Series Recap: Sakura Trick

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So, I totally had this expected order of what came first when it came to the Winter ’14 Recaps.  Yeah. About that. My brain just latched onto this review in particular and would not let go, even when I physically forced myself to work on others, all my critical thinking kept wandering back here.  So here it is, shmucks! The much anticipated Sakura Trick review.

As is typical, I adopt one series a season that is outside my comfort zone. For Winter 2014, that series was Sakura Trick, and to me it proved that this policy is a good one, as it exposed me to a show that was surprisingly sophisticated for the genre tags it hosts.

Now I think it’s important to note that over the past few months we have been cutting Sakura Trick a lot of slack, of a sort, because it was not as bad as we feared.  Indeed, some have scored it 10/10 or 5/5, perfect scores for just not falling into the tired stereotypes of Yuri and Slice of Life.

While true, Sakura Trick IS to be commended for basically being the best a series of its subject matter can be, we also have to remember that it is STILL recognizable as being a part of the box.  If you’re outside the box too much, you cease being part of that box and have found yourself in another.  It’d be like advertising a science fiction series.  Science fiction? Sure, but it only uses science we know. Okay. And it’s about criminals. And instead of being in space it’s set in New Mexico and about drugs.   Eventually it is not recognizable as science fiction and you’re suddenly another crime drama, you understand?

But let us not lose sight of the fact that Sakura Trick IS definitively inside its boxes.  The praise to be delivered is in its execution of its elements in a way that does not offend our senses.  And as someone who does not watch Slice of Life or Yuri with any serious frequency (certainly not as you’d expect for all my girl-love comments), I am of the opinion that Sakura Trick is probably as good as those genres will ever hope to become.  Any further from the stereotypes, and you might have to label it full-fledged drama, or romance.

And for those of us who are okay with Sakura Trick but don’t particularly care for the slice of life genre….12 episodes was about as much as we could take.  And indeed, the conclusion of the season’s plot in Episode 12 did sour me a bit towards the series.  Don’t misunderstand, one misstep does not completely undo all the good the show did, it wasn’t quite ME3.  But one season was a good fit, for me. If it had dragged any longer it would truly grate on me, I feel.  I had a similar attitude about Baka to Test, and lo and behold when series 2 of THAT show appeared, I did get fed up quite quickly.  The first season remains one of my favorite comedies, hands down. But I don’t need, or even want, more of it.

Though things did draw me into Sakura Trick like few comedies could do.  First, it presented a relatively realistic world.  Take, say, InuHasa, that show is still my top anime comedy because it is the absurdity of that world that endears itself to me.  Sakura Trick doesn’t have mail order bazookas and high schoolers crashing through windows (save one Matrix-esque feat of gymnastics on the veranda) like a James Bond movie.

No, what drew me in here was the cast and their dynamics.  Along with the aforementioned not-falling-into-tropes.  Most surprisingly was the introduction of story-arc elements.  I’m going to examine the main cast members piece by piece.  Because they were so inconsequential, I am lumping Yuzu and Kaede under the supporting roles.  Sorry, but they just did not net the screentime, earning only two half-episodes of their own (I’m counting episode 4 here), and getting some focus in the cultural festival.  So there isn’t much to really discuss about them from the analytics that doesn’t ALSO apply to other B-cast members.  It’s a hard call, but I made it. It’s hard enough to justify examining Kotone and Shizuku independently.

I also feel that, while this disclaimer always applies to the blog, here it applies more than ever.  I will be examining things in detail that, intentionally or unintentionally, reinforce themes and the subject matter, as I experienced it, in this show.  That is just me, and your viewing experience may be different, but I think of any show I have delved into this is what you might call “the least deserving”.  I can say with 100% certainty that not everything I see was intended, and yet the fact it reinforces the same points over and over again speaks to the good grasp on the story presented during its inception.

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First Thing’s First, Though

Let’s give the series, however, an address about its subject matter.  This has dogged Sakura Trick since before it even aired, and will no doubt linger for years.

And the issue is this: Is Sakura Trick exploitation?

The sentiment is understandable for the gay community, which is practically a “super minority”.  Being co-opted as objects for the majority’s amusement is not the epitome of fulfillment by any means.

Personally I do not feel it so, though.  The characters in Sakura Trick are homosexual, yes.  It is the source of a lot of humor, yes.  The creative staff is mostly male, yes. These are all significant handicaps, to be sure.

So the first question is this, are straight people allowed to write gay characters? I’m sure some would argue no, but I think it’s fine.  After all, no one gives me shit in my stories if I write a character straight (or at least they haven’t yet).

Ah, you say, but Doll it is not that easy.  Gay people have been persecuted, and with that identity comes a history of dealing with people not understanding them.  Alright, let’s give the straw man his day. And I agree, there are far too many people who think they’re doing the gay community favors when in fact they make the problem worse. See: Star Trek. Hell, let’s leave entertainment, where certain CEOs of Mozilla were recently forced to resign by the same moral crusaders who a generation ago would have hounded him for the opposite stance. A majority young, straight crowd decided to white knight for the gay community without even understanding they were behaving the same as those who barred gay people from so much 50 years ago. So absolutely, there is bit of a problem when it comes to straight people representing gay people, this is true…

True. But I quote George R. R. Martin when he was presented the observation that his female characters are written exceptionally well, “You know, I always considered women to be people.”

