Taking a look at Hakuoki’s live action drama adaptation

Whilst scrolling through Crunchyroll’s currently airing section to find a new show to watch, my eyes locked on an unexpected sight: Hakuoki’s live action adaptation. Who would have thought that in early 2022, we would have received a dramatic adaptation of one of the greatest and most influential otome titles to have ever been created? Truly one of the earliest treats of the year!

The three episodes currently being aired get off to a strong start, demonstrating great potential and unexpectedly great execution — and there’s still seven more to go. News of Hakuoki even getting an adaptation barely even had time to gain traction before it actually started airing — so without further ado, let’s talk about it and hopefully convince a few more people to join the comfortably seated audience. It’s a show well worth exploring both for newcomers to the IP, and for pre-existing fans — so let’s take a closer look!

Some background information first

Hakuoki

But first, if you’re a J-drama fan who is not yet familiar with Hakuoki, let’s set the scene to explain its popularity — and the concerns that come with adapting a widely beloved, pre-existing source. I mean, that sort of thing doesn’t always go well, after all.

For starters, Hakuoki is one of the biggest otome franchises that exists both within Japan and outside of it. It’s appeared on more different platforms than any other series, has a legacy that spans two decades since its debut in 2008, and is still going strong to this day. It’s fair to say that it’s a widely beloved series.

Hakuoki also has multiple spin-offs outside all its video games, such as stage plays, movies, musicals, and a manga serialisation. Now, it seems to suddenly be time for a live action drama. It’s airing on WOWOW, and available to stream in the west on Crunchyroll.

As far as the west is concerned, Hakuoki was Idea Factory’s breakout otome, and marked a sharp rise of interest in the genre, since it was also a great gateway title for new otome fans. And the reason it has performed so well is due to many of its narrative elements.

Hakuoki is based off of real life historical figures: the Shinsengumi, a special police force active within the Edo period under the governance of the Tokugawa shogunate.

It is evidently one for the history lovers, but you can throw in an original supernatural layer of story with the blood-sucking “furies”, too — truly, it offers a splendid balance of romance and plot-heavy goodness. It’s not hard to see why Hakuoki is one of the most beloved otome series out there, and one that has been regarded as a classic for decades now. So the pressure to deliver at the very least a passable live action drama adaptation would have been keenly felt by the show’s producers!

Immediate thoughts: a faithful and picturesque adaptation of its source material

Hakuoki

Onto my thoughts on the adaptation, then, and I have mostly compliments. I have found that most of my enjoyment of the adaptation has come from just how faithful it has been to the game. As soon as the first episode starts, we’re met with a picture perfect staging of the game’s opening scene. The fact the show is, on the whole, very well presented and believable is probably due to the adaptation having been filmed at Toei Kyoto Studio, which has been said to have successfully produced many well received historical dramas.

If I had any complaints in the visuals department, it’s with the show’s evidently lacking budget; the CGI sequences look extremely corny at times, such as when the furies’ wounds are rapidly healing. Over-the-top sound design during battle scenes also sometimes takes you out of the immersion with overly loud sword sound effects, but probably the worst thing is the obvious dubbing in some scenes — very distracting when the audio quality suddenly changes so much!

Additionally, pre-existing Hakuoki fans should not go into the live-action adaptation expecting the game’s original soundtrack, since Kuniyuki Morohashi (Musasino!, Midnight Crazy Trail, Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher) has composed the music in this case.

It is a pretty lengthy list of cons, admittedly, but there are still a vast number of reasons to watch — even if it’s just for the camp factor. Even the slowed-down “stills” based on the original CGs adapted to live action make for glorious guilty pleasures to witness being presented realistically here.

The faithfulness of the original product is apparent and highly appreciated, including its set designs, costumes, and even some quite distracting wigs all do well to represent the well-established sprites and pre-existing characters we have come to love over the many years. But by far the best things about the show are the performances.

