There are a lot of pieces in “Zakuro” that fit together in a delicate balance that succeeds in creating one engaging show.
There’s a bit of romance, a dash of humor, a hefty dose of the supernatural and just the right amount of action in this story of half-spirits and the military men who work with them.
It’s around the turn of the century in Japan, and modernization/Westernization is messing with the spiritual world. Where humans and spirits used to live in relative harmony, some spirits are getting cranky as they’re disrupted, uprooted and disrespected.
Enter the Ministry of Spirit Affairs, a new division that teams three male military commanders with a group of half-spirit girls, born to pregnant women who were “spirited away.” Their mission is to handle problems people are having with spirits.
Zakuro is the girls’ leader, of sorts, and the four of them have been together since they were little children. They each have a special power that is enhanced when they’re with Zakuro. For a large part, the boys are more like irrelevant figureheads, but they do come in handy later.
Zakuro is teamed with the handsome, blond Agemaki, who’s secretly terrified of spirits but tries to exude charm and is frequently shown at the beginning of the 13-episode series in soft focus surrounded by roses.
But while they do take on some cases where spirits are causing trouble, the larger arc of the story concerns the disappearance of Zakuro’s mother and some mysterious characters in the spirit world who are trying to destroy her.
Even though it’s different on so many levels, I kept getting a “Sakura Wars” vibe from the show, which is a good thing. I really liked the original “Sakura Wars.” Maybe it’s Zakuro’s spunk and kimono, or maybe it’s the setting (even though there are no steam robots), or maybe it’s just the interaction of these girls with the new males in their lives, but I kept hearing minor echoes in this show.
It wouldn’t be complete without some silly spirit sidekicks. Mamezo is a funny, rabbit-like sidekick for Zakuro. He takes a shine to Agemaki while serving as Zakuro’s “artifact spirit,” which means he holds on to her mystical blade and pulls it out of himself when she needs it. There are also the childlike Kiri and Sakura, gourd-headed spirts who help Agemaki overcome his fear with their cuteness.
The nice thing about being a 13-episode series it that everything’s here in one collection. The story doesn’t waste any time with extraneous adventures. It’s tightly told and nicely paced as the team members learn about each other. The expected romantic relationships don’t always go as expected, which keeps things interesting.
And it’s interesting to see the girls’ half-spirit nature used as a stand-in for racism for a little social commentary. The girls look almost completely human except for their ears, but that’s enough to elicit stares on the street and derogatory comments.
It’s all brought together with some lovely animation and creative manifestation of powers. The twins Bonbori and Hazuki sing to activate their power through flower petals, and it comes off a bit creepy at first, but it works. Zakuro’s blade starts off looking like a blossoming cherry tree branch.
As usual, NIS America does a lovely job with the accompanying artbook. It’s filled with promotional pictures and cast interviews, in addition to character write-ups and episode synopses (beware spoilers). Unlike some of their sets, this one contains just DVDs and no Blu-ray discs. But I usually don’t see that much of a difference anyway.