I am indeed a firm believer that the best of intentions count for SOMETHING.  And in Sakura Trick, while there did seem to be a “kissing quota” (which was mostly a distraction, to me), the effort was made to present its characters as humanly as possible (within the confines of a slice of life comedy).  The characters were more than the sum of their vaginas rubbing together.

And inversely, let’s not forget the OTHER half of the Yuri genre (the half that INFURIATES me to no end): The idea that lesbian romance is pure as the driven snow and good girls don’t kiss.  Fuck. That.  By having sex drives, the characters in Sakura Trick were written to be far more human than their counterparts in similar shows, and this is the best we can do.

After all, that is the PREMISE of the series. And you have to bend your suspension of disbelief in the fact that we are seeing the story “in media res”.  The extraordinary part that is worth examining, and not the humdrum shit of everyday life where everything stays the same.  Let’s just bring up the Star Trek thing, is every ship doing the fun shit of saving the universe and sexing green women? No. We see Sulu captaining the Excelsior, having spent THREE YEARS cataloging GAS anomalies.  That’s what they did all that time. No saving civilization, no first contact, just a bunch of nerds looking through microscopes.  The reason we focus on the Enterprise is that it IS the flagship that gets to do all the cool things.  I think a similar lens must be applied to ANY show.  We are seeing people at their most interesting.  And while your one-man stage play didn’t stoop to the levels of being interesting, let’s face the fact that most stories are to interest people, not a deconstruction of the Marxist zeitgeist by exposing them to living ambien.

And I bring up my point that I mentioned in the yuri goggles post: You can’t drag Harry Potter to 1900 and become a millionaire.  Art reflects culture, not the other way around.  While Sakura Trick may have filled a kissing quota to get greenlit, as yuri is not known to be a profitable genre, those are constraints being worked around. We can acknowledge their weakness, but it does not follow that everything is therefore bad and must be punished.  It’s doing some things to get by, some things that in a perfect world where budget was not a concern could be forfeited. But I think if you are of the belief that never having Sakura Trick would somehow solve cultural attitudes about homosexuality, I think you’re taking issue with the wrong end of the gun, there. Hey let’s use the gun metaphor, for shits and giggles.  Even if you don’t believe in the whole “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” shtick, let’s also note that most sane senses of gun control are based on the idea that it is the class of weapon, not the existence of weaponry itself.  And in terms of how harmful it can be, Sakura Trick is tiny. Miniscule.  It is a small calibre that with the proper gun safety will never harm anyone. We’re getting to the bad, don’t worry. But the argument that it will somehow spontaneously cause bigotry is unfounded.

Unless, again, you are of the opinion that gay people cannot, under any circumstance, be the target of humor.  In which case, that is your sacred cow. I just have a sense of humor. The gay-oriented humor is not mean in Sakura Trick by any means, and it is not pervasive by any definition.

And, giving the Straw Man his day once more, even if we were to accept that Yuri is purely aimed at the straight man’s penis…it is completely subversive to still present people as human beings.  To approach people who are arguably most in need of  “lesbians as people, too”, by proving that…and we may have to reach here…they ARE people.

But let’s not get all Loose Change about this, stringing together our newspaper and forcing facts that don’t technically exist…I know, I’m one to talk. And I know it’s not exactly paranoia when people ARE out to get you, but in THIS CASE, I feel those comments are unfounded.  Obviously all proof is anecdotal as of now, but knowing plenty of lesbians who love this show, it clearly isn’t this “exclusive” domain of the patriarchy or whatever.

There is one glaring misstep towards the gay community, but we’ll get into that when we address Haruka directly.  Oh look, that’s right now.

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Takayama Haruka

Our lead and standard viewpoint character, Haruka wins a lot of affection from me for a very biased reason: I was totally that girl in high school.

And as The Doctor says, you have to keep moving, so long as you don’t forget all the people that you were.

Haruka’s character can probably best be described as “impulse”.  She is the incarnation of base emotions made manifest in a high school girl.  She acts on desires with little heed to what the logic of the situation calls for.

Along with this is her obsessive nature.   Right from the start she is very much obsessed with her best friend Yuu.  The story is unclear how far back this attraction goes, but it seems to be some time.  And she does this to the point where her other friends, such as Yuzu, would dismiss her outright as not paying them any attention.  I would argue that this obsessive trait in Haruka is what makes her move past barriers in her life, such as attending the committee meeting in Episode 3.  Her obsession with Yuu overpowers her fear of committees, or of Mitsuki herself (though she did get an assist in the latter from Kotone).

It’s also fairly apparent, especially early on, that Haruka has some serious self-image problems.  She continually apologizes when others are not as enthusiastic as herself (which is almost always), assuming herself to be pushy and overbearing with others.  While true to an extent, Haruka’s insistence on this goes far beyond just being polite.  Her very direct manner of apology and contrition speaks to how she values her own desires (that is, not at all).

This is why, I’d wager, that it occasionally seems Haruka is unwilling to take responsibility for her relationship with Yuu, having an almost deferential opinion towards the latter.  She may, in her head, be willing to fight. But when presented with others who “deserve” happiness more, she is slow to place her personal desires on the same level as theirs.  This may also be partly to blame for the lengths she goes to for Yuu, even in her fantasy world being both breadwinner AND domestic for her.  And it does lead to a very strong sense of jealousy in Haruka, she is consistently lacking in confidence in her own ability to keep Yuu’s attention.  She probably feels that Yuu has 100% control over this relationship, even though from our outside perspective we see that isn’t true.

