Warning: ANN describes this series as "Objectionable Content: Significant" and, well, that pretty much sums it all up. I've stayed away from blatantly NWS images, but there are still some chicks without pants. Get back to work, drone!
Bad shows exist. Bad shows exist in great quantity, much greater than good shows. This is true in the low-stakes world of simulcast streaming anime. While streaming has got shows like Wandering Son or The Tatami Galaxy to an American audience legally and conveniently, every season seems to bring a new heap of cookie-cutter fanservice shows onto the hallowed halls of Crunchyroll and Youtube. It's easy, as critics and fans, to demand that all these bad shows vanish, even if we know it will never be done. But I don't think the dialectic is as simple as that. Simple "guilty pleasure" shows with a broad appeal often underwrite the more ambitious critically praised projects, which are often loss leaders. Networks have born their critically acclaimed shows on the back of cheap-but-popular reality shows. Major publishing houses can only afford to publish "literary" authors because of all the money they're swimming in from the Dan Browns of the world. Hell, you could even make a case that The Wire wouldn't exist without Sex and the City, as heretical as it seems to say that.
Hakku Ryouran Samurai Girls (or Samurai Girls, as I'll call it here for sake of my sanity) is one of that horde of fanservice shows that comes with every new anime season. In particular it's in the semi-historical fanservice genre, a genre started by the sadly influential Ikki Tousen, in which half-naked girls re-enact historical battles, usually from the age of the samurai. The result is a heady mixture of sex, violence and nationalism not usually seen outside of sporting events. (Sengoku Basara could be said to be the fujoshi equivalent of this type of show.)
flomu over at Yukko Thursday suggests that watching a random episode of a show divorced from context can in fact be a good way to evaluate said show. I can see the logic in this. Instead of being concerned with the plot events of a particular episode, what changes from the norm, the outside viewer can view the norm and the specific -- the series-wide generalities and the episode-only specifics -- at once. Certainly not every review should be like this, but it wouldn't help for some to be, and this one certainly is. My wildcard randomizer happened to land on The Anime Network's streaming website, and in particular this episode. I haven't seen any of the previous episodes, and probably won't ever.
I don't entirely grasp the plot, but the plot's not really important for this kind of show. Here's what I managed to pull together: it's the modern day, but samurai are still a thing, except they're all hot chicks. The hot chick samurai gain their power by having sex with their lord. A bunch of samurai chicks are competing to bone this one lord, but he wants to really understand their true feelings. An evil samurai chick with an eyepatch shows up, strips for the lord guy and tries to seduce him, but he's too much of a Nice Guy so she just hypnotizes him to... do something. Then the evil eyepatch chick fights a bunch of other samurai chicks. Some of these chicks are "master samurai", except apparently later we find out there are no master samurai, and they have to clone some from the DNA of the general and the annoying redhead girl who is I guess the main character. idk.
Oh, and the pig-tailed chick whose role in the plot I still can't figure out keeps getting knocked out, which is admittedly kind of funny.
All of this is tosh. The real story of Samurai Girls is of a poor creative art director stuck on this thankless borderline-pornography project. Instead of just taking the cheapo anime style and cranking up its trademarks (big eyes, small mouth), as is usual for the genre, Samurai Girls actually has an interesting and aesthetically appealing visual style. There are some sequences here that wouldn't look out of place in your usual noitaminA-esque prestige show, such as the black-and-white pan up to the airplane at the start of this episode. Ironically, the further the show gets from sexploitation and the Barbified bodies of its girls, the easier on the eyes it is.
The main visual effect used here is the heavy inking of the characters' outlines, making them look extremely cut off from the world around them, almost two-dimensional. Transitions from scene to scene are made by having the screen splattered with ink and then fade away, directly linking creation and the tool responsible for that creation. In a way the art of Samurai Girls seems to be a bitter commentary on its storyline, portraying the characters as exactly as two-dimensional and artificial as they are. The whole thing is made to look like a perverted old man playing with paper dolls. (A more positive spin on this style would be that it lets the audience know that the show isn't taking itself too seriously, and that they should feel free to sit back and enjoy the boobies, although that's kind of problematic as well.)
(The pixelated-ness of that screenshot is my fault, but feel free to take it as another directorial technique.)
The series director is listed under the pseudonym of KOBUN, which furthers my "genuine artist who needs to put food on the table" suspicion. He makes a pretty solid go of it, managing to work in the visual imagery discussed above while fulfilling his genre obligations -- the camera, taking the idea of male gaze to extreme ends, never misses an upskirt shot or flash of breast, managing to competently capture the action on screen while taking the most sexualized view of it possible. This is a skill, albeit a disgusting one.
The writing, on the other hand, is done by a definite soft-porn hack. Ryunosuke Kingetsu, who writes this episode and nine others in the series as well as being the general series composer, has had his name attached to a star-studded roster of battling-boobs projects like Ikki Tousen and Queen's Blade (both produced by ARMS, the studio for this show), as well as some bottom-of-the-barrel video game adaptations. As I mentioned above, this is a genre that's been popular for at least a decade, and the best that can really be said about it is that at least it mostly sexualizes adult women.
