At the end of shogun rule in the middle of the 19th century, Samurai Jam’s Bakumatsu era is one where idol bands keep the peace. The hypnotic Heaven’s Songs are the only music permitted in order to keep the public subdued, and electric guitars – which in a baffling time-fudge have already made the passage from the US – are banned by the shogunate. But Ryōma Sakamoto, inspired by the experience of a collision with a falling star, believes that all music should be fired by passion, and wields his guitar on a quest to show Japan the wonders of rock.
The first six episodes don’t inspire much faith in Ryōma’s rock star potential, as he forms a band with the first people he meets who share his dream. Neither Ryōma’s troupe nor their rivals, the idols of Shinsengumi, have the charisma to persuade us to support or oppose their causes, so you’re left with the two or three songs they each play. Even on this front, only the lead singles for each side stir the soul, and Ryōma’s battle cry ‘Rolling Thunder’ can’t fly on its heartfelt yarling for long, as you hear it at least once every episode. Once it starts to fall flat, you’re left wanting to hear Shinsengumi’s ‘Sincerity’ again, digging your heels in against the flow of the story and the heroes’ fight for freedom.
When Ryōma’s friend and drummer, Katsura Kogorō, is reluctant to bare all at a bathhouse gig with the band, his troubles bottled up, there’s the first spark of hope for deeper characters and empowering side-stories. But the concert passes without providing a clear-cut resolution, and it seems Katsura was just a bit shy after all the build-up. In this way, the series keeps leaving promising plot points to go stagnant or abandoning them down the line, missing its chances to step up the tempo.
It feels like, if the show had pushed the allure of the bandmates beyond the topless stage transformations, it would have offered more insight into their desires and personalities, and given the series more driving force. In the one episode, the casual fanservice is facilitated by an all-girl underground idol outfit called Dark Cherries, and the main characters feel richer and more intimate for the touch of kinky humour. As the girls attempt to suss out the success secrets of the rival guy groups, they break through the monotonous simpering of the other female characters resigned to minor fangirl roles. But once again, this promising development is scrubbed out, as the Dark Cherries set off to find their own fame in America.
From here on, the plot unravels into a string of bizarre, bolt-from-the-blue occurrences as the battle for true peace through rock ‘n’ roll reaches its height. But although the message to love what you love with passion and pride struggles to keep the show intact, it’s one worth sticking with, giving rise to some powerful moments of courage as the era of rockers begins.