This even results in part of her dynamic with Yuu being the latter abusing this impulse, making her feel insecure just to push her buttons, such as with Kotone.

Of course when Yuu isn’t using it to her own ends, she is quite sensitive to this part of Haruka’s personality, and when Haruka passive-aggressively voices her woes, Yuu can, often enough, be relied on to try and alleviate them.

Let us not forget Head Haruka, the impulses and fantasies in her head.  Head Haruka had a pretty big role in the first two episodes.  After this, it was toned down and slightly altered, there would be less fourth-wall interaction between Haruka and Head Haruka. Certainly not to the level of the “betrayal” of Head Haruka in Episode 1.  But it is important to note that Haruka looks at the world as this game.  The cynical may say, a sociopathic urge to use people as game pieces for her enjoyment.  She plays commentary on the Yuri fan, constantly shipping the various women in her life together.  Haruka is the Yuri-fan living the dream, in this regard.

But let us address her misstep, that of Episode 12.  Haruka seems to have lost all consciousness of courtship and monogamy.  And this was the big no-no of the series, I felt.

Don’t misunderstand, I may have been in favor of the Mitsuki ship, but narratively it made little sense. It made far more sense to have Haruka choose Yuu as a moral question.  Only they didn’t do that.

Haruka sticks with Yuu not because of any conscious choice, but rather, the dilemma removes itself, resetting the world back to what it was. Hell, Haruka was completely oblivious there WAS a dilemma. In doing this it robs Haruka of her agency in her love life.  Consistently throughout the series we saw that Haruka’s attraction to Yuu was deep seated and long-lasting, going back to before High School quite possibly.  And we saw them advance in steps, we even had a mini-episode in Episode 8 that addressed their nature as borderline romantic.  And they pushed forward.

Furthermore, the whole idea of Haruka not understanding a committed relationship is silly, as that was the butt of many jokes, such as Episode 6 where Yuzu tells Haruka to spend time with her other friends, and Haruka responds “there’s only room in my heart for Yuu!”

It wasn’t even Haruka’s ambivalence that put me off. It was the goofy, derpy way she came across.  She had no reason to be so ignorant.  It made all that good will that Sakura Trick had earned up to this point sour, as the show basically said “Yeah these girls don’t know how to be adults”, one of the stereotypes that lesbians need to overcome (I’m looking at Japan here).

In terms of Haruka’s character, it taints a lot of the benefit of the doubt she is given.  But again, as I have mentioned before, it’s fine to have a conflicted view from the ultimate message if what is shown on screen is so greatly at odds with what you’re being told. But that is the best way I can spin this.  Because to take it straight on at face value, it is very hard as a gay person to not hear it say “You know when we were layering this ‘relationship’? Turns out YOU’RE THE ASSHOLE! They’re just practicing.”  It doesn’t go quite so far as to say Haruka needs a good dicking, but it’s pretty close.

And again, based on everything Haruka does in the OTHER 11 episodes, this seems a little too simplistic to me.

Perhaps we can reconcile this with the fact that the final episode was mostly from Mitsuki’s perspective, and perhaps this is how SHE will remember things.  But that doesn’t really gel with the entirety of the series nor does it mirror any episode we’ve seen thus far.  I can, and certainly do, believe that while Haruka and Yuu have a rather immature relationship, but to say they aren’t striving for more seems to just get in the way of what we see.  After all, from Haruka’s end, a relationship built on infatuation can very quickly become loathing.  As the adage goes, uncompromising heroes become uncompromising villains. So that “first love” aspect is still there, but it does not follow that it needs to then apply to her entire personality.

Or, we can take it at face value, that this pair, Haruka and Yuu, are individually immature without needing to cast a light on ALL lesbians everywhere.  But there’s a certain tenderness about the issue at hand.   It would be like KFC releasing a commercial with all black people hootin’ and hollerin’ over fried chicken with watermelon in the background.  Sure, it CAN be innocent…but you’re invoking some awful imagery by doing so. And arguably as the viewpoint characters, there was more responsibility on them to be “role models”, for lack of a better term.

Frankly, Sakura Trick should have known better.  While -okay- in a long term, there really should be no illusions that this was likely the series finale in animated form.  Perhaps there will be a season 2 one day, but that is likely many years down the road once the snowball gets big enough.

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Sonoda Yuu

Haruka’s partner in crime, the childish Yuu won many people over by being a sweetheart and having child-like energy about her.

If you were normal.

If you were me, you just wanted to punch her in her fucking throat.

Okay I’m being extra mean for the cameras.  If Yuu’s character represented anything, it was “uncertainty”.  She was extremely cautious and from the get-go was anxious to keep Haruka’s affections at arm’s length.  And certainly not just bad mojo, but we saw in Yuu a very poor student who was arguably resigned to the fact she wouldn’t make anything of herself.  This may explain why she was so drawn to Haruka, even though from what we see Yuu was used to having an entourage before meeting her.  Haruka fills that void in Yuu’s life that says “you are good enough, everything will be fine”, words that Yuu is probably not used to getting from external sources.  I think this is best demonstrated in Episode 8, after the wedding, when Yuu moves in to kiss Haruka on Christmas Eve and the latter recoils unsure.  Yuu’s expression is extremely hurt, and in this context, it would probably be because the one rock she had suddenly became unstable.  If Haruka doesn’t want Yuu…what hope is there?  And…it manifests less well in the finale…where Yuu insists on kissing Haruka above the other’s protests.  It’s okay to be a jerk now, because there will always be a later.

