Shikizakura – Review – Anime News Network
Tokusatsu has enjoyed increased availability and visibility among English-speaking audiences, especially those adjacent to anime fan circles, for several years now. It’s to the point where far more people than before have an idea of what tokusatsu (or at least Japan’s eminently pop-cultural version of it) is outside of the old odd Power Rangers association. There is an understanding of the framework that establishments like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Super Sentai a work on which new productions can rely to evoke the spirit that makes the appeal of these shows. Sublimationit is Shikizakura, being an anime production, is not technically tokusatsu, having no live-action basis in which to deploy the nominal special effects that characterize the medium. It’s only a technical disqualification, however, because in terms of what he plays with in terms of genre influence and styles, Shikizakura is tokusatsu like any devil.
Love letters to other genres and mediums in anime are nothing new, of course, and Shikizakura isn’t even close to being toku’s first riff in Japanese animation. But it’s worth starting because Shikizakura works best when he proudly wears his hero influences on his color-coded spandex sleeves. The story set-up borrows blithely from what must have been a writers’ favorite Kamen Rider shows, creating opportunities for each of the main characters to confront their literal demons, usually coming out the other side with some sort of whimsical upgrade. The penchant for reverence for shows like this Rider and his Super Sentai the sibling streak is evident in the way Shikizakura brings its characters and story to that upbeat Sunday morning tone, and how much its story is about its characters not believing that they are ‘heroes’ until boy lead Kakeru’s attitude and the endeavors they are involved in all convince them otherwise.
The writing makes for an easy to facilitate thematic shift through elements like Kakeru and his friend Kippei being fans of in-universe toku heroes (with a side episode where they and the gang help put on a live show). But it’s compounded by that love the show’s staff clearly have for the material. There is an optimism in the way Shikizakura approaches its worn tropes, even among stories based on disasters or the upcoming sacrifice of a main character looming in the future. See the tracks go from cynical soldiers in a war against monsters to people who believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference is codified with all the sincerely schmaltzy speeches and triumphant achievements you could hope for. The vibes, as they say, are completely on point.
This presentation is enhanced with animation. I like to think we’re all aware that CGI anime has gotten to a point where we don’t immediately dismiss it on principle, but unfortunately I know that’s still not the case for everyone. So here is, Shikizakurathe look of is “one of the good ones”, though that shouldn’t be unexpected given that Shin’ya Sugai, Go Kurosaki, and all their friends at Sublimation are regulars in this CGI animated game at this point. These people to know technology and how to use it, and they bring their A game to everything from rendering the designs to the sweet technical suits the heroes use to show them off in action. There’s a fundamental understanding of the benefits of CGI on display basically every time the action kicks in, with well-used sweeping camera moves and slow-motion rollouts to give it all a ‘feel’ that doesn’t would not work as comfortably in either modern 2D animation or even the conventions of “true” live tokusatsu. It’s to the point that the more low-key non-action parts of the show, with the characters without their costumes, might seem a little stiffer and clunkier by comparison, but they still work well enough within the setting. If that’s not enough contrast, the series also features two fully traditionally animated episodes, ostensibly as staff breaks between major story beats, which mostly turn into comedy extravagant and serve to demonstrate to how much harder the whole show might have been had it been produced with this more standard animation.
The show’s fresh and fun approach to design even applies to the voice cast, being mostly made up of newcomers who auditioned specifically for the new series. They generally do a solid job, even if it’s their professional debut. Yudai Noda like Kakeru sounds maybe a bit higher than I expected for the character most of the time but then you have the likes of Shingo Yoneyama like Ibara, who seems so comfortable with this kind of character that you would never guess he hadn’t done it before. Sentai Filmworks and HIDIVEit’s english double, meanwhile, uses more established artists as one might expect. They generally seem well-cast, though there is a stiffness to some of their deliveries that may be the result of voice acting on CGI rather than traditionally created anime. Overall, though, the strength of the production, which they’ve apparently been working on for over a year and changing, is a testament to its consistent and energizing use of technology. Sublimation knew they had at their disposal.
However, strong production and an effectively energizing tone are not enough to carry a story, and it creates a major frustration that the actual writing of much of ShikizakuraThe plot obviously cannot follow its ambition. Oddly for my usual storytelling preferences, the main issue I have with the series is its haphazardly deployed world-building. The “near future” aspect of its setting could provide some interesting elements, but other than a few one-off deployments of museum guides or VR news anchors, it takes little account of the narrative. This matches the post-disaster aspect of the story setup: the inhabitants of the world are clearly aware of the accident that happened eight years ago in the series, but apparently no spirits are ready to question the source or how it might be related to the supernatural incidents of the present. Things like the system the Oni uses to ‘feed’ on humans and their wishes aren’t clarified for several episodes, and even then have inconsistencies (I’d say it happens almost as if some writers were expecting for viewers to remember to trace the mechanics from Kamen Rider Den-O).
For another instance, Kakeru and Kippei’s status as adoptive brothers isn’t revealed until it becomes a source of momentary conflict in the fourth episode, at which point you still wonder about the details (Where are their parents?!). A belated reveal makes a character seem like some sort of supernatural lingering presence from the past, before some late-breaking dialogue clarifies that it was actually their ancestor we’re seeing. All of these examples are without mentioning the vagaries and inconsistencies given to us in terms of Ibara’s backstory as the series unfolds. I could go on, but I think all of this shows pretty clearly that Shikizakura maybe a chore to follow sometimes, because you constantly wonder if you blinked and missed important information, or if it was just something the show glossed over with plans to get there later. Toku’s hero shows aren’t known for being bastions of mechanical consistency, sure, but Shikizakuraefforts to accelerate their styles into one Classes might have actually worked if they had spent as much time tightening up their script drafts as they did choreographing their CGI monster battles.
This means that while I was going in and out of Shikizakura really wanting to like it, the show just can’t earn a recommendation. It’s a messy journey that misses a lot of opportunities, and the mere spectacle of his super-powered cyber suit battles isn’t enough to sustain him against all the dimensions he otherwise misses. The action and energy will probably be enough to carry it for some people, as viewers with as much love for tokusatsu conventions as Sublimation clearly got going to find fun times to get pumped. And as a proof-of-concept of the professional capabilities of CGI anime and its future prospects, it might be worth looking at from that angle as well. But there are plenty of other tightly scripted and idealistic anime out there, including several rooted in the same kind of enduring toku tropes that Shikizakura pays homage. You might find something to like if you check it out, but unfortunately I don’t think there’s enough here to say it’s worth prioritizing.