I’m about to review Ikki Tousen, and to paraphrase Roger Ebert, this may astound you, but I’m giving it a positive review (Siskel: “It DOES astound me. Are you okay?”). Why did I like this series but loathe similarly-fanservice heavy titles like Highschool dxd? If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let me take you back to 2004. I was still relatively new to the anime scene, having started buying and collecting anime DVDs in 2003. I was open to all sorts of genres. One day, in my online travels, I came across some images of a series called Ikki Tousen, which was recently released by the now-defunct Geneon. Said images featured schoolgirls fighting each other in damaged clothing, with plenty of panty shots for good measure. Needless to say, the horny early 20-something in me was sold immediately. When I brought the DVDs home, I was pleasantly surprised that the series offered more than just girl-on-girl fighting and fanservice; it actually had a story, albeit a somewhat absurd one: Ikki Tousen is basically a modern-day retelling of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a famous novel series which I have not read. The characters in Ikki Tousen are reincarnations of the legendary warriors, and the battlegrounds this time around are schools. And instead of battles with artillery, the fights are now mostly hand-to-hand combat and martial arts, with the occasional weapon battle as well.
Admittedly, this Three Kingdoms gimmick could theoretically be nothing more than window dressing for a series of meaningless flesh-filled battles, but it’s to their credit that they took things somewhat seriously. Each fight feels like a lot is riding on who wins and who loses. And even amidst the half nakedness going on, the series wisely doesn’t draw attention to that with lewd spectator commentary (i.e. “Check out that chick’s nipples!”). Not only would that have drawn us out of the proceedings but it would’ve felt exploitative towards its characters. But by keeping the focus on the life-or-death nature of the battles, it surprisingly has a bit of class, even amidst such a potentially smutty situation as topless girl-on-girl fighting. It should be noted, however, that the series isn’t deadly serious or nihilistic like another fighting anime I’ve had the misfortune of seeing (ahem Masters of Martial Hearts…); there’s enough light comedy mixed in to keep the moods varied. What also makes the series more meaty than it should have been is that the characters are wrestling with whether they should follow in the steps of their ancestors or choose their own path. Are they doomed to repeat history, and more importantly, CAN they change history or is it their inevitable fate? And can these fighters control themselves enough to prevent their inner dragon from consuming their bodies and souls?
Of course, let’s not gloss over the fact that this series won’t be for everyone. It’s hard R territory, with some pretty risque moments for a non-hentai title. Example: In the first series, the characters get so excited by fighting that they’re practically having orgasms. In another instance, a character is violated by an opponent while she’s temporarily paralyzed on the ground. There’s also some oral sex, which isn’t shown explicitly but doesn’t leave any illusions to what’s occurring. And oh yes, there are some lesbian moments as well, although to be fair they’re not entirely played for eroticism. This all may seem gratuitous (and, to be fair, it probably is, since the series could’ve been just as engaging without them), but let me put this in perspective. In 2004, having watched mostly American cartoons all my life, I was amazed how much Japan was getting away with. They were pushing boundaries and addressing taboos, and sometimes you need that in entertainment to keep things from getting too stale. That said, had the series only relied on this sort of thing, I doubt it would have had so many sequels. The reason why I say this is, each new anime season tries to top the previous one in terms of racy content. Had Ikki Tousen only had its fanservice to stand out, it likely would have been forgotten quickly as other series overtook it in that department. But luckily it offers more than that.
Great Guardians opens with a surprising event: Ryofu Hosen, a sensual fighter in pigtails, has come back from the dead after her seeming death in the first season. Not only that, but she has amnesia and has a decidedly different personality than her flirty, taunting demeanor from the first series. This, of course, causes old rivals (such as the eye-patched maid Ryoumou) to be highly suspicious and skeptical. The tension of this arc comes from whether, once Ryofu inevitably discovers who she is, will revert to her old backstabbing ways, or pave her own path and avoid the fate laid before her. As if that plot twist wasn’t enough, we learn that the main protagonist, the clueless and goofy but incredibly strong Hakafu Sonsaku, has a long-lost sister named Sonken. This plot isn’t as engaging, though, because Sonken isn’t that interesting of a character (plus, she never gets into fights herself, so she’s always either on the sidelines or being rescued).
The fourth series, Xtreme Xecutor, introduces many more new characters, but the new protagonist this season is Bachou, a cocky, spunky new student who challenges everyone to fights. She’s admittedly strong, but has a lot to learn. Enter Hakafu, who agrees to be her trainer and mentor. Of course, there is also a new enemy, a demonic being from a rival school who is using the blood of dead warriors to energize itself. The major drama comes when one of the main protagonists, Kan’u, a stoic warrior who takes a bladed staff with her wherever she goes, is possessed by this demon and driven to kill her friends as a pawn in this creature’s game.
For the fourth season, animation duties switched from ARMS to TNK. Unless you’re examining the show with a fine toothed comb, the switch wasn’t too noticeable; the character designs are roughly the same, and the animation, while obviously not outstanding given the TV budget, was acceptable enough. It goes without saying that the show’s at its best during the battles, which are often well-choreographed and intense. That said, I always felt J.C. Staff, who did the first season, had the most appealing style, even if it looked pretty different from Yuji Shiozaki’s original design work.