I think what I just could not stand was that Yuu is a jock.  And animated with cute pigtails or not, I can’t stand them.  I know that Haruka is a “nursing” person, one who loves to take care of others, and right now that person is Yuu…but it feels so lop-sided sometimes that I can’t help but turn my nose up in disgust.

I am reminded of hearing athletes talk behind me at the dining hall in college, talking about homework when one pipes up “Hey, that’s why we got females, to do that shit for us”.  And every time I see Yuu taking it easy at Haruka’s expense I can’t help but draw up those images.

Yes, I know Yuu often tries to make amends, but it seems every time I’ve gotten over my knee-jerk impulse to break her kneecaps, Yuu doubles down with something more obnoxious.

Now like I said, I am far more like Haruka than Yuu.  So while I rationally see where Yuu is coming from…at points it can’t help but feel like Yuu is the guy who doesn’t want his frat knowing he’s banging the fat chick.  This is the feeling it has when she’s being VERY aggressive sexually while beating Haruka into keeping quiet.

Take the festival.  Yuu forgets to tell Haruka she changed her plans, so as compensation she says “I’ll let you do whatever you want,” and the pair begins making out, as it would always be in Haruka’s world.  But Yuu’s dickery seems to be a persistent thing in her behavior, almost like an abusive relationship.  Though in her defense, Yuu rarely makes the same mistake twice.  She forgets to tell Haruka at the festival, and there are no more misunderstandings about their schedules.

One of Yuu’s more interesting, subtexty traits was her habit of deflection.  Almost every piece of advice she gave others was a direct reflection on her own behavior.  When Shizuku is unsure about her stance with Kotone, Yuu tells her to be forward with her feelings.  And even the night before school starts, Yuu calls Haruka up to remind her to keep things ready, despite the fact we know the former is all set and rather responsible.  And, even in Episode 10, Shizuku and Kotone’s romantic moment is broken up by Yuu.  Even when it’s not your relationship… Also worth noting is, fitting into this theme of uncertainty, the girls commented that Yuu was very easily led around.  In this regard, Yuu may see quite clearly into other people’s lives, but in her own she is frozen in place, assuming everything will screw up if she moves too much, like her existence is a house of cards.

An important detail is Yuu’s relationship with her sister, Mitsuki.  While prone to bicker as siblings often do, Yuu often recognized and deferred to her sister’s judgment, listening to her advice when her own brain had no answers…which was all the tim-DAMNIT! Play nice…play nice…  I am also willing to see that Yuu perceived that Mitsuki felt she was far too close to Haruka in a substantive way, which is what leads her to practically shout she is “just friends” with Haruka in the finale.  I prefer to imagine that this influence is what leads to her emotional armoring against Haruka, rather than the juvenile interpretation we’ve already discussed.

Or to draw a comparison, Haruka is the Romeo, emotional, impulsive, love-conquers-all.  Yuu is more Juliet, restrained, concerned for the consequences because the derp she’s with isn’t taking this very seriously, yet no less in love.

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Sonoda Mitsuki

This was the one character I did not see coming out of left field.  You might say that’s a tasteless softball joke, and you’d be right.

Mitsuki came to emerge as the third lead character, and she probably exists to represent “ascension”.  Not just growth, but a chaotic force that never leaves things the same as before she arrived.  She even starts as “Mitsuki-kaichou”, the top of the pecking order in the student body, seemingly self-actualized with herself. In this sense she is the opposite of her sister Yuu, who is paralyzed to keep things the way they are lest they fall apart.

Mitsuki, on the other hand, is quite sure of herself and driven.  It gives her the confidence to push past her shyness and politeness to get to the heart of a matter.

Originally Mitsuki was introduced as a sort of antagonist, intent on preventing Yuu and Haruka from sharing lip locks.  While she was polite enough to leave well enough alone so long as the girls kept things beyond a shadow of a doubt, she was never able to suppress her suspicions.  But strangely, and thankfully, she was the character who had a true arc this series.

In Mitsuki we see arguably a great sympathetic portrayal of the self-hating-closet-gay.  Because over the course of the series it becomes clear that her interest in Haruka isn’t as a protective sister, but as a jealous rival for her affections.  Mitsuki constantly angers herself over her “random” thoughts, which every so often would insert a little romantic scene between herself and Haruka.

But being objective, Mitsuki likely wasn’t attracted to Haruka expressly, though the latter does have admirable qualities, it is more likely that Mitsuki has found a convenient outlet for pent up emotions that she has, until now, been afraid of acting upon.  Mitsuki is easily roped into the “big sister” role of Yuu’s social circle, and it seems Mitsuki had no close friends prior to this.

One of Mitsuki’s most important qualities was her rational approach to people.  Talking to others had a purpose, and without the purpose she saw little point in doing so.  Every time she tagged along with her sister’s social circle, she always, even if only to herself, justified it as a rational act to take, the level of self-deception varying in degree week to week.  Mitsuki less became a part of our main cast, so much as she was absorbed by them, tied to them and kind of tugged along for the ride.  Mitsuki initiates social activity only twice in the entire series run: Once bringing snacks to Yuu and Haruka, and second when calling Haruka out in the finale. In this we see both as expressions of her sexuality, and perhaps why she stopped approaching Haruka was because of her understanding that Yuu was Haruka’s special someone.  But everything has purpose to her.  When called out to the coffee house, Mitsuki gets right down to business.  There must be a “why”. Haruka would never call her over just to spend time with her.

