A Bit of Historical Knowledge

flagShinsengumi, what’s that?

 

– Definition

The Shinsengumi were a special police force in Japan, well-known for their very strict respect of the Warrior Code, aka “Bushidô” (literally translated as: the way of the warrior). They saw the end of the Edo era.

As they were fighting for the losing side, I tend to call them “the Big Losers in Japanese History”. (Yes, I’m very fond of them, why do you feel like you have to ask?)

 

– Historical background

Be aware of the fact that I am synthesizing, and, by doing so, using a lot of shortcuts.

The Shogunate (aka “Bakufu” in Japanese) reigns peacefully over Japan for some 160 years. The Emperor has nothing but a symbolic power and his military advisor, the Shogun, -one of the Damyos, aka landlords- exercises a military dictatorship. I’ll use a shameful shortcut, but let’s say that the Shogunate is in fact not a very stable power -every shogun is struggling for leadership and causing inner dissensions. Of course –and I am using another shortcut here- the Emperor would gladly have his power back. Guess what all the fighting which ensues will be about?

Another thing to know is the Japanese policy concerning foreigners, which is called “Sakoku” (literally: chained country). This policy was quite clear: no foreigners could come to Japan (or would be punished by death), and no Japanese could leave Japan (or would be punished by death). There were some exceptions, as for example the Dutch people could come to Dejima in Nagasaki and were asked to write once a year an explanation about all the main events in the world… This policy started around 1633-39 and ended –officiously- in 1853, with Commodore’s Perry arrival. Officially, it ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1863. (For those who wanted to know, that strict policy was all because of religions and more particularly because of the rejection of the Christians missionaries in 1587).

Last but not least, let’s talk about the samourai, or “bushi”, the Japanese warriors. They pledged alliance to the Shogun or to daimyos, but were no land owners, contrary to European knights. During the Edo period, there were 400.000 bushi, and when the government forced daimyos to cut down their armies, unemployed warriors (“Rônin”) became a real social problem.
They were influenced by Buddhist and Zen philosophies and followed a doctrine called “Bushidô”, the Way of the Warrior, which mostly said that “the path of the warrior was one of honor, emphasizing duty to one’s master, and loyalty unto death« .

 

Constitution of the Shinsengumi

After Perry’s arrival in 1853, Japan was separated in two: those following the Shogunate and the opening of Japan to Western countries and those following a motto, the “sonnô jôi” (literally: Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians) who wanted to close the frontiers and put back the Emperor as the only leader of the country. Those followers started to commit violence in the capital Kyoto. As an answer, the Shogunate created the Rôshigumi, a group of former rônin which was ordered to protect the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi. Later on, its name will be changed to Shinsengumi (April 18, 1863 to be precise. It means Newly Selected Corps).

 

– Specificity of the group

They followed a code very strict (main penalty being death by seppuku, aka by opening your own belly with your blade), which is the following:

  1. Deviating from Bushido.
  2. Leaving the Shinsengumi.
  3. Raising money privately.
  4. Taking part in litigations.
  5. Engaging in private fights.

There were famous annexes to those rules:

– “Kumigashira ga moshi toushi shita baaiwa, kumishuu wa sono ba de toushi subeshi.”: If the leader of an unit is deadly wounded during a fight, all members have to fight and die on the spot.

– “Hageshiki kokou ni oite shishou zokushutsusutomo kumigashira no shitai no hoka wa hikishirizokukotomakarinarazu.”:  Even if there are heavy losses during the fight, it is forbidden to bring back the corpses, the one of the leader excepted.

– “Moshi taishiga koumuni yorazushite machi de taigai no mono to arasoi, teki to yaiba wo kawashi, jibunga kizu wo oite aite wo shitomekirazuni nigashita baai, ushirokizu no baai no gotokimo seppuku wo meizuru.”: If a member of the Shinsengumi fight against somebody foreigner to the group and is wounded, cannot kill his opponent and let him flee, it does not matter if the member was on duty or not, it does not matter if the injury was caused by treachery or not, the member has to commit seppuku.

Those rules were the most severe Japan has ever known, and some of the death sentences were not applied.
They are often represented wearing a pale blue haori (coat) over their kimonos, but in fact wore it only for a year.

The symbol on their flag and banners was the kanji (Japanese alphabet adapted from the Chinese) meaning Sincerity.

