Bamboo Blade is your typical sports story: Coach has trouble, has to coach a sports team to alleviate the problem, tries to get a winning team together, and grows fond of his players. Of course, the backdrop for Bamboo Blade is different from what I’ve usually seen. This time, it’s kendo, the Japanese sport of sword fighting. But for the most part, there is a strong sense of déjà vu to the proceedings.
The plot concerns a poor twenty- or thirty-something teacher, Toraji Ishida (a.k.a. Kojiro), who is perpetually in a state of hunger and mooches off his students’ lunches. During a dinner, he and former upperclassman (now kendo coach) Kenzaburo Ishibashi make a bet: If Kojiro can beat his team in a kendo tournament, Kenzaburo will give him free sushi for a year. Naturally, this highly motivates Kojiro, but finding team members who can beat Kenzaburo’s team is easier said than done.
The only regular member when he begins is a spunky, energetic gal named Kirino Chiba. Kojiro lucks out, however, when he is able to recruit the kendo prodigy Tamaki Kawazoe, which isn’t an easy feat, given that she had no interest because she’s been practicing kendo at home. But Tamaki was just what the team needed: Despite her quiet demeanor and short height, when she puts on the gear, she becomes a tactical hitting machine, almost ninja-like in execution. As the series progresses, a few more join the club, including Miyako Miyazaki, who is sort of a dual-personality individual; her boyfriend, a chubby and fairly dim-witted guy who is surprisingly good at scorekeeping; Sayako Kuwahara, an impulsive girl who keeps quitting and coming back like nothing happened; and Satori Azuma, who is forbidden to join at first because of her excessively poor grades and forgetfulness. There’s also a guy named Yuji Nakata, who is a Typical High School Boy.TM
The thirteen episodes given in Volume 1 gives the usual material you’ll be familiar with if you’ve even seen a sports movie. The down-on-his-luck coach, the motivational speeches, the other team underestimating the star player, the near impossible task of convincing someone who doesn’t care to join the team, the opposing coach who is hard-as-nails and shows no sympathy for those who want to quit his grueling regimen (“Good, I have no time for weaklings.”), the flashbacks to show why someone got involved in the sport to begin with, etc. About the only thing I honestly can say I haven’t seen before is when the opposing coach has trouble finding the school where the tournament will be held and gets there really late, all while his team gets carsick and so is not in top condition for the match. That was amusing.
While the kendo matches and practices are the main aspect of the series, there are also a few side plotlines concerning life outside the dojo, such as Tamaki getting a part time job as a gift shop clerk. Ironically, it’s this plot which I enjoyed more than the kendo stuff: I can recall how nervous I was the first time I had a customer service job, and as such, I could relate to Tamaki’s demeanor in that two-parter. She’s also into anime, which makes her easy to relate to because, well, if you’re watching Bamboo Blade, chances are you’re into anime, too. In all honesty, I found Tamaki more interesting when she wasn’t in a match; when she fights, it’s pretty much a guarantee she’s going to win, regardless of how many close calls she has. At one point, Kenzaburo, impressed at her abilities, challenges her to an impromptu battle. Even there, despite his towering height, Tamaki still manages to hold her own.
The character designs do the job, and while the school outfits are pretty standard stuff, the kendo outfits give the show some visual identity. However, I’ve one small nitpick, albeit one unavoidable due to the nature of the sport: Whenever someone is wearing their kendo mask, it becomes difficult to see who’s behind it! This doesn’t help in the matches, as the kendo outfits between the opposing teams are pretty similar and thus, all you have to go by are the body types and eyes through the mask to tell competitors apart. Animation by AIC A.S.T.A. is par for the course for TV. Nothing horrible, but it won’t knock your socks off. Similarly, the music doesn’t really leave a lasting impression; I forgot all the melodies once I finished the set. I also wasn’t a fan of the ending theme, which I skipped past quickly every time.
The special features are practically nonexistent, with trailers and textless songs as the only offerings on the two-disc set. Luckily, the dub picks up the slack. Luci Christian plays Kirino in an appropriately cheerful, excited manner, and manages to sound slightly different than other roles I’ve heard her in while still maintaining that distinct voice. Cherami Leigh as Tamaki is adorable; she gives her an appropriately soft voice, yet provides the necessary power when Tamaki is competing. Ian Sinclair also works for the main protagonist, Kojiro, giving him a put-upon, down-on-his-luck voice without sounding pathetic or whiny. Chris Sabat, whom I remember from the lead in Speed Grapher, also does acceptable work here as the low-pitched rival coach, Kenzaburo. Rounding out the cast are a healthy mix of familiars and relative newcomers like Carrie Savage as Satori, Leah Clark as Miyako, and Brina Palencia as Sayako, Sean Michael Teague as Danjuro, and Chris Burnett as Yuji. Overall, I had no issues with how anybody from the English cast sounded.
Bamboo Blade certainly won’t win any awards for originality. While the kendo motif at least provides something different than Americans are used to seeing in sports movies (baseball, football, and basketball being the big ones found on the silver screen), it still carries with it the tropes of the genre. It isn’t particularly suspenseful in its matches (due to how good Tamaki is), and, despite moments of comedy, really isn’t that funny overall, either. Unless things improve in the second half, for now, I’d give it a tentative pass. It’s not a horrible show, but it’s not particularly engaging or wholly original either.