Mitsuki’s driven nature also explains how she is so easily able to accept her feelings for Haruka, at least once she draws that conclusion.  Because any feeling Mitsuki has is not a result of  impulse or hormones. No, to her, each feeling is fate. It is destiny for her to feel this way, and she approaches these things like a school test, a problem to be solved with a “correct” answer, which is why when Haruka’s answer is different from hers, she ultimately backs away.

And yet this was a very unjealous form of love. Usually.  When she notices that Yuu and Haruka are not getting on well, she goes out of her way to make sure the pair are given time alone, and gives her sister advice on how to stay close to others.  A bit of an odd function for a girl so socially awkward that she takes to spying on the pair during lunch, but whatever, she sounds big sistery and important.

Another chaotic element to Mitsuki was the passage of time.  Her impending graduation hung over the last few episodes.  And with it, came Mitsuki’s final change.  She came to accept the part of herself that loves women, and came to see it as truly expressive of her very soul, despite the fact that Haruka, the one who had arguably introduced her to this idea, lagged behind emotionally and was unable to grasp it.  The student has surpassed her master, in this regard.  And we really get the feeling that Mitsuki is leaving Haruka behind not just physically, but emotionally.  And while we do see Rina may possibly harbor some feelings for Mitsuki, we know that the latter is crushed by her decision.  It’s an understandably hard decision to make.  Mitsuki has been student body president, and when in leadership, things are your fault.  You can see the gears turning in her head “If only I had done something different.”  Even though it was a situation that she had little actual control over, it weighs on her.

That’s not to say that Mitsuki was right.  There are many forms of love and Haruka’s is no less pure than Mitsuki’s.  But in Mitsuki’s mind, where everything has an order, a purpose, a function, any answer different from her own is unacceptable. But again, much like her homosexual leanings, the idea that love does not fit in a box is just an idea she is not exposed to with her limited social network, so it’s probably a second leg of her journey to undertake.

And, I just have to make special mention of it. I loved Mitsuki’s jealous rage.  The slight tremor in her voice as her pupils dilate and she clutches at the nearest breakable neck…it always, always managed to get a laugh out of me as she shouts at herself “I don’t know why that makes me so angry!”  I think these moments displayed the mastery in Fujita Saki’s portrayal of her.

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Zatoichi Noda Kotone

By far my favorite character in the seires was Kotone. Confident, attractive, and intelligent Kotone.  Examining her and Shizuku’s relationship is rather simple as only four mini-sodes explored their dynamic in great detail, with some notable mentions from time to time.  It has been noted that the Kotone/Shizuku dynamic exists as a bone to the drama fans, which is probably why I love them so much.

Like Haruka, Kotone is an emotionally aggressive person, and she is very much, pardon the hyperbole, “beauty”. And I mean that in an almost classical sense of the word. While beauty is inspiring, something to be admired, it is also weak and vulnerable to the more hostile elements around it.  Beauty does protest, and in its image, by the mere reason that it exists, there may be a perfectly good reason to stop, but ultimately if the hostile forces are uncaring enough, they will demolish the beautiful with little regard for how fragile and irreplaceable it was.

Kotone has an almost “chess-master” like relationship with the world.  She frequently put on an act to show she was not a threat to others, but several times her intelligence cracked through her non-chalant exterior when the situation demanded it.  Even right from her introduction, she holds up the attendance list, showing our cast the name of Shizuku, whom we know she’s LIVING with, saying “doesn’t this name stand out? I’ll bet you she’s cute.”  She breaks through Shizuku’s defenses by merely pointing in a direction and letting others free will take over, rather than specifically leading the horse to water which might take away some of the compliment.  In this all Kotone did was draw attention to the very shy girl who, if left to her own devices, would probably be content to be left alone and ignore her classmates for the next three years.

Kotone also demonstrated a certain emotionally sadistic side.  She punches Shizuku in the arm to show her affection, and revels in making the latter uncomfortable.  This doesn’t even count the show dropping us little hints like Kotone having a whip at the ready. And there is no doubt a certain demographic of sadists develop that way due to a lack of control in their early life.

Of course once we see into Kotone’s family life, the picture becomes much clearer.  Kotone is a subversive, and while she rarely fights very hard, she is obviously pressured from multiple sides about her life in a constant barrage of “should have”s.  In this sense Kotone doesn’t wield her power like a blunt instrument, but more of seeing the world as a democratic enterprise that she doesn’t want to disrupt for her own ends.  She complains in Episode 5 about being tired from working in the library, but noticing Yuu is unhappy immediately suggests they walk to the coffee shop.  In Episode 7 she is willing to let others fight her battle for her, so unwilling to put her needs before the group’s desire that it isn’t until a vocal minority sides with her that she even voices her opinion.  And even then, only privately to Shizuku.

And yet, seeing this nature of hers, we know how hard she must have pushed her family to live with Shizuku for these next three years.  It speaks all the more to how she recognizes how valuable this time is, even if her actions are slow to retain it.  Perhaps it is a sense of self-worth that says “I already took so much, what right do I have to continue being selfish?”

