Bamboo Blade - Part 1 review
Embrace The Way Of Kendo
When an anime opens up with one of the characters declaring that they're going to gather "five brave warriors who will become unstoppable" it would be easy to think you've just slipped in a disc for some epic fantasy story of knights and dragons. Not quite what you'd expect from a sports themed show, which is what Bamboo Blade is. Yet shortly into the series a few things become apparent, and one is that this is no typical sports anime. To begin with, kendo is generally going to be something a lot of viewers aren't going to be familiar with. Maybe you've heard of it and maybe seen a few pictures or the like, but it certainly isn't going to be as recognisable or as easy to understand as something like baseball or football that has more widespread appeal. It seems the director already had this in mind though, as Bamboo Blade strives to make itself highly accessible through two means.
Firstly, it's very kind in keeping things simple. Various rules of kendo are introduced as episodes go by as needed and done in a way that lets the facts sink in smoothly without overwhelming viewers and this makes it easier to absorb little facets of matches that could otherwise go over people's heads. It also makes sure not to drown viewers in unnecessary facts and figures that won't hold any value to those uninterested in the actual sport. Secondly, the series strikes an amazing balance between sports drama and school life drama. While it's true that the team goes through recruitment problems, training regimes and tournament matches, these things only build up a portion of what is on offer. The ability to seamlessly merge other elements into events without letting the sports theme completely dominate opens it up to a wider audience who may not be too enthusiastic about heavy kendo emphasis.
A number of issues are tackled during the course of this first half. In the process of building the team and entering matches, characters within examine and reflect upon the different approaches that have been taken to the sport and where each finds their motivation. It also picks upon how winning isn't as simple as picking up a stick and start swinging, with only Tamaki able to make it look easy, which in itself is a result of her extensive training prior to joining the club. Individual story arcs in this DVD set aren't generally that long, covering a handful of episodes and thus allowing them to cover a number of events up to the halfway point in the series. That said, the pacing is quite strong and you always feel each segment had just enough time to fully develop everything they needed.
That said, while there definitely is drama in here and you'll certainly be rooting for characters or hoping for resolutions with each event, comedy is definitely the primary aim here and in that respect it scores another hit. The humour perhaps isn't as side splitting as something like Azumanga Daioh but the writers certainly know how to generate a few laughs throughout. Whether it's the freakouts of a girl who struggles to commit to any one task, the overzealous fascination with justice that drives the actions of another or the slightly inept actions of the club adviser whose own motivation swings from one end of the scale to the other at a moment's notice. Each of these moments strikes a chord and easily provides such a warm feeling as you chuckle at the latest outburst.
The cast of characters really works to the benefit of the series. Tamaki is the centre of attention, who is a genius when it comes to kendo but initially finds herself unable to relate to others effectively. It's her social development that forms a core part of the series as she ends up joining the team and finds herself facing challenges that she's never really had to deal with before. Watching her trying to work part time in a shop is endearing, especially when she starts trying to relate it to her kendo training. In kendo, her character cleverly mixes the preconceptions that come with her short stature with that of immense power hidden there. The voice work is amazing for her, portraying a meek voice in social circles but carrying a strong sense of strength when swinging her bamboo sword.
Of course, Tamaki isn't the only important person here. Kirino is the team captain and the first person we see in the team. Endlessly enthusiastic and bubbly, her drive to train and compete is almost infectious. The compassion she shows makes it clear why she is the team captain. Miyako has a very interesting dynamic that works well with the comedy of the show. While she projects a gentle friendly demeanour on one hand, she soon shows a drastically darker personality shattering the typical moe persona. Seeing her switch between them in key events is very interesting and is often played up for laughs, with good reason. The change in the tone of voice by her voice actress to reflect the change is expertly done too. Sayako is the somewhat impulsive girl who flits between hobbies and this behaviour is reflected both in her personal efforts and her role in the kendo club. Her presence isn't quite as significant as that of the other girls mentioned but she contributes in her own way and helps build some of the funnier moments, often in tandem with Kirino.