The writing here is mostly a welding-together of whatever genres Kingetsu can get his hands on, with shounen action being the most prominent, although you can also see the form of the harem romance, slapstick comedy, sickly-sweet shoujo, and even a stab at high-concept science fiction all worked into this episode. In a way this genre hodgepodge is admirable, although Samurai Girls does none of these genres very well. Kingetsu is only well-versed in their lexicon of tropes: the evil seductress, the silly miniboss trio, the moment in a shounen fight scene where there's a huge explosion and, after the smoke clears, the adversary is completely unharmed. The fight scene that makes up a big part of this episode even mimics a shounen battle, with secondary characters standing around to explain what's going on to the audience. Later in the episode things start to resemble a mediocre sci-fi product like Jyu Oh Sei, as clones of the main characters show up in vats .
What's probably most noteworthy here is that even though this is an adults-only show, the genres it draws on are all juvenile, with storytelling techniques aimed at people who would not legally be allowed to watch this show. Of course, shounen and shoujo have a large fanbase outside of their target audience, for reasons both justified and not. Samurai Girls is, it would seem, pornography for people who don't want to grow up, who just want to hear their own childhood stories retold but now with full frontal nudity. This is probably most intense in the manchildish culture of otaku, but the West can't really cop a sense of superiority here, with all the infantilization that goes on in American porn.
But beneath all these hacked-together genre bits there are some more troubling things at play. (It may seem silly to rally at a soft-porn show for not being ideologically correct, but bear with me.) This is the way ideology functions -- through bad and good media, with or without conscious thought, so ubiquitous it seems like the unavoidable truth of the universe. The series has borrowed the ideals of the bond between a samurai and his general, which is in itself an ideological justification for a rigid class system, portraying domination as personal loyalty and sacrifice. In Samurai Girls the bond is sexual -- a male general and his female samurai make their "contract" by, well, you can guess the rest. On the one hand this is just a justification for all the cheesecake, but it also reflects something I'm awkwardly dubbing "sexualism" -- the cultural assumption that romantic and sexual relationships are the most and maybe the only significant ones . Sure, all those old samurai movies may have talked about how great the bond of servitude was -- but wouldn't that bond have been better if they were doing it on the side? This is a natural technique of pornography, so I guess I could excuse its presence here, but it pops up all the time in other places -- such as the assumption that every close bond between characters (or sometimes people) is sign of a sexual attraction. The bromance genre (noxious in its own way) aside, the works of art about friendship or family or whatever are ridiculously outnumbered by those about capital-R Romance. The explosive growth of pornography, both soft and hard, can only add to this.
But in "The General's Return" it becomes apparent that not all sexual relationships are created equal. Gisen, the evil eyepatch lady mentioned above, is the archetypical whore/slut/other bad word, throwing herself at Muneakira, the male lead, and using her sexuality as a weapon. She literally hypnotizes him with her naked body. I am not making this up. Her actions are contrasted with those of the female lead Jyubei, who I believe is her sister or something, and believes in her catchphrase of "trust and bonding".
Now, I've got nothing against trust and bonding, and something like that is probably at the base of most healthy relationships. Hell, this is in a way the language of sex-positivism: the problem isn't sex, it's mechanical objectified sex, and people should do it in a trusting, loving relationship. But these values are being used here in an age-old patriarchal dialectic: the lady versus the whore, the Sweet Girlfriend versus the Evil Sex Lady. This is made literal in Samurai Girls, as Gisen's seduction and Jyubei's "trust and bonding" become magical forces battling for Muneakira's soul, represented through flying colourful energy and everything. And at the same time we're being asked to objectify both, to ogle Gisen's exposed tits and blunt attempts at seduction even as we hate her for it. This is the refitting of "enlightened" attitudes about sex back into the familiar misogynist schema, and it's happened in far more important cultural arenas than late-night sexploitation anime.
There's also the spectre of nationalism lurking. We find out towards the end of "The General's Return" that there are no more master samurai being born in Japan, that the nation's much-vaunted protectors are dying out. Samurai Girls is a nationalistic fantasy as much as it is a pornographic one. In it the era of shogun and samurai has never ended, and Japan is powerful not in spite of its traditional culture but because of it. In the closing minutes of this episode the series sets up a new conflict: the quest to preserve Japanese culture against modern society, through the traditional morality ("trust and bonding") of Jyubei and Muneakira. Come for the tits, stay for the crypto-conservatism.
On one level, Samurai Girls is a qualified success: it isn't high art, but it's a competently executed genre production, even if that genre is as sleazy as it gets. Pornography is always going to exist in some form or another, so it may as well have the attempt at artistry that we have here. But on another level Samurai Girls is a profound defeat: a defeat of feminism and of anti-nationalism, a co-optation that can be felt down in the lowest fringes of the culture. Bad shows are important, if for no other reason, because it is when we are aiming only for cheap pleasures that we most thoroughly reproduce our ideologies.
Next week: Wilfred tries to convince me to leave my house.
 Whenever a show resorts to having rows of vats containing clones of one of the characters, it's probably time to abandon ship.
For more on this see the bitter old spinsters over at Onely.