The release of these two series was a long time coming. Media Blasters originally held the license for both Great Guardians and the second series, Dragon Destiny. They botched Dragon Destiny by refusing to get the original New Generation Pictures dub cast back, and by releasing it in single volumes (keep in mind, this was after the market was switching to complete series sets off the bat) over the span of a year. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they sat on the Great Guardians license for many years until FUNi finally grabbed it from them. And wouldn’t you know it, FUNi released it in a much quicker manner, but with the same professionalism as many of their titles. Best of all, they got much of the NGP dub cast back; this includes the always charming Carrie Savage as Hakafu, veteran voice actor Wendie Lee as Hakafu’s mother Goei, and perhaps my favorite in the cast, Robin Rhodpa as the sultry Ryofu. Alas, a few VA’s didn’t return. For instance, Kan’u is voiced by Rachel Robinson this time; admittedly, she does a good job, but this means three different actresses provided her voice over the course of four series. Even a couple of characters who debuted in Dragon Destiny (such as young-looking strategist Koumei) were re-cast for Great Guardians and Xtreme Xecutor. However, even with the casting changes, I had very few problems with the dub cast for these two series, especially since FUNi was able to do it in a much more timely manner than Media Blasters.
Both season sets have a good amount of special features. Great Guardians gets two English audio commentaries on episodes 2 and 5. Of the two, the episode 2 commentary was more interesting; Carrie Savage (Hakafu) reveals that the first series made her feel uncomfortable, particularly the aforementioned scene where it’s implied that Ryofu finger-raped Ryoumou. She worried that by working on the series, she would set a bad example as a Christian. But she also reveals that she’s come around on certain aspects of the series, and agrees that Hakafu’s character is virtuous, something she can get behind. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, and is more meaty than these anime commentaries usually are. I also appreciated Savage sharing her faith, which you don’t hear too often in the industry. The six omakes, “Sexy Cosplays, Dangerous Jobs”, are also included, and run about 15 minutes total. As the title implies, these short videos showcase the characters in (and out of) various outfits, and are comedic in tone. Next is a 30-minute video shot at a 2008 Tokyo fair, where the seiyuus discuss various topics. I tired of it pretty quickly. Finally, some commercials, promos and FUNi trailers round out the package.
As for Xtreme Xecutor‘s features, it thankfully comes with the bonus OVA episode, running 45 minutes. This episode is conceptually confusing; it continues the inter-school battles that we’ve seen with the four series (with the pretense being that they’re all competing to see who can collect the most sacred objects that give its users enormous power), but it seems strange considering in Xtreme Xecutor, everyone just vanquished a huge foe that required everyone working together to defeat. It just seems odd that they would go back to battling each other right away. Especially baffling is a long battle between Kan’u and Hakafu, which starts over something as trivial as Hakafu making fun of a trinket Kan’u was buying. It just feels contrived. That said, the fights in this OVA are pretty intense, particularly the aforementioned Kan’u/Hakafu fight.
This season also features six comedic omakes, “Dreamscapes,” running about 17 minutes total. Even moreso than the series itself, these omakes are thinly-veiled excuses to get the girls naked. My favorite was when Chou’un role-played as a teacher with a zero tolerance policy for cheaters, slicing any cheater’s clothes off if they’re caught. It’s such a ridiculous scenario that would never exist in real life that it ends up being pretty amusing. The rest were fairly forgettable, though. The first and second discs also contain English commentaries on episodes 1 and 2, both featuring voice director Jonathan Klein again. The commentaries are at their best when he discusses his philosophy on casting/dub writing, and dealing with the inevitable fan reactions. There is also a commentary for the OVA episode, though be warned that it’s not a “serious” commentary, but rather Klein and a couple VA’s (Jessica Calvello being one) speaking in faux snooty British accents and pontificating about whether Ikki Tousen is sexist or not. It sounds funnier than it actually is, but the joke started to get old after a couple of minutes. That said, as strange as it sounds, they do bring up some valid points amidst the silly exaggerated accents. Klein argues that the series is ultimately empowering to women despite the fanservice, because they are tough and can take care of themselves without men needing to rescue them, which is definitely true.
Unfortunately, FUNi missed an opportunity with Xtreme Xecutor: They released it on DVD only. Granted, this was a title from 2010, but considering that FUNi released it in high def on iTunes, it’s confusing why they weren’t able to release it in Blu-ray as well. Maybe it was a licensing agreement, and maybe we’ll get a re-release down the line.
I’m surprised that I’m giving Great Guardians and Xtreme Xecutor a good review. I’ve ragged on fanservice-y titles lately (and with good reason), but I think what sets Ikki Tousen apart from much of its competition is its execution. Yes, the characters do lose their clothes frequently, but it’s often due to intense fighting, not overused cliched hijinks that treat the characters more like helpless objects than people. Additionally, I really did care about what happened to everybody. Part of that is because, over the course of four seasons, I’ve followed these characters through all sorts of predicaments and have grown to like them, but there are enough twists amidst the pins-and-needles school rivalries to keep things interesting. No, these two series are not the best shows ever made, but they get a measured positive review from me.