There are a surprising number of romantic comedies in the canon of anime, and there's also a healthy dosage of erotica. That's not to say that shows like Orange Road don't have their lecherous moments, and erotica like End of Summer certainly has a little romance to it. However, it's rare to find a show that tries to cover both genres at the same time, and that's why Sakura Diaries is somewhat unique. Ujin, the creator of this show, is well known for his controversial material--and for Japan, that's unusual, considering the casual attitude towards sexuality in that culture. However, Ujin creates a surprise here...for instead of giving us what we would expect from a teller of dirty tales, he creates a genuinely likable cast of characters that have more on their minds than the cast of American Pie. The first three episodes of the show, which comprise the first DVD release, are a lot softer than I expected, and for those who want a feel-good comedy with a heavy dose of sex on the brain, it's not bad. In fact, the problem with the show is that it can't make up its mind...it's gentle and sweet for a while, then goes for laughs through erotica. It's almost as if there was a real show tucked away under all the fan service--for some, this might be a good thing, but it didn't wow me.
Sakura Diaries is the story of Touma, a young man who's come into the big city of Tokyo to take his college entrance exams. He's nervous about this--after all, Japanese entrance exams are legendary for their brutality--but he is ready to do his best. His nerve is shot, however, when a young woman (who seems to know Touma much better than he knows her) knocks on his hotel door, walks in, and starts to undress. After great deliberation and hesitation, Touma shows her the door. Nevertheless, he is so overwhelmed by the experience that he is completely shot for his entrance exams. As if failing the tests wasn't bad enough, he meets Meiko, a pretty co-ed who really likes him but only wants to date a college guy...and Urara, the mysterious hotel visitor with several secrets in her closet, isn't going to let Touma get away so easily either.
No matter what you think of anything else related to this series, you will find the animation lacking. Diaries was a late-night, twelve episode television program, and the production quality is...well...let's just take away the word quality, and there you have it. Some shots look like the animation was rushed, and several money saving techniques are obvious here (such as the device where only one person in a crowd of hundreds moves). Lot of static shots here, definitely. The character design on Touma is very bland, but the two girls that are Touma's love interests look quite good. Thankfully, the music is as good as the animation is bad. The opening theme song is just gorgeous, a far cry from most Japanese music, and after watching the first three episodes I had to pull out my acoustic guitar and learn it. (Of any element in the show, this was my favorite, I must admit.) The music throughout is quite appropriate, and it lends itself to being soft and romantic in a folksy way. Frankly, I can only hope that someday a better show will come along that will utilize the same style of music, because it is great.
If Diaries could capture the gentle romantic spirit of its background music, it would be a great show, and a few times it nearly succeeds. Touma is a romantic at heart, turning down a free one night stand so that his first experience might be with his one true love. Urara, for all of her antics, is very romantic as well...her desire for Touma is based around a lingering memory of a wonderful summer in the past. The characters are all gentle (if misguided) souls. What throws the mix off is the fan service, the erotic element thrown in to hook viewers and teenage boys. Make no mistake about it--though the actual nudity in this show is brief, there are underwear shots galore, and the subject matter itself is often racy. Although fan service is nothing new in anime, it's often used in action/adventure shows or in mile-a-minute comedy, and somehow here it just doesn't gel. It's almost like watching two shows at the same time, though the plotlines are indelibly linked. My best guess is that Ujin was attempting to create something outside of his normal mold and felt like he had to thrown in the erotic element because his readership expects it. Many people may disagree, but while I was hooked on the romance, I found the whole erotic edge distracting and frustrating. It seemed to run contrary to the very nature of the characters involved, and was thus unbelievable.
Where do the chips fall for the first volume of Sakura Diaries? I can't say that I disliked it, because I didn't. I can't say I loved it, either, because the mix just felt too forced. It was good, but not good enough that I'll be awaiting the next three episodes. If you particularly like Ujin or like your romance with a bit of bite, perhaps you'll like it. Its heart is in the right place--but unfortunately, like most men when it comes to women, this show doesn't think with its heart enough.
Sakura Diaries -- profanity, brief nudity, strong adult content -- B-