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.
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.
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.