My relationship with Sakura Taisen (also known as Sakura Wars) began in 1998, at the very first edition of my city's annual anime festival. It was the same year that I launched the very first incarnation of this blog, as a website on the long gone GeoCities server. I had recently discovered and fell in love with the genre of Scientific Romances, primarily as an interesting fusion of my love for Science Fiction with Gothic Romanticism. The Nineties and early-Noughts were an explosive time for modern Scientific Romances, with feature films like Wild Wild West (1999), Back to the Future Part III (1990), The City of Lost Children (1995) and Disney's Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002), comics like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), novels like The Difference Engine (1990), picture books like Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (1992) and its sequel Dinotopia: The World Beneath (1995), theme parks like Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland and Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, and television shows like The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000) and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993). It was an embarrassment of riches that has never been matched since. At this anime festival, I was piqued by a new anime series entitled Sakura Wars, which ended abruptly with the fourth episode.
This anime series featured a group of girls in an alternate 1920's Tokyo where steam-power produced far more advanced technology than in our own world. This alternate Japan was recovering from a devastating "Demon War" that happened roughly around the same time as World War One in our history, and it seemed that the infernal hordes were massing once again. Keen to see the rest, I learned to my chagrin that this series was merely a four-episode Original Video Animation (OVA) prequel to the Sega Saturn video game Sakura Taisen released in 1996 in Japan and never imported to North America. Shortly thereafter a second Sakura Taisen OVA was imported, as the sequel to the second Sakura Taisen video game, released in Japan for the Sega Saturn in 1998. This was followed in succeeding years by the OVA prequel to Sakura Taisen 3 (2001, Sega Dreamcast) and a feature film taking place between Sakura Taisen 3 and 4 (2002, Sega Dreamcast), leaving me with plenty of prequels and sequels but no idea of what the actual story was! Eventually a Sakura Taisen television series was imported, ostensibly adapting the first video game, but which altered the story so significantly that even Japanese fans of the franchise found it revolting. Then an official manga adaptation of the first game was imported by Tokyo Pop, which published half of the series before the company went into bankruptcy. By now a decade had passed and I was so desperate that when I went to Japan in 2009, I broke down, found a used video game store, and bought a Japanese Sega Saturn and every possible Sakura Taisen game, fan disk, spin-off puzzle game, and branded piece of hardware available. When I finished the first game and finally saw the hero and heroine kiss, it was like a religious experience!
What could encourage a torch to be held out for so long? What makes Sakura Taisen the epitome of everything that can and should be done with a modern Scientific Romance?
Boldly, it is not the steam-powered technology in itself that makes the franchise so appealing. Virtually any movie, TV show, comic book, or video game can have attractive Retro-Futuristic technology so long as it has a decently creative designer (though that is harder than it sounds, since there has certainly been no shortage of unattractive designs since 2006). Rather, its appeal lies in the same unapologetic Japaneseness that so easily dissuaded Sega from importing it to North America. Sakura Taisen is an intensive survey of the history, aesthetics, pop-culture, mythology, and geography of Japan... So much so that it is itself a crash course in Japanese culture. To review it is mainly to write an essay on Japan at the turn of the previous century, as I am about to do.