I would argue that this role as chess-master is what leads to her attraction to Shizuku.  We see from the pool party that on learning Haruka and Mitsuki can’t swim, she is right at the fore helping them learn.  And we see clearly that she tries to help Shizuku in many ways, be that socially, or the mentioned swimming lessons, or reassuring her when afraid.  Like Haruka, Kotone sees someone who needs her help. But whereas Haruka’s is more like a nurse, taking care of Yuu on a day to day basis, Kotone approaches it more like a sensei, trying to help Shizuku learn about herself and become a more complete person.  I dare say she is fulfilled every time she makes a dent in Shizuku’s dense emotional wall, and it’s that almost perpetual hunt that keeps her engaged in their relationship.

Another key point is Kotone’s intellect, which was often hidden behind a slightly-sadistic goofball.  But on those occasions where perception made the difference, it was always Kotone.  Very early on she manages to equate Haruka and Yuu’s relationship with hers and Shizuku’s.  Kotone is rarely seen without a big dumb grin, or a little whimsical cadence in her voice, but the sports committee meeting she drops all of it, and addresses Haruka in arguably the most serious presence we ever saw of Kotone.  And judging by the way she “coaches” Haruka, I think it’s a safe bet that she figured it out long before Kaede did.  But unlike Kaede, who is inquisitive and pushed the issue, Kotone seemed content to know it for herself, another chess piece satisfied.

She also knew Mitsuki was spying on Haruka and Yuu, but never brought it to their attention, keeping that info in her pocket until it was useful.  And in Episode 6, Kotone verbally spars romantic nothings with Shizuku, quickly overwhelming her with her quick wit, until the latter has no defense but “…baka.” and a kiss.  This is also the scene where it is obvious that she is “faking” her lackadaisical cadence, forcing it out though her natural instinct is to be direct with Shizuku.

You might call this Kotone being “the royal smart person”, in that she is consciously aware of just how futile her struggle is in the face of society.  That perhaps the reason she finds it hard to fight for Shizuku’s love is that she is fully conscious of just how screwed they are down the road.

Which, of course, is the big draw for their relationship. Shizuku and Kotone have a definite end, impending drama, which adds a bitter note to everything they do together.

Kotone has a fiance waiting.  An off-screen, evil fiance, that ruins all good things.  We get the impression that Kotone would be married off ASAP if she were living at home (legal age being 16), as her graduation is always referred to as “putting off” the engagement.  This would seem to imply that the marriage is arranged, at least in SOME way, and while Kotone may not be paired with someone she outright -hates-, it’s also clear she would rather not go ahead with it, and spend her life with Shizuku if given the choice.  Also, as she’d likely be married at 16, it’s probably likely that said fiance is at least a few years older than her.  And at 16 that’s a big difference, and hard to reconcile with her own choice.  Likely someone from her parents big-wig social circle, and the higher class you go, the more common these “nudged” marriages get, even in America.

For Kotone, the marriage represents the point where her life takes on a will of its own.  When adulthood creeps in and takes away her personal choice.  And sure, it’s true that if Kotone REALLY fought, she could live however she wanted.  But we don’t know the pressures involved.  We don’t know what promises were made, maybe this boy’s family bailed out hers and she feels obligated to stick to this, or vice-versa and she knows her parents are vindictive pricks who will take it out on the innocent if they can’t punish her, or perhaps it was a big concern and by fully committing to it was the only way she convinced them to let her live with Shizuku. Or maybe, just maybe, she cares about her family too much to be disowned by them, which breaking the engagement would almost certainly result in.

Of course the specifics aren’t really the point, which is why they aren’t mentioned.  Because the marriage means so much more than just “the marriage”.  It is the looming “adultness”.  Not just her family, but jobs, university, motherhood, all things that will pressure Kotone to behave normally. To not indulge in childish female intimacy.  Haruka and Yuu are more “the fantasy Yuri”, they get to be cute and innocent and ignorant of the serious consequences of their actions.  Kotone and Shizuku? They aren’t like that at all.  Their relationship is very aware of itself, and the precarious nature that keeps it lingering at the edge just long enough for one more kiss.

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Minami Shizuku

Well, if Kotone was my favorite and most identifiable character…it’s either extremely predictable of me, or very good insight by the creators (or a mix of both) that the girl I felt most “attractive” was Shizuku.  And I do mean that from the pure personality level.

Thinking long and hard about a good word for Shizuku (that is, about thirty seconds), a good theme for her is “melting”. Melting has good and bad connotations, as any viewing of Frozen can tell you.

On the positive, we see in Shizuku a rather anti-social creature who is slowly exposed to the power of friendship.  While she does remain on the peripheries of Haruka’s life, our primary viewpoint character, we do see Shizuku bonding with each of the cast members in her own way.  A far cry from her life in middle school, where she was admittedly isolated and really had no friends to speak of.

While melting the ice queen may be a good thing (I use this term completely independent of the Frozen joke earlier), there are bad connotations to melting.  And as mentioned in Kotone’s section that stuff involves the latter’s impending engagement and marriage, when she will be forever divided from Shizuku. Although, the anime hints, they would carry on their love affair for some time into adulthood regardless of how that drama plays out.  But still, there is this sense of the relationship dripping away day by day, punctuated by Episode 10, where it was literally snowing, a complete analogy for the relationship between Shizuku and Kotone.  It’s beautiful to see happen, and a joy to play in, but eventually, the forces of nature will win again and it must disappear.

But even in this, the snow itself IS a force of nature that can’t be stopped when it arrives.  And that’s really the most accurate way to express Kotone’s insistence on being a part of Shizuku’s life.  But the fact we see so little of this pairing (as I said, about four minisodes worth of story time), adds to this dimension.  We, the viewer, look and say “But we’ve barely started!”  And that, I like to think, is the point.

