I’m no stranger to morbid curiosity; the “I must see the horror for myself” has led me into many dark and dangerous places (take, for example, the Otome manga), but rarely have I wandered so unprepared into a series as dire as Sakura Diaries. I was expecting a shallow romance, trashy but entertaining in a guilty pleasure “I must never admit to having watched this” sort of way; what I got was the closest thing you can have to hentai within the confines of a 15 rating.
Worse yet, the copy I voluntarily asked to have lacks both the original Japanese audio and the latest dub, instead containing only the original, ear-bleeding edited version of the dub. Whilst I am usually not overly fond of edits, I have to admit that this was one of the times when I didn’t care; the edited version is raunchy and risqué enough without adding more nudity and steaminess to the screen. Unfortunately, however, this does mean that I have no idea whether to lay blame for the awfulness of the dialogue at the feet of the ADR writer or the team that penned the original script.
The star of this unfortunate tale is chronic underachiever Touma, who, like most other losers in anime, has his heart set on attending college in Tokyo. We first meet him the night before his exams as he spends the night in an all-expenses-paid hotel room. Most people would use this time for a round last minute cramming or at least some mental preparation, but not our Touma- he’s more interested in watching a porn movie. Yes, our protagonist is a “red-blooded male”, which is to say that despite his lofty ambitions, sex is far more important than studying.
So far then, not too promising, but unfortunately, there was far, far worse to come, for scant minutes later, Touma receives a visitor in what appears to be a teenaged prostitute. Since this isn’t hentai, she is actually Touma’s cousin Urara, but, like any girl that hasn’t seen her cousin in many years, she decides to surprise him by pretending to be a prostitute until he recognises her and they both have a good laugh about it (come on, who hasn’t done that at some point in their lives?).
As it turns out, however, Touma is too stupid to recognise Urara, and after wrestling with the morality of giving up his virginity to an unknown girl, decides against it and escorts her out of the room. During their conversation, however, it becomes apparent that Urara has a cold, and in true anime fashion, she passes it right onto Touma, giving him the perfect excuse for failing his first two entrance exams.
If there was any justice in the world, Touma would give up, go home, and end the series there, but once again, fate cruelly intervenes by reminding us that he still has one exam to take- the one for the prestigious Keio University. Of course, there isn’t a hope in hell that he’ll get in, but that isn’t going to stop Touma from having a stab at it, especially when he meets fellow examinee Mieko, a beautiful redhead and as good a reason as any to want to enter higher education.
It is at this point that I must digress from the main storyline and briefly discuss Urara, who from this point onward turns up at every corner in a primarily futile attempt to snare Touma, who she calls “Tone-ma”, for herself. Why is she so desperately in love with him, you ask? Were they childhood sweethearts pulled apart by the whims of fate? Not at all- in fact, their first and only meeting lasted but a single day when they were children. Urara’s mother had just died (if I recall correctly) and the poor girl was reduced to a depressed and lonely figure with a penchant for drawing teary-eyed rabbits. Enter young Touma- after spending a day with him instead of moping around on her own, Urara declared him her shining light and has loved him ever since, despite knowing little to nothing about him.
Anyway, getting back to the story, exam day comes and goes, and the results inevitably roll in. Mieko turns out to be as smart as she is beautiful, and manages to pass; Touma, of course is another story. Instead of owning up to his failure, however, Touma decides to save face in front of Mieko by pretending that he has passed, thus beginning a key theme for the series- “Touma’s double life”.
Yes, from this point onward Touma’s life takes on unnecessary complexity; desperate to become a Keio student for real, he enrols in a prep school whilst spending his spare time hanging around the Keio campus in order to keep up the charade in front of Mieko. Even his attempts to admit the truth to Mieko only result in disaster; she takes his initial confession as a joke, and by the end of the conversation he has woven an equally fabricated story about how he is not a history student at Keio, but rather an economics student from Kyoto who is just about to transfer to Keio. This story is blatantly ridiculous, but Mieko blithely accepts it nonetheless.
