As the story goes, we are three months after the death of Sakamoto Ryouma, established in the role of dead but long-shadowed visionary by the opening minutes. A young man clearly attached to Sakamoto, Akizuki Youjiro, is on the hunt for some kind of artifact (described in the opening minutes as a "head") connected to Sakamoto's death. We see him practicing with his sword at the edge of a cliff, mulling over his master's words about the sea. His sword has the peculiar quality of being constantly wet, and his eyes have an even more peculiar habit of glowing sea blue. He heads to Yokohama, at the time the only port opened to foreign vessels in Japan, where he saves two children from a street fight. Our disembodied narrating voice further informs us that Yokohama is the focus of disordered liveliness as forces gather against the Tokugawa Shogunate and Japan is being dragged kicking and screaming to open itself up to the world. Akizuki is invited to the children's home, a theatrical troupe who introduce themselves in poetic verse designed to beat us over the head with the fact they are assassins in disguise. Akizuki isn't impressed, and leaves. (I wasn't either -- this is the third time in about 6 months I've had to see mention of assassins disguised as a theatre group.)
It is very dramatic though, and the heavy theatrical element shows up in the way scenes appear as though they were clapped out from behind a folding fan. Our ninja players, the Yuuyama Kakunojou Troupe, churn out revolutionary plays for the masses (dubiously unsecretive of them), and we get a couple of minutes worth of their latest show, which was for me the highlight of this episode -- it was fun. Later that evening, the Troupe disguise themselves to attend an exclusive auction where it is rumoured the "head" is being sold. At the height of bidding, Akizuki appears, summoning the artifact, wrapped in a gigantic pinata of ofuda, with his sword. The ofuda ball goes up in flames, the head disappears, 10-20 different characters have been introduced in the last 30 minutes, and we are terribly confused.
Even if I hadn't noticed that the people behind this show were Sunrise and Bandai Visual, it would've been hard not to notice how very much like Witch Hunter Robin this actually is. The animation style is right up WHR's alley. At least one guy is a dead ringer for Amon, and the lead girl looks familiar too. People habitually glow in the eyes when they power up. Even the flame effects for this first episode's climax look like Robin took a torch to the set. Similarities aside, the character designs are definitely interesting, and the animation in general is of very good quality. The fight scenes just about scream WHR. Allowances have been made for actual swordfighting, and therefore actual action, which WHR lacked, but those glowing eyes and licks of elemental powers can't run away. The fact I'm watching the first episode, pondering in what order everything actually happened, and who everyone might be even with their names clearly plastered under their faces everytime someone new is introduced isn't helping either.
The OP lacks a girl draped over a TV set, but it's not lacking a sad girl and a sad boy pining over each other. The ED just has scrolling text (like an old-fashioned scroll) set to a black background and more (likeable) dramatic music, capped by a preview that is our lead girl narrating cryptic verses about the coming episode. Which is fine, since that was what we had with WHR too. I don't know yet if I might come to like this as much as WHR. The disjointedness of the opening episode is slightly grating, where WHR thrived on taking its own time with the plot in spite of seeming like it lacked direction for 15 episodes straight.
About the swordfighting: Yes, there's swordfighting, but nothing too flashy. At least, not flashy in the sense of Bleach. The swordfights are subdued -- think of a cross between the subtlety of the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs with the portions we never got to see under the flashes of light in the TV series, perhaps in slow motion. The stress so far appears to be on melee rather than long-range combat, which is always a welcome sign by me. The action is fluid and gracefully choreographed. Again, comparisons to WHR must be made, because our setup suggests we'll be seeing tastefully posed characters in quick battles more than we will actual fighting.
I will continue to watch this, for another episode. At least to see how the first major swordfight turns out, to see if any more plays get airtime, and to enjoy that swanky OP. The art has clearly caught my eye. And there are ninjas at work, after all.