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Rurôni Kenshin -るろうに剣心, the live-action movie (2012)

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                It is the adaptation of the manga by Watsuki Nobuhiro, directed by Ôtomo Keishi for the big screen. As I said earlier, I tend to be afraid of manga adaptation in movies. One evening, I felt very masochistic and started to look at this one.

I was very surprised.

I won’t say that this movie is the best movie ever, but it is not half as bad as I was expecting it to be. The director chose to emphasize Saito Hajime’s character, who is less of an asshole/strong-witted/amoral but still touching character than in the original book. They managed to keep the manga-ish aspect (like it or not, it was nevertheless a real challenge). There are a lot of incredible jumps, impressive battles and flash forwards, but in the end it is quite funny to see. I really like how they treated the heat of the backgrounds on-screen.

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There are some differences with the plot (where IS Aoshi Shinomori, for example?!) and some questionable choices of actors. But the movie is supposed to have a sequel covering the second arch of the manga series, due to its huge success (it was distributed in the world by Warner Bros, which means a lot). I won’t say that this movie is a must-see, but you can still spend a good time looking at it, even if you are a novice in the Kenshin series.

 

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Hakuôki -薄桜鬼〜新選組奇譚, (Hakuōki ~Shinsengumi Kitan) TV Series (2010)

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Hakuôki is an anime series adapted from a video game by Idea Factory. It is an historical fiction produced by Studio Deen, and composed of two seasons, (Hakuôki Shinsengumi Kitan and Hakuôki Hekketsu Rokku) and a prequel intituled Hakuôki Reimeiroku. Each season is composed of twelve episodes of 26 minutes. As far as I know, the series has been aired in Japan and North America only.

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I discovered the anime by chance, found the animation quite good and managed to see the whole series in less than three weeks. I was kind of repeating to myself: ‘That’s sooo girly, that’s sooo girly…’ and yet I couldn’t stop watching. I guess it might be the key element to determine the quality of a TV series.

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Let’s start the analysis with the plot. Basically, the father of a young girl named Chizuru is missing. She chooses to go and look for him and travels disguising herself as a boy. Of course, as soon as she arrives in the Capital, night falls and she is attacked by some white-haired strange men. She is saved just in time by some members of the Shinsengumi (Hijikata, Okita and Saito, the more “fashionable” of the milice) who take her back to their house. Soon after, they all discover that they have a point in common: they are all looking for Chizuru’s father, who was a doctor helping the Aizu clan in some matters. As you can guess, Chizuru stays with the captains of the Shinsengumi, the only ones who know about her gender. And the story goes on, following the main historical events (there are more than enough for two seasons without even starting to get bored).

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So, the series’ main principle is to follow a good-hearted and quite insipid young girl in the middle of young and beautiful swordsmen who are all, of course, single. Girly, that’s so girly… And at the same time, the animation is quite nice, the movements smooth, the character design… Well, is good for a shôjo (meaning manga or animation for girls). Some musical themes by Ôtani Kô are very good (Sakurabana and Ketsui are by far my favorites). Another good point is the choice of the voices: the Japanese dub is almost perfect. Black points now? Well, the main character’s lack of character. (She is not the worst I have ever seen in Japanese animation, but still, sometimes you really want to hit her hard). The plot is also predicable (of course, it’s mainly historical). I also am not fond of the vampire-like things they put in the series, and which I won’t describe any further because I am not that fond of spoilers.

To conclude, I would say that I initially thought that this series would work only with girls, but some of my male friends also found it quite good, so…

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Here’s a link to the series’s teaser (not a very good one according to me, but you can still have a look and see the quality of the animation):

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clF2MAsiEzY

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When The Last Sword Is Drawn – 壬生義士伝 (2003)

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This movie directed by Takita Yôjirô was supposedly absolutely great. It won several prizes (Best Film award at the 2004 Japanese Academy Awards, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor…) and since it was about Saito Hajime, Captain of the 3rd Division of Shinsengumi as well as about the end of the Shinsengumi, I guess I was expecting  a lot. Way too much. First deception: Saito Hajime is not really the main character. Let’s say that this role is stolen by the other man, Yoshimura Kanichiro, who is quite his opposite: devoted to his family, honest, ready to sacrifice himself… Too good to be true, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth at the end of the movie. It is really sad that they did not choose to emphasize on Saito’s character: of course he is harsh, of course he is cruel (these are historical facts), but Yoshimura’s kindness completely eludes him in the second half of the movie. I could not bear this character: too heroic, life is too unfair to him… Director, let’s go back to Saito’s suffering? No. You won’t. Too bad this new hero is too flat and too cliché to be of any interest.

