Digging through the bookcase: Sakura Taisen: Kanadegumi

Things all went a bit weird on the Sakura Taisen front after the rather lukewarm reception Sakura Taisen V back in 2005 and it looked like what was once an incredibly popular series might be gone for good, unsure on how to move on from Ogami’s beloved Hanagumi. After a few cameo appearances and the odd spinoff this silence was finally broken in 2012 with the release of the first volume of the Kanadegumi manga – a bold attempt to reinvent the series and bring it back from the brink of irrelevance.

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Or it would have been if the business backing had extended beyond “We want to keep the IP active but we don’t really want to spend any money on it”. So rather than a grand reinvigoration of a classic series we ended up with was a short four-issue manga and a handful of stage show DVDs/drama CDs that petered out in 2014 and nothing’s been seen or heard of them since.

Which is a real shame, because this Kanadegumi manga does everything right.

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Sakura Taisen 3 and Sakura Taisen 5 shook things up by keeping the core cast roles the same but moved things out of Teito to Paris and the USA, while Kanadegumi takes a different approach and not only keeps the new characters in Japan but also in the exact same building as the original Sakura Taisen – the biggest difference being that rather than using actresses in steam-powered mechs to fight demons the action shifts to the theatre’s orchestra section who also happen to be a secret demon-battling force in their own right.

Another major change comes from the group’s basic make-up – Sakura Taisen has always had one male lead with a clutch of ladies to possibly romance but here it’s the opposite, an established team of young men getting used to their confused and put-upon lady leader. Neko has the power to “see” music, making it easy for her to sense where evil musical energy’s coming from (if that sounds ridiculous, please remember this is the series that gave us a clumsy gun-toting nun) and it’s her job to learn how to conduct the men under her command in battle as well as in the theatre. As is to be expected both from Sakura Taisen as well as any Japanese group-based romance-ish anything all the potential love interests fall into distinct personality types – “the energetic one” (with a secret sad past) “the cold one” (with a secret sad past) “the friendly one” (with a secre-ah, you know). They’re all introduced individually over the course of the first two books, and then a Big Bad starts to emerge and they go and deal with that. Well, they start to anyway – as the manga was intended to launch the Kanadegumi it’s more concerned with setting everything up for future adventures, meaning the payoff never comes.

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The storytelling’s absolutely not at fault here – Neko and chums are all lovely characters and as much of a fan as I am of the original cast I honestly never felt like there was an Ogami-shaped hole in the manga or that the Hanagumi’s inclusion would have improved the story in any way – the problem is the unfocused and non-committal launch of a whole new series means that you’re expected to chase the cast across stage show DVDs and drama CDs, all the while knowing that as hard as the creative team tried it’s not a branch of the series that  was ever given any real chance of going anywhere.

The good news is Sakura Taisen: Kanadegumi is a real Sakura Taisen – it’s just as legitimate and as much fun as Sakura or Erica’s (and even Gemini’s) stories. But without the support it deserved - without the game attached to these new characters - it never had a chance. No doubt this inevitable failure was taken as an “I told you so!” by the accountants overseeing this fledgling new series but I feel that if Kanadegumi had had the backing the others did and been released as an Otomate-style visual novel rather than a manga (with a proper ending to boot) then not only would the Kanadegumi have had the bright future they deserved but Sakura Taisen as a whole could have been revived.