Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall 2010 - Hyakka Ryôran Samurai Girls

I'm not exactly sure what to think when I'm faced with the rehashing of history. I've been told to respect my elders and learn from the successes and mistakes we've made in the past as a country. This includes honoring our forefathers with reverence when it comes to their sacrifices for the sake of nationalism, but it also means being able to laugh when it comes to satire of those figures. I don't mind comedy that pokes fun at war, politics, and history—ask me about Bob Newhart's phone call between Abe Lincoln and his press agent.

However, there seems to be some fine lines being drawn regarding the re-imaging of historical figures in Japan. We've already seen what happens when the parody goes a bit too far into situational comedy (Tono to Isshô). We've also seen recent forays into portraying Chinese historical figures as females (Koihime Musô, Ikkitôsen), sending the storyline careening into a less-violent and decidedly feminine direction. Battles were still waged, but they usually involved some stage of dizziness and undress.

Hyakka Ryôran Samurai Girls, the lone Fall 2010 series that The Anime Network has obtained for online viewing, steps away from Chinese history and opts for yet another interpretation of Feudal-era Japan. Instead of taking the viewer into the past to retell the story, however, the timeline is allowed to unwind without the upheaval of the Tokugawa shogunate. Rather, Japan has become "Dai-Nippon", a unified and isolated country that trains its samurai warriors in an academy at the base of Mt. Fuji.

The newest arrival, Muneakira Yagyû, called to the academy to attend its classes with his childhood friend Sen, is suddenly thrown into an unstable situation when he moves into his dojo. His confrontation with the underdeveloped Yukimura Sanada and her bodyguard unravels an underlying plot by Toyotomi forces to take down the Tokugawa lineage, but it also draws Muneakira to their side when Sen's own forces mistake him for the enemy.

The confrontation with Sen's maid-servants turns out to be a major event, although not as much from the sword-clashing itself. In mid-battle, a naked girl falls from the heavens into Muneakira's arms before kissing him. The girl, who calls herself Jûbei Yagyû, ends up displaying the swordsmanship of a "Master Samurai" and overwhelms the others, only to pass out, later unable to remember how she transformed.

Much like any other harem anime, Muneakira's confidants are all female derivatives of historic figures, and each seek to capture his lips in order to turn into a Master Samurai. The modern setting allows for anime stereotypes—for example, Jûbei is a bubbleheaded ditz, Hanzo Hattori is a meganekko ninja in maid's clothing, and even the legendary Musketeer Charles d'Artanian makes an appearance as a foreign blonde swordswoman. As clues fall into place, the group realizes more and more the real motivations of the Tokugawa government, with Muneakira as the general for the opposing forces.

When you consider past efforts, yes, Jûbei has been female before (reanimated through the "lovely eyepatch" in Jûbei-chan), but that story was strictly parody. On the other hand, in much the same way that Sakura Wars took on the enemy by assembling a female resistance around a male protagonist, Hyakka Ryôran ends up trying to mix comedy with romance and drama. The story is there, but the comedy occasionally drags its level down towards that of a Tenchi Muyô—the show is bound to be remembered for its sexual situations and trips to the beach rather than its swordfighting.

Despite its heavy emphasis on titillation, Hyakka Ryôran does have its saving grace, mostly through its art style alone. Each scene is drawn with the thick ebony stroke of a calligrapher's pen, giving the show a feeling of something more cultural than mere eye candy. There is no escaping the sexual energy of this show, whether intentional or comic, but the art itself provides a unique sort of self-censure—while shows like Sora no Otoshimono and To Love-Ru have depended on cumbersome rays of sunlight, Hyakka Ryôran spatters ink on its nudity to hide the naughty bits with a bit more modesty.

There is no denying that the show is meant to thrill its viewers with the tried-and-true formula of the harem comedy, but the attempt by animation studio ARMS at developing a worthy story with imaginative artistic devices actually overrides the sex jokes and makes Hyakka Ryôran more watchable. It is still ridiculous to imagine the tough sneer of Jûbei coupled with the flash of panties and a vapid giggle, but we're still rewarded with a show that has an overall objective for its main characters, and the artwork allows the eyes to focus on both the action and its background.

In short, there are boobies and butts in Hyakka Ryôran, no doubt, but there are also plenty of other things to look at, you pervs.

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