When the Last Sword Is Drawn protagonists

Well, maybe I am a little bit harsh. Let’s go back to the beginning: it starts with an old Saito (who, accurately, survived through the end of the Shogunate) who encounters Yoshimura’s daughter. It reminds him of the past, of course… The first half of the movie is long, and expected, but not bad. The point of view is mostly focused on Saito’s difficult behavior, and I really like the katana sparring sessions at the beginning. After that, when we start to discover the reason why Yoshimura is so greedy, things start to go badly. We have a flash-back in the flash-back, and it is long, so, long… Especially all the time this guy [alert spoilers!] takes to die. I, personally, just got bored. And the movie is quite long (137 minutes) which does not help to counterbalance this feeling. Last but not least, the music were created by Joe Hisaishi, who is one of my favorite Japanese artists, mainly for his work on Mononoke Hime. Sadly, I cannot even remember the music for this one film.

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Shinsengumi Peacemaker TV Live-action series -新撰組PEACE MAKER (2010)

I decided that I had to stop praising everything which has to do with Shinsengumi. It’s not that I like everything, it’s that I’d rather talk about the ones I like… So let’s change a bit and talk about what I consider to be an awful adaptation. It is a live-action series which was aired on TBS in 2010 if my source is correct. It is the adaptation of a manga in live-action series (that kind of pitch tends to frighten me to begin with).

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First is a bad omen: some fans of the manga are trying to get it on the web but it is very rare. I had to wait something like two weeks to get the first 24 minute episode.  And nope, I did not try to get the others after looking at the first one, it kind of disgusted me. I am not that fond of the manga to begin with –which I find readable but lacking originality- but what they did with it… Just, no, guys, what did you think? No wonder it lasted three months on air and nothing more.

The main problem being that they decided to do a show for youngsters. So all the members of the Shinsengumi are teens, and ridiculous ones –one even wears leopard fur, for no reason whatsoever. The actors are no good, the scenery looks cheap and you cannot believe for one second in the main character’s sudden will to save everyone from a fire while he was traumatized by one some years earlier. I am half relieved and half-wondering about what they did with Yamazaki Susumu, a spy for the Shinsengumi, which is, in my opinion, the most interesting character in the original manga.

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Let’s say that the creator of that series totally missed the point and the strength of the original work which was also part humorous, but also darker and with real characters, not wandering names shouting stupidities on their way. I won’t come back on the music or the camera –it screams cheap, cheap!- just do yourself a favor and, please, forget that this adaptation ever existed.

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NKH’s Shinsengumi! – 新選組! (2004)

Image                The NHK’s Shinsengumi! Is a jidaigeki which is (thank you, NHK!) freely downloadable on the internet with English subtitles. This is a very important fact. It has 50 episodes of approximately 43 minutes each and was run from January to December 2004, and has a sequel aired in 2006. It was produced by Koji Yoshikawa, written by Kôki Mitani. I haven’t finished looking it yet, so I might come back toseveral points inmy review later on.

My reactions while looking at the first episode were… Conflicted and paradoxical. The episode starts with all the Shinsengumi members (all, I am saying) entering an inn looking for someone. Okay, I know a bit of Japanese history, this has to be the famous Ikedaya Affair. This is not the problem. Problem? What problem? In one sentence: OMG WHO IS WHO? I got lost between the characters, which shamed me very much. Even with the image freezing and the name of the character appearing on screen, I couldn’t distinguish them from one another. They change their clothes, some put their armor on… I felt very stupid. Since I was looking at the first episode on streaming and that it was multi-parted, I decided to play back part I before trying part II. Improvement: something like 5%. I decided to keep on fighting and played part II… To discover that the series is in fact a whole flashback. Epic failure.