Being the hotbed of contrived angst that it is, however, there’s more to it than Touma faking life as a university student. With the prospect of paying for accommodation in Tokyo less than appealing, Touma decides to stay with his uncle for the year; however in an entirely expected twist, he finds that Urara is living there as well, whilst the uncle himself is suspiciously absent. So, when you’re living with the guy you like, how do you get him to love you back? Do you start by just making friends with him and hoping it builds from there? Do you set up any number of clever and intricate schemes designed to bring you closer together? Or do you just flash your breasts in front of him and hope he responds? If you chose option three, then yes, you’re on the same wavelength as Urara.
I’m given to understand that extra bras and panties were added to the edited version in order to preserve Urara’s modesty, but I have to say that it really didn’t achieve much. The very first time that Touma enters the house, Urara greets him dressed only in an apron and panties, apparently a sure fire way to build a deep and lasting relationship with a man. Later in the series, Touma finds himself under a lot of stress as he hurriedly crams for the latest set of exams; where common sense might say that the best ways of aiding him would range from getting him a snack, to helping him study, or even just plain leaving him alone, Urara chooses to don a bikini and encourage him to “go on, have a good grope” of her breasts.
Thus we have the well-used situation where a guy is after one girl, whilst another girl is after him; and where others have variously called Touma a decent and genuinely likable character deep down, I beg to differ. His actions are shallow, sometimes even deplorable and all to that one goal of losing his virginity. Now admittedly, he didn’t take advantage of Urara at the beginning, but any points he might have gained for this are quickly squandered in the ensuing episodes.
At the lesser end of the scale is a sequence in which Mieko and Touma end up in a hotel room together after a night out; Mieko is simply drunk, tired and incapable of getting home under her own steam, but Touma views this as his big opportunity. As it turns out, however, by the time he gets himself showered and ‘psyched up’ for the big night, Mieko has fallen asleep anyway, and he misses out on ‘scoring’.
This is but a minor event compared to another particularly distasteful segment in the series, however. Obsessed as he is with the idea of sleeping with Mieko, Touka decides that his beloved would prefer a man who is experienced in the bedroom, and resolves to get in a little practise with someone else first- and who better than the girl who is living under the same roof? Clearly too stupid to consider how callous and selfish a move this would be, Touma forges ahead, purchasing a packet of condoms for his and Urara’s impromptu ‘party’ later on.
It is unclear what this party is for other than to facilitate a drinking session for Touma and Urara (no one else attends), but nonetheless our protagonists attempt to get the party mood underway with a nice friendly game of…Strip Rock Paper Scissors? Not the most well known of games, perhaps, but Urara and Touma get stuck into it, and by the time we rejoin them, Urara is down to socks, bra and panties, whilst Touma has just been left with only his boxer shorts. Clearly this is a crucial point in the game, and predictably in the next round Urara deliberately loses and starts shedding her bra.
It is at this point that Touma’s “red blooded passion” can take no more, and to put it bluntly, he grabs Urara and attempts to rape her. In this instant, Touma suddenly becomes a very different (and far more dislikeable) person- gone is his dithering stupidity; here he becomes forceful and bestial. Fortunately (in the edited version at least), he does not go all the way, but nonetheless this remains the series’ most distasteful segment, poorly wedged in more for shock value than for character development.
Almost as bad, however, is the aftermath of the assault; by the next day, Touma has finally realised the reprehensible nature of his actions (thus completing one of his many idiotic idea->predictable failure->why was I so stupid cycles) and Urara is understandably not talking to him. Flash forward to the evening, however, and Urara is ready to forgive Touma for what he did, negating the seriousness of his actions with an “bad boy, you hurt my feelings, but now you’ve had time to think about what you did, let’s move on”.
And so, with a callous sort of inevitability the series rolls on, with our shallow leads earning little in the way of sympathy for themselves. Touma continues to lust after Mieko, who considers their relationship to be on the level of “just good friends”, and even reveals that she is in a long-distance relationship just in case Touma might get the wrong idea (clearly unaware that the ‘wrong idea’ was, of course, what he had in mind in the first place). At this point, it seems as if Touma and Urara may even become a bona fide couple, with Touma seemingly realising his true feelings for Urara and subsequently forgetting them a number of times.