Toraji is the teacher who oversees the club and, given the humourous take on the sport, is obviously not the elite man you'd otherwise expect. His motivation to build a killer kendo team stems initially from a bet he made with his friend from his school years and as the series progresses his reasons appear to get more petty. Fortunately, it's pretty hard to actually hate the guy despite the initial bad impression as you get to see what kind of life he has and the fact that he undergoes development throughout as well. The students in the kendo club teach him as much, if not more, as he teaches them. Ega comes in as the surprise package. One of only two boys on the team and the boyfriend of Miyako, that comes as only one of the many surprises he delivers throughout the series. Even though the focus of the show is purposely and clearly not on the guys, Ega still manages to be a standout character in his own way, especially where he keeps doing things that nobody would expect of him. His aptitude for kendo, while having the hallmarks of a beginner, belie his physical appearance.
Sadly, not all of the main characters are able to shine. Azuma is the final girl in the team, but despite being displayed prominently on the front cover she has very little screen time on this first collection of episodes. She makes a few cameos both in the actual episodes and the previews, but she doesn't get any real focus until right near the end and the collection ends while her introduction story arc is still in the middle of things. As a result it's hard to get a feel for her, although from what little is seen she shows promise in being interesting. Yuji, on the other hand, is present very early on but generally lacks presence compared to everyone else. This is largely because he's effectively the everyman; Yuji has no standout qualities or quirks that everyone else brings and in here that kind of normalcy just makes him sink into the background.
When it comes to looks Bamboo Blade does not disappoint. Hopes are set high from the case cover, boldly displaying the girls in their kendo armour and weapons in hand, giving you an immediate sense both of the variety and the general theme of the series. When you start watching you can see that the character designs work extremely well. Each choice plays off the personalities of each character, like Miyako's cute cheery appearance cleverly working with her mood switches, right down to the facial expressions completely matching up. Interestingly, the series doesn't opt for fanservice at all, even though it would have been very easy to slip into that, which may come as welcome news to some. The locations have a fair amount of detail to them as well whether its in the dojo, classroom or in the city. Sometimes the attention to detail can be truly excellent, like seeing a character in the background that later serves as a joke.
The style of the visuals is quite bold and vibrant with a high level of technical quality to the images. The animation itself is excellent too. The main focus of that lies in the fighting during the kendo practices and matches. A lot of attention is given to the characters' movements and strikes, giving things a real sense of the sport. That said, matches are rarely drawn out affairs and will sometimes dip into the odd shortcut. Most notably, some of Tamaki's finishing strikes have an air of recycling to them, but nothing that I could conceiveably call bad. Fortunately, this quality extends well to other sequences as well, so when you see Sayako furiously peddling her bike down the road or the club taking a break to eat their lunch you're seeing fluid quality animation.
The music in the series generally hits the right notes. The opening and closing songs are perhaps a little too generic J-Pop style considering the general theme but they're nice enough to listen to so no real complaint there. The background music used is often quite appropriate for the events, using high energy tracks when the girls are dueling for points in their kendo matches while opting for more carefree numbers in the more social settings.
The voice acting is simply excellent and Funimation did very well picking the talent for the English dub. There honestly isn't a single person I could pick fault with. In terms of highlights though, Leah Clark's portrayal of Miyako is perfect, somehow managing to nail the portrayal of two personalities that mark them as clearly the same person but with distinct tones to reflect her mood. Cherami Leigh does an outstanding job too in delivering the meek yet powerful voice of Tamaki, while Luci Christian is able to deliver another excellent performance in her role of the ditzy yet reliable Kirino.
Sadly, this set is fairly lacking when it comes to extras. You do have the option of switching to the Japanese audio with English subtitles if you want and you have signs only subtitles as well when watching in English to see what all those signs mean. Then there are the textless opening and closing animations so you can see the art unobstructed. Unfortunately, that's all there is and while it is nice to have those things, they are the kinds of features we've come to expect from English dub anime releases these days.
Overall this is an excellent set that's easily accessible, fun to watch and even lets you expand your knowledge into something you might not have even considered before. An interest in kendo isn't even required, as the likeable cast of characters and quirky events will draw you in.
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