Perhaps an alternative interpretation of the character would be “fear”, as the fear of failure, the fear of relationships, the fear of the future all play significant roles in Shizuku’s character development.  As well as being able to project a little fear into others, lest we forget the most adorable witch ever.

From the very first scene in school, Kotone made efforts to make sure Shizuku felt included in her social circle, as she had already known Kaede and Yuzu from middle school.  It was Shizuku who was the loner who came from her own middle school.

This probably explains why Shizuku is so quick to push Kotone back to arm’s length on several occasions.  She is not a socially-aggressive person.  Both for reasons of shyness and the fear of losing face.  After all, the girls take notice when Shizuku is smiling, because it is something she never does.  From the evolutionary perspective, smiling is a disarming tool.  You have evolved to recognize smiles as a baby because those are the faces more willing to do what you tell them. Insidious, isn’t it?  But for someone who sees themselves as “apart”, Shizuku is not in the habit of trying to disarm her peers with her charms, though from the way everyone seems drawn to her as attractive and cute, she’d be way, way better at it than Yuu.

Ah, but there’s the rub. If she applied herself.  Which is shown again and again to be a problem for Shizuku.  Between her initial misgivings that Kotone kissed her because she was a convenient cute face, and her inability to let go of this insecurity even by Episode 7 (which I remind you is almost 6 months after), Shizuku frequently demonstrated the inability to fight for her own desires.

In this way she is like Haruka.  She internally feels that Kotone is the person who “controls” the relationship, that all it takes is Kotone rescinding her approval and it all falls apart, without regard that her own feelings count for something.  So as a pre-emptive, protective measure, Shizuku pushes Kotone away at various intervals to prevent herself getting attached to someone who might not want to commit to her.

But, the ice queen does melt eventually, in episode 6 we see Shizuku pushing herself beyond her comfort zone because she is inspired by Kotone, and after Episode 7, where she “races” for Kotone’s love, we don’t really spend a lot of time with the pair until Episode 10, where Shizuku is lamenting that her relationship with Kotone has a finite end.  Now we’re never shown, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Shizuku was afraid of living each day to the fullest due to her dread at the fact her relationship is finite.  “What’s the point, it’s just going to be over soon.”  But she does voice the opinion that she has, slowly, started to see things from the more carefree Kotone’s perspective.

And if we’re lucky, she will melt all the way just in time to fight for Kotone when the time comes!

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Supporting Cast, Because Not Everyone Rubs the V

Yuzu and Kaede were always central to Sakura Trick, but their development was, in the case of Kaede, slow and subtexty, or in the case of Yuzu, barely there at all.  As a pair, they existed primarily as “everyman” characters.  And their best role, in my opinion, in Episode 4 as fourth-wall commentators on the Yuri genre.  They’d reprise this several times.

Yuzu was a very straightforward person.  It could be argued that she preferred what she could see directly, demonstrated when she is of the opinion that Yuu and Haruka are “just friends” when Mitsuki sends the pair to spy on them.  This is probably why she enjoys Kaede’s company so much, because Kaede is an extremely random-seeming person and hard to pin down.  In fact though Yuzu prides herself on being knowledgeable and socially competent, Kaede likes to gloat that she still has no idea what makes herself tick.

Kaede is definitely the Mankanshoku Mako of the series. She steals most of the scenes she plays a strong part in, and is, as I have come to describe her, the living embodiment of a troll face.  She also seems to enjoy preying on Haruka, as her extremely flighty nature makes her vulnerable to jump scares.  But along with this playful, even predatory nature, Kaede had good perceptive powers.  She was often able to nose out when people were discussing something and wasn’t fooled by excuses of convenience just because they fit her world view like Yuzu was.

Or, it can be sub-textually argued, that she didn’t fall for the “their relationship is completely normal” defense because that IS her worldview, and perhaps she shares some desires in Head Kaede as Head Haruka.  After all she is the one more prone to leap to conclusions when spying on Haruka and Yuu.

Sumi was a late addition to the cast, and I have mixed feelings on her.  On the one hand, this show did not need a loli-tropes box.  It was doing just fine with spitting rainbows without that.  And as I’ve said, I don’t have an issue with lolita characters as a concept, but in this case, it was the one step too far in my suspension of disbelief.  Sakura Trick is already so full of cute and kawaii that forcing it into our mouths any more will trigger the gag reflex.

On the other hand, Sumi was characterized extremely well and she fit in with the rest of cast in Episode 12 without missing a beat.  And that is no small feat with a cast already straining for your attention (in terms of being able to focus on each character).  So while it feels ill-advised she was pulled off extremely well.

The only other character of note was Rina, but she never quite pulled away from being “second Mitsuki”, so perhaps that speaks all the stronger to Sumi’s characterization.  Of course we know Rina only existed as a “consolation prize” of sorts for Mitsuki, so there was never an attempt to draw out her personality.

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Not-So-Slice Of Life

One of the strong draws to the show, for me, was how Sakura Trick bucked the excess off its genre tropes.  While still recognizable as Slice of Life, it was nevertheless willing to forego conventional wisdom in regards to an entertaining show.

