It’s sometime in the late ’90s. I’m standing in the anime section at the soon-to-defunct Sam Goody. I am an awkward teenager whose libido rages at a more critical level than most, and right now I am transfixed by a VHS tape I’ve found on the shelf. This one is called Sakura Diaries, licensed by ADV Films. The front cover features some chestnut haired hottie about to yank her clothes off, but the back cover’s choice in tagline is what gets my blood pumping. “When it comes to sex, she wrote the book on it,” according to words big and colorful enough to be seen by the blind.
I am intrigued, yet cautious. ADV has tricked me before. The company has employed a marketing strategy specifically aimed at boys like me. They plaster cleavage and sexually provocative one-liners on most of their catalog to fool the oversexed into thinking they are buying hentai, even on what turns out to be innocuous stuff like Sorcerer Hunters or Slayers: The Motion Picture. Maybe they’re lying to me again, I think. But perhaps, for once, I’ll out of here with something that’s actually dirty.
“When it comes to sex, she wrote the book on it.”
That’s the story of how ADV got me again.
Sakura Diaries features no lascivious female sex experts or writers of metaphorical books on the subject. That’s not to say the series isn’t raunchy or suggestive, however. It’s pretty dirty. Unbeknownst to that horny teenager from long ago, someone accidentally stuck the edited-for-Japanese-television version of Sakura Diaries onto those old VHS tapes, which covers all the bare boobs with underwear or soap or whatever. ADV would reissue Sakura Diaries twice before going the way of Sam Goody, with one release as a sub only single volume collection and the other in a two volume Japanese/English hybrid. Years later I have finally gotten around to seeing Sakura Diaries as it was intended, nipples and all.
Our ‘hero’ is Touma Inaba, a high school graduate facing the oft-presented plight of the Japanese student: to be accepted into a prestigious university and subsequently a big corporation at all costs. On the eve of testing for Keio University, Touma is shocked when a strange girl enters his hotel room and for seemingly no reason whatsoever strips down. He thinks she’s a call girl who has mistaken him for a client. Torn between possible virginity loss and utter confusion, Touma opts to shove the girl out of his room while she is still topless.
It turns out the girl is not a prostitute but Urara Kasuga, Touma’s cousin from years ago. She’s still madly in love with a sweet and innocent Touma she knew from childhood. Unfortunately the ensuing years have darkened him into an insufferable prick. For about the first half of the series Touma is arrogant, rude, and dishonest, letting his genitals speak louder than his heart. Gradually the pieces will fall into place to explain this transformation in subtle ways, but until Touma starts to soften up he’s not the ideal character with whom to spend twelve episodes.
On exam day Touma fails to get into Keio and also falls in perpetual lust with a pretty redhead named Mieko. Enthralled, Touma lies to her about being accepted to win her over. We don’t learn much about Mieko for a great deal of the series except that she’s cute, bubbly and big breasted, but her lack of (character) development can also be interpreted as Touma’s addled point of view. It’s the typical scenario where the boy wants the girl without really learning about hre first. The person Mieko is or could be is filtered through Touma’s fantasies. Meanwhile Urara opens her home to Touma and continues being infatuated with him, creating a love triangle scenario where Touma ignores/mistreats Urara while doing everything he can to bed Mieko.
Urara is an interesting character study. We come to find out that she is a virgin, naive and carrying around ideas about love and romance usually absorbed from cliched stories. Her method of trying to cheer up Touma involves wearing next to nothing around the house. Unfortunately Touma mistakes Urara’s frequent nudity for promiscuity and views her as a tool to practice for the big leagues with Mieko. This leads to an infamous, and horrible attempted sexual assault on Urara that comes out of nowhere.
In the aftermath of the deplorable event, Sakura Diaries stops being a love story so much as a colonic of Touma’s soul. Once he learns the truth of Urara’s innocence his cold, shitty heart starts to melt. At this point it’s very easy to hate him, but whatever loathing the viewer has probably pales in comparison to how much Touma hates himself. The bastard ends up being a complicated case. He warms up while still pining for Mieko, and that’s when he isn’t pummeling his psyche senseless.
Maybe I’ve had time to calm down because in my rewatch I found myself more interested in the story and characters than the fanservice, which actually feels like a shoehorned afterthought. Lamentations and dramatic moments are punctuated by Urara’s jiggling butt or her cleavage spilling over or out. The frequency of near and actual nudity at inopportune moments causes off-putting tonal shifts, but it isn’t surprising considering that Sakura Diaries was adapted from a manga by famous hentai artist U-Jin.
The fact that Sakura Diaries has more to offer beyond cheesecake elevates its status in my mind. Back then I was looking for erotica to sneak past my parents; today I expect something a bit more, and for the most part I got it. Unfortunately Sakura Diaries is one of those manga adaptations that comes to a grinding halt before the source material has finished its run. As a result these twelve episodes don’t yield much of an ending. Sakura Diaries may not “write the book” on anything groundbreaking, but it’s worth at least one viewing.
Final Grade: B