Scared of girls

A review of Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Bride

I have this silly rule that when I create a folder for an anime (in an imaginatively titled “Watching” parent folder) I have to watch it to completion. This is why, eventually, I’ll have to finish Samurai Flamenco but is also why I recently powered through Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Bride, the sequel to Samurai Girls. The folder itself was created when the series was first airing in April 2013, and even now I have no idea why given that I’d abandoned that first series when it became readily apparent that it was by some margin, an objectively worse series than Queen’s Blade. And that’s saying quite a bit.

We’ve run out of samurai outfits, why not just put a pirate in there? Why the hell not.

The comparison is expected because both series opt for the “we don’t have much story, let’s throw a whole load of nudity on screen instead” school of thought. Unlike Queen’s Blade though which tempered it’s theatre of flesh with some half-way decent characters, Hyakka is populated unlikable twits. Sure for the former you got utter cretins like Nanael (voiced by Aya Hirano, no comment on the connection) but others like Tomoe and Leina almost made you forget you were watching a series that was spawned from lascivious gamebooks. Hyakka has none of these illusions and presents you with a cast of characters that have all of the charm, wit and pathos of a group of over-sugared four year olds.

Every single one of them is about as graceful and alluring as a sack of rocks and only the newly introduced monkey shows any promise, likely because it can’t speak. It’s difficult to know where to start with the description of how little I cared for the plights of any of the characters without just giving an apathetic shrug. The plight in question has almost nothing to do with the prior series barring a few throwaway callbacks and primarily concerns the original group of transforming Samurai Girls facing their toughest enemy yet (oh no)! After a rout at their dojo, they are for some reason given a month to stop being terrible which they use by going for a bath, going to the beach, and generally not doing anything of great import.

It’s a fairly standard structure for shows of this ilk: bookend the series with two episodes of “plot” then fill the remaining eight with fluff. It served Infinite Stratos and does the same here because, fundamentally, these series don’t exist to tell a story but to serve fetishes. That’s why, like a signboard outside a seedy soapland establishment, every character carries the banner for their arechtype. There’s the diminutive and obnoxious loli, the ditzy and buxom maid, the caustic and buxom tomboy, the quiet charm user, the Japanese princess. The list goes on; pick your poison and prepare to get drunk because it’s unlikely you’ll get much enjoyment out of this otherwise given the drivel spouted and the balderdash that passes for plot.

My main bugbear with the series though is not in its simplistic, friendship-conquers-all message of most storylines but that it all feels vaguely mean spirited, as-if there’s a general undercurrent of discontent. So you have Kanetsugu who is referred to as the “dog” and is treated with about as much respect, often the butt of jokes and sometimes just out-and-out bullying by the other members of the all-girl troop. The antagonists bicker and squabble amongst themselves which is to be expected for cartoon villainy but even so called allies seed dissent just as ably. It ends up making each episode a slog to watch when combined with all the other myriad issues. In reality you have a number of fantasy proportioned women parading around, often in very little, so coming across as anything less than joyous feels a little counterintuitive. You already have the general unease of hemorrhaging IQ points the more you watch, the last thing you need is an aura of disgust coalescing around you (though that may be a natural side effect to this kind of… entertainment).

On the surface at least the watercolour art-style and chunky outlines of characters should be able to elevate the series above blandness but even the ink-splot motif isn’t enough to leave the aesthetic feeling anything but. There are moments of beauty, mostly vistas backed by a paper Mount Fuji or a city during sunset, but restricting the majority of the story to the dojo or faceless and depopulated streets leaves everything sterile. It shouldn’t be, given the anachronistic mixing of feudal Japanese samurai with all the trimmings and modern conveniences like tablet computers and credit cards, after all I have a penchant for that kind juxtaposition, yet again here it’s used more as a kind of “well why not?” than a willful contrast.

That though is perhaps why the series saves itself from being utterly excruciating: an attitude of “why the hell not?”. We’ve already got nudity and transforming samurai girls, may as well throw a maid cafe in there as well. What about adding cat ears to one of the transformations? Why the hell not. We have bikinis and giant TVs but not phones, why not communicate telepathically? Why the hell not. We’ve run out of samurai outfits, why not just put a pirate in there? Why the hell not. Tentacle monster! Goo monster! You get the idea. Absurdity for its own sake is little better than without it, but it at least makes for viewing that is unexpected.

That doesn’t stretch to the male lead though, a personality-deficient idiot who is so abjectly terrified of the girls around him it’s a miracle he didn’t expire like a guinea pig long before this series started. His purpose of course has little to do with the plot and more to enable the much vaunted harem setup and provide a non-threatening slate to impress one’s own personality onto should they have such a desire. Just know that it's all fun and games until someone sees a penis.

I’m perhaps arguing the wrong points regarding Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Bride considering it is squarely in the fighting fanservice genre and leans heavier on the fanservice rather than the fighting. If you want nudity, an elevated baseline of raunchiness and a dearth of complexity then this series will very much be of interest. Other series though have shown to varying degrees that those points, regardless of your opinion of them, don’t have to be the sole selling point and have the ability to layer character drama, no matter how overblown or predictable, on top of that framework. In the end, it’s telling how quickly the animation fidelity drops with Hyakka because like its other aspects, the series feels a lot like it’s painting by numbers.