The best example: The Coffee House plot from Episode 5.  Any normal Slice of Life series would have run with the “how do we keep the surprise from spoiling?” gag.  And characters would go to greater and greater lengths to see to it that neither of the surprise characters “messed it up”.  You can see the jokes in your head, can’t you? Waving arms frantically but silently behind Yuu, trying to get Mitsuki to shut her mouth before she accidentally lets slip that they’re talking about the culture festival.  Cutting her off right away with “OH MITSUKI-KAICHOU LET’S GO TO THE BATHROOM! Why? I, uh, I get scared alone! Yes!”

Makes you cringe, doesn’t it?

Thankfully as soon as the surprise was in jeopardy, in a very self-aware moment, the characters call it quits.  They just…leave. They separate Yuu and Mitsuki to prevent the secret getting out and let it go for now.

Holy shit, guys. We have a new formula here.  It’s a stretch, I know.

This happened again at the cultural festival.  Whereas you’d expect an episode about how the play goes all wrong, people fumbling lines, and a bunch of inane crap that exists only to show you how incompetent our main cast is but somehow, through SPIRIT, they pull it out of their ass and get a standing ovation?

Yeah we skipped that shit here.  And thank the gods we did.

In short, this tendency for Sakura Trick to not play by the rules of its genre was a godsend. And is why I would say it is probably as good as a slice of life show is going to get.

Perhaps the most important part of this was the fact that Sakura Trick had an arc.  But we’ve already discussed how characters grew and changed.  But yeah…an ACTUAL story. With consequences and everything! Holy shit. Are we sure this is Slice of Life?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Oops…how did that get there? I must have become confused.

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You Take the Bad

Probably the most annoying thing about Sakura Trick is the kissing quota.

And it is most distracting in episodes like the shopping trip, where the entire minisode exists JUST to get our characters into a situation where they can have secret make-outs.  While Sakura Trick masterfully weaved around Slice of Life crutches, they didn’t fare QUITE as well on the Yuri side of things.

I’ve taken to call this habit the kissing quota, because there always needed to be three kisses on screen, and often it was on the bookends. “Hey, let’s get it out of the way so we can focus on story,” or “Ohshit, we forgot the third kiss! QUICK! ROMANTIC REFLECTION AT SUNSET GO!”  These were weak spots, and it’s fine to acknowledge the weak spots.

That’s not to say I’m above prurient desire. My favorite kiss was with the cream puff. Subtle.

I would have traded a kissing scene for a fantasy-kissing scene. With Mitsuki. At the end. Just to show how far off the bend her little choo-choo went. But I guess these are dreams for the future.

I think what really struck this home for me was Episode 9. The break-away that had not a single on-screen liplock.  It was one of the more brilliant episodes of Sakura Trick, and I think by showing us what the creative staff could do when they were let off the leash really made the other episodes “rules” stick out like the obnoxious trite it could be.

Because it just doesn’t fit anywhere else…There was a bit of a disconnect between character motivation and the lives of said characters. Take Haruka, who as we said, seems to suffer from some self-esteem issues.  But her home life seemed normal, downright privileged. It’s a bit at odds with the personality we get.  Shizuku is another example, her shyness doesn’t seem to come from anywhere.  It’s not a major point, as the show never really went into backstory, so these are mostly blank points for us to fill in, which we can (Haruka had few friends before meeting Yuu).  But it ALMOST is to the point of hand-waving these personalities without any root causes.  Kotone is the most “justified” character, which may be part of why I like her most.  I just wanted to mention it, as it did pop into my head once or twice during viewing.

Those Little Technical Elements

I’m not one for animation usually. All I ask is that I be able to see which character is who without my eyes melting.

So in what little opinion I have to offer of Sakura Trick’s animation, I found it competent and rather…soft.  Which is perfect for a feel-good show.  I enjoyed the backgrounds and the color palette, all in all it complimented the show.

The music was a good soundtrack.  Simple, competent, and so very insidious as it trained you to Pavlovian-ly expect joy whenever the little notes played.

All in all, nothing to complain about here.  Any lapses in the frames are always part of a gag or some joke.  The “picturebook” flashes, where the girls were represented by hairpins, their names, or what have yous, was a cute element that probably saved a TON of budget, even though all it often existed to do was show who was approaching who.

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The Verdict

Really? I’m spending 9,000 words talking up a show and you don’t know? Yes, Sakura Trick is recommended.  It’s such a strong, dynamic series that it is worth checking out, even if you don’t typically like slice of life or yuri.

I do have small quips with it, but any show is bound to have those.  There is no perfect anime. As Cinema Sins points out, nothing is beyond sin.

I do have some qualms regarding the message, or lack of one.  Perhaps, “unfocused message” is the best way to put it.  But really? You need to apply the MST3K Mantra.  Relax, it’s only an anime.  It’s important to remember the failings, but don’t let that ruin it for you. Life’s too short.

Sakura Trick is a feel good ride, and second viewing did nothing to hinder that optimism.  Unlike say, Pretty Cure, where everything is mathematically decoded to squeeze the most kawaii out of every frame, Sakura Trick manages to be an adorable feel-good show simply by its energy and enthusiasm.  It feels more genuine, and thus, it’s easier to forgive its flaws in light of the cute comedy, and interesting storytelling.

If you need a pick-me-up, if you need something to just laugh at, just pick this show up already.  If you want drama and depressing tragedy, well…wait a few weeks and we’ll have what you need.

If you’d like to see the totality of my experience in Sakura Trick, you may view it here.

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One thought on “Series Recap: Sakura Trick

  1. Pingback: Series Recap: KILL la KILL | Dataport Doll's Anime Reviews

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