Samurai Jam – Bakumatsu Rock (Cert 12)
2 Discs (Distributor: Animatsu Entertainment) Running time: 308 minutes approx.
The precedent for the Japanese in taking liberties with their own history in anime is a rich one with the bar set high in terms of how much they get away with their fanciful amendments. From fantasy horror to Steampunk interpretations of the legendary Koga vs. Iga feud to turning many notable feudal warlords into buxom babes with time travelling modern day teens in between, it seems like we’ve seen it all.
Enter Bakumatsu Rock a show that says otherwise. Based on a Playstation video game of the same name, the anachronism that drives this interpretation of Edo Period Japan is that most notorious symbol of rebellion – Rock & Roll!! No, not shamisen playing youngsters with attitude but full on electric guitars, keyboards and drums based head banging rock!!
Got your pinch of salt ready? Then I’ll continue. It’s pre-19th century (take your pick of any century) and the government under the command of the Tokugawa Shogunate only allows one form of music to played in public, the Heaven Song. These cheesy, anodyne pop tunes sung by Shinsengumi – portrayed as an idol boy band – are used to promote peace and keep the public under control with their lush melodies and subliminal powers of suggestion.
Not everyone is a fan however, most notably Ryoma “Rooster” Sakamoto, a loud, wayward young chap who was given a guitar by the mysterious afro sporting rebel Shoin Yoshida. Sakamoto arrives in the capital to spread the word of rock only to shut down by the authorities. He encounters two fellow rockers, bass player Shinsaku “Cindy” Takasugi and drummer Kogoro “Professor” Katsura and they form a trio, dedicated to breaking the Heaven Song stranglehold on Edo’s music fans.
It’s a gloriously ridiculous concept and for the first few episodes it is a riot of typically frivolous anime nonsense that provides enough giggles to distract from the sheer incredulity of the scenario. Yes, it is correct that electricity hadn’t been discovered yet let alone this being set centuries before the inventions of guitars, drums and keyboards, while music had not advanced too far from classical and traditional folk music.
Thus we suspend our disbelief from a great height as the trio’s instruments literally appear from nowhere (how do you hide a set of drums under a kimono?) and blast out some impromptu rocking tunes without the aid of amplification. The Shinsengumi are equally talented to be able to perform to a stadium full of fans sans a PA system with extravagant light shows sourced by god knows what.
Initially the story is an anti-establishment clash between the verboten rockers and the government approved Heaven Song, with the latter having the physical and legal force to immediately cease any rock performances. However our trio have a way of circumventing such matters with the aid of Sakamoto’s shifty friend/manager Yataro Iwasaki and the tide begins to turn in favour of rock music.
The trio’s first fans are two young maidens Eri and Oeki, who couldn’t get tickets for a Shinsengumi concert so Sakamoto treated them to a rock song and won them over. It’s a small start but from tiny acorns a huge oak will grow and soon rock’s popularity is seen as threat to the Shogunate, to the point that Tokugawa servant Naosuke Ii employs dirty tricks to destroy this noisy upstarts.
Unfortunately for Ii, two of his star idols, Soji Okita and Toshizo Hijikata, se through his pernicious plans and quit the group, joining forces with our heroes to form a rock supergroup named Ultra Souls. The name comes from the fact there are five musicians blessed with the Peace Soul, a latent supreme musical talent that suddenly manifests itself when music is played from the heart and guess who the five are?
So far the show is silliness personified but it has a sort of energetic charm and a decent rocking soundtrack to make this an enjoyable slice of mindless frippery. It’s bright, colourful, loud – Sakamoto has Monkey D. Luffy syndrome in that he shouts his dialogue – and fast paced even if logic is non-existent. The performances are rendered in motion capture CGI that jars against the 2D animation, presumably lifted or at least influenced by the original computer game.
A silly show needs silly characters and this is no exception – the home base for the group is the restaurant run by portly transvestite Otose for whom they work slavishly; Shoin is a composite of 60’s hippy heroes while a girl idol group, Dark Cherries, whose popularity lies somewhere between Piers Morgan and Hitler, fail spectacularly to assassinate Ultra Souls.
For the most part this is a show that carries out a thinly veiled attack on the idol phenomenon in Japan which dominates the pop charts with a cast iron grip, be it with male or female personnel. Having the Shogunate be behind the Heaven’s Song is savage metaphor to illustrate the stringent and cynical methods by which these groups are manufactured and run by record companies and pop Svengalis.
While this is a very commendable and arguably long overdue for some music fans, the show loses its way three episodes from the end, and loses it on an epic scale. It suddenly stops being a show about music and turns into a magical fantasy with an ending that throws an abundance of risible ideas and incongruent nonsense against the wall and appears to pick up the ones that slid to the floor.
This is a shame because as daft and implausible as it is, Bakumatsu Rock was actually an enjoyable dose of escapist, brainless fluff with light humour and a decent soundtrack, but the Bleach-esque ending was a misstep from which it couldn’t recover. If you can get past the wealth of anomalies, generic presentation and ludicrous, ill-fitting ending this is an acceptable enough rainy day anime, provided expectations are set to low.
Japanese Language w/ English Subtitles
Disc 1 Only:
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Rating – ***
Man In Black