is likely to want to identify with. Sakura Diaries provides that dream in spades.

The story then might be predictable, wish-fulfilment material for young boys, but it does reflect the decisions and challenges they are likely to face when about to make the move from adolescence to adulthood as they go to university - the dreams and ambitions, the setbacks and frustrations. Touma dreams of true love, a successful career, a blissful marriage, but finds that the road towards this isn’t always smooth, and the right path isn’t even at all clear. Sakura Diaries shows that life doesn’t always give you what you think want, but if you behave in a morally responsible manner, thinks will work out for the best. Touma’s idea of self-fulfilment doesn’t really extend beyond losing his virginity to someone he loves, having a successful career and settling down to blissful domesticity, but despite this rather dull and traditional outlook, the underlying lesson is that regardless of what your dream is, there will be setbacks, you’ll feel like a failure and a fool at times, but the important thing is to persevere, get back up and move on.

Sakura Diaries is released in the UK by ADV. The 2-disc set collects all 12 episodes of the series, each of them running to 22 minutes long, presumably with PAL speed-up. The set is encoded for Region 2.

Inevitably, as with a great deal of Japanese TV animation series, the transfer is interlaced, but this doesn’t cause any particular issues during normal playback, the image remaining fluid and stable with no real issues or blurring. There are a few minor marks and dustspots, the image is slightly soft and hazy, but otherwise there is little else to worry about. Colours are reasonably well-defined, though blacks are not particularly strong.

Bizarrely, for the UK DVD release of the series, ADV have not provided the original Japanese audio track for the series, just an American-English dub. One would think that ADV would know their market better than this and that the majority of fans of the material would want to see it with its original voice cast. At the very least they should provide a choice, as indeed they do in the US edition, so I don’t understand why not in the UK. The English dub here then is much as you would expect, and if you find the voice acting bland and anonymous, or just plain irritating, you’ve no other choice. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix itself is relatively clear however and has little problems.

Since there is no Japanese track, no subtitles are provided with this release, which is bad news for those who are hard of hearing. Subtitles could easily have been brought across from the US edition, so this seems to be somewhat remiss.

Extra features are limited to some ADV Preview trailers, Clean Opening and Closing Credits, as well as a Bonus Unused Closing Theme, none of which I would consider constituting anything of added value.

Sakura Diaries is by and large a fairly predictable rites-of-passage shojo teen romance drama, with no particular distinguishing qualities or originality in the storyline, the characterisation, the character designs or the animation. It feels less like a drama than a patronising photo-story from the problem page of a teenage magazine, providing instructions on how to handle relationship problems, promoting safe sex, drinking sensibly, surviving from making embarrassing social gaffes and generally behaving in a morally responsible manner. It’s also full of nauseating homilies and platitudes, delivered stiffly in the some of the cheesiest dialogue imaginable. It does however keep the viewer interested over the course of its snappy 12 episodes, providing a well-paced and complete storyline with plenty of incident and a satisfactory, if predictable and safe resolution. ADV’s UK release is adequate for the most part, but the omission of the original soundtrack is unpardonable.

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