Characterisation that hits the nail on the head (for the most part)

Hakuoki's cast

The adaptation stars a massively and mostly impressive cast that was really well selected for their roles.

Tsubasa Sakiyama is a great choice to play the stoic poster boy of Hijikata, who delivers a convincing and well-performed portrayal of the Shinsengumi’s commander.

Kotoko Wakayanagi is eerily fitting for Chizuru, her second main role since Subete no Koi wa Katamoi kara Hajimarupoi — an even more impressive achievement considering she supposedly beat out the competition of 200 other applicants. She thankfully manages to bring enough inflection in her delivery to make Chizuru not at all plain or boring on the screen. For what she has to work with, it’s endearing and likable, but the stand-out decisions were best made with the supporting cast.

Sonde Kanai as Okita captures the essence of his character through and through, with poses that are well adapted from his sprites, and line deliveries that hold the same snarky tone as the original. Alas, obviously the lack of Showtaro Morikubo’s exquisite voice acting is keenly felt here, though this may very well just be a personal issue for me. It’s hard to not compare when certain characters are cherished by the audience more so than others, but Sonde manages to still bring his own take on the character and make it his own — and it works. It probably helps that, as demonstrated in interviews, he is just as quick-witted as Okita himself.

Then you have others who eerily fit the bill as real-life counterparts, such as Takato Nagata as Yamazaki — a picture perfect pick compared to the original — and Yuki Tokito as Harada, who delivers the same energy and charisma as his 2D counterpart. Dare I say it? He might be even more charming as a heart-throb than the original character.

Other stand-outs include Takai Nakabayashi as Sanan as well as Koji Saikawa as Nagakura and Kohei Fukuyama as Todou, with these two delivering a very entertaining and believable chemistry as the closest buddies of the group. Their antics and youthful, carefree dynamic and energy is a consistent pleasure to see.

Dialogue inflections and emotions are all perfectly captured from the game, for the most part. If I were to nitpick, it would be with only two casting choices — Kotaro Tanaka as Kondo, and Masato Yano as Saito. Some lines delivered by these two specifically feel especially awkward due to some questionable breaks in the dialogue. Additionally, characters such as the distant Saito are often seen just gazing into the distance, which can feel quite awkward and distracting when being presented in a live action — despite it being faithful to the character. Props to him for learning how to wield a sword in his non-dominant hand for the fight choreography however!

What else is to come?

I have previously written about a couple of other J-dramas that I hold especially close to me for their nostalgia factor, and the live adaptation of Hakuoki gives me the same exact feeling. Even its rather corny and stilted acting from some of the cast members makes the show a rather endearing watch — and it’s good that the obviously limited budget didn’t take away from the faithful adaptation of costumes, casting decisions and set designs.

Come episode 3, the show’s fight choreography really comes into its own. Nagakura is the highlight here, and we should say a hearty “job well done” to Koji Saikawa for getting the choreography down so well. His performance is quite noticeably better to everyone else in the scene; some of the others appear a tad robotic and unnatural during these frantic fight choreography sequences. In a number of places, you can see characters awkwardly waiting for their cue to move in tandem with others; these moments feel quite obvious and poorly directed.

However, my biggest concern is where it goes from here. There is a ton of context that has to be taken out in favour of squashing and condensing the many words of the visual novel into just 10 episodes, so my fingers are crossed that events and character development are translated better than the previous anime adaptation. I think it’s safe to assume that the live action is following Hijikata’s route, much like the anime, so it will be interesting to compare and contrast.

I am both hopeful and excited to see how Imari Yu will portray Kazama in the upcoming episodes — although judging by some of the promotional pictures out there, his wig may prove to be quite distracting! We also have his subordinates to see in more action sequences, too. I’m especially interested to witness how well Kyo’s gun fighting will translate to the adaptation.

Ultimately, all my complaints are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, because I’m honestly really enjoying my time with Hakuoki’s live action adaptation so far. I’ll certainly be keeping up to date with its episodes — because who knows, this may already be one of my top guilty pleasures of 2022!

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