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This being said, the series is my favorite one about Shinsengumi, and I am still devouring episode after episode. The actors are all good (especially now that they are slowly introduced) and the story is well documented. You really feel the gap in time and in culture in the attention to details, especially in the characters’ behavior. And the characters are one of the strongest, if not the strongest point in the series. There are many characters. They are at the same time, quite faithful to the descriptions made in books on the subject, quite faithful to popular belief and convincing. They are characterized, have the inner goals and tensions knot and the dynamic between them works quite well. For now, my only regret would be Harada, who acts like a real clown at the beginning, but starts to gain credibility from the 13th episode. The main character is Kondô Isami and we see the creation of the Shinsengumi mostly from his point of view. It is quite interesting, for Kondô playing often a minor role in other Shinsengumi adaptation, letting Hijikata occupy the front scene. In this series, he struggles for his principles and for an elevation of his social status –a quite universal theme- being originally a farmer’s son adopted by a bushi family. His relationship with Hijikata, his main support, is very interestingly developed. And, last but not least, they managed to leave an important role to women without modernizing them as we can see in most recent historical movies.

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It is a TV series, but the filmmaking is good and the re-use of backgrounds not so obvious. I really like how the lights appear on screen, with a strong contrast between lights and darks. As for the music… The opening is a chorusof male voices singing with an orchestra –I am not an expert of Japanese music, but I’d bet it sounds more Western than Japanese- absolutely kitsch and which I am absolutely fond of. As for the rest, it is hard to say for I watched the free version offered by NHK which has its audio degraded. Some parts, when Kondô is speaking to his mother in Natsu’s house, are beautiful. You just hear from time to time a single hit from a percussion, that’s all, and that’s enough. On the other hand, the music on some emotional moments is insipid.

To conclude, I’d say that Shinsengumi! is a must-see series. The rhythm is good, not hard to follow from a Western point of view, and the story is introduced by small explanations about the historical setting. Even if you have to possess a bit of knowledge to follow it, I wonder if the series wasn’t made to be broadcast overseas… It is also full of magical moments, the actors are good, the filming is good, how can we ask for more? There are fifty episodes and I am still far from the end, but I have become addicted to my 43 minutes of Shinsengumi! every evening.

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Rurôni Kenshin -るろうに剣心 (1994)

Maybe I should have started with this adaptation. It was while reading the manga Rurôni Kenshin that I first heard of Shinsengumi, after all.

Rurôni Kenshin, aka Samourai X is a manga adapted in animation and in movie with live-action actors. Let’s focus on the animated and the printed series (I still have not seen the live-action movie yet –I tend to be afraid of adaptations from Manga to series and films).

Rurôni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story- るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚 is a written and illustrated manga by Watsuki Nobuhiro which started in April 11, 1994 and is composed of 28 volumes. Let’s notice that the author has practiced Kendô (a Japanese martial art descended from the traditional Kenjutsu) and is also a huge fan of Shinsengumi himself.
It is the story of the end of the beginning of the Meiji era –the one following the Edo period- through the eyes of an Imperialist patriot, Himura Kenshin. As he was a samourai and an assassin, his worst opponents were, of course, members of the Shinsengumi…. Saitô Hajime is one of the main characters in the story, acting as a police officer as his real-life counterpart. A lot of historical characters (Okita Sôji, for example) appear briefly in the story. Sagara Sanosuke, another main protagonist, is based on the Shinsengumi 10th Captain Harada Sanosuke. Shishio Makoto, the first antagonist, is based on Serizawa Kamo (the first leader of the Shinsengumi), Shinomori Aoshi on Hijikata Toshizô… and so the list goes on.

About the story, now… Well, you can see that the author loves video games and American comics in his drawings and some of the character design. It is exaggerated (did you see? Kenshin stopped once again a bullet with his katana!) and quite repetitive (a new arch enemy. Defeated. Oh! A new arch enemy) Still, there is rhythm, the fights are interestingly shown and you’ll grow fond of the characters without paying notice. Kenshin’s journey is a part of my childhood and always reminds me of the two-month wait to get the latest  volume…

Anyways, the animated series is less interesting. It has less than one hundred episodes done by three different studios. The graphic designs are sometimes quite ugly especially in the first season (have a look at the girl’s huge eyes, for example, or on Kenshin’s –the main character! – lack of hair on top of his head) and the script is less efficient. The episode fillers are not awfully boring contrary to some other animated series, but they still present very little interest. (Since the animated series starts usually before the end of the manga series, sometimes the animation staff has to create a whole arc waiting for the original work to progress. It has done some damage to series such as Saint Seiya…). The Rurôni Kenshin animated series is not that bad, as a matter of fact, but it is getting old while the printed version is aging way better.

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