Regardless of how it may seem at this point, amidst all the would-be romance, there are elements of studying still going on, with Touma even gradually coming to feel less embarrassed about his status as a lowly prep school student. Unfortunately, however, with his prime motivation for getting into Keio simply being his desire for Mieko, Touma isn’t one to hit the books, and his situation only becomes more hopeless when he learns that Mieko is already taken. Even looming exams cannot drive Touma to revise for long; instead he puts all his effort into increasingly bizarre and outlandish good luck stratagems.
Even in this area, Sakura Diaries likes to associate itself with “down there”, and so it is that Touma’s ultimate good luck charm involves the somewhat disturbing act of trading a pubic hair with one’s partner (if no partner available, use Urara, she’s always there for backup). Thus it is that one morning over breakfast Touma hands Urara a nice little ‘present’ wrapped in paper, and asks her to do the same for him. Naturally, after a day of being torn between the natural reaction of “ew, gross” and “if it helps Touma, I must do it”, Urara plucks one of her own and gives it to her cousin to aid in his studies. This is the point where I feel I must include an advisory- no matter how desperate or unprepared you may feel at the prospect of upcoming exams; please do not try this at home.
Still, all dire things must come to an end (thankfully), and so it is that the end eventually begins to draw in sight for our heroes. A phone call to the house from Touma’s uncle reveals the truth that Urara was quite sloppily keeping from him; rather than occasionally dropping in at home between business trips whilst Touma was asleep or out, Uncle had been away the entire time, and had in fact not wanted Touma to be living alone with his precious little girl. Even with his limited mental capabilities, Touma realises that Urara twisted the truth (or rather, outright lied) just so that she could have him close by, and promptly moves out after admitting that he does not actually have any romantic feelings for her. Meanwhile, to wrap things up, Mieko learns the truth about Touma, breaks up with her boyfriend and, well, life goes on. I assume that if you want a more in-depth view into the Sakura Diaries, you need help to refer to the twenty volume manga series, but oddly I have no intention to pursue that avenue.
From the obscene to the ridiculous
Quite apart from the machinations of what passes for a plot (an alternative term, pl0t, has been suggested for this type of case), Sakura Diaries infects even the simplest of scenes with its twisted perspective. Take, for example, a scene in which Urara is eating a banana whilst Touma explains that some people may read suggestive things into quite innocent acts. At this point the camera zooms in to Urara and the banana, leaving one either feeling like a pervert for reading too much into what may be a coincidence, or left with the saddening realisation that bananas can never be regarded in the same away again.
Minor Characters: The Horror continues
Few anime series rely on just three recurring characters (even Noir manages four), and so it is that Sakura Diaries has a delightful selection of supporting characters whose minds are all focused on one thing.
Koji: the man with one hand
A terminal prep school student (he’s been attending the ‘one year course’ for around three years, Koji befriends Touma, keeps his secret (although he seems happiest with Touma when he’s telling the truth) and invites him out to play baseball with ‘the boys’, whoever they may be. Unfortunately, he is not the most eloquent of personalities, often choosing to discuss topics as all-consuming as his masturbation practises.
Urara’s best friend in high school, who, in a surprising change of pace for the series, is less interested in studying than she is in sleeping with a good looking college boy. Her dialogue includes lines such as “why don’t you let him do you?” (advice for Urara) and later in the series she briefly dates Mashu, which is to say that she seems to unilaterally decide that they are going out, then complain about their lack of communication.
A slimy and manipulative Keio student, Mashu would be Touma’s classmate in the Economics department were Touma actually studying there. This leads to some ‘amusing’ situations in which Touma complete messes up his cover story, but oddly Mashu does not seem to realise the truth until later in the series. Towards the end, Mashu’s true depth is revealed when he explains that he is a ‘perfect student’ who has spent his life collecting awards and trophies- all that remains is to make up the full set by winning Mieko.
And so, in conclusion, I must warn all who would be tempted by Sakura Diaries’ low price point to stay well away; the horrors contained within are not even worth watching for shock value, and little can be gained by subjecting oneself to it firsthand. As a wise text game once declared on being prompted to investigate a certain item- “leave it alone”.