By Roxy Simons.
The Shinsengumi are one of those groups in history that lend themselves to multiple depictions, especially in anime. With their bloody five-year history, indisputable sword skills, and fierce loyalty to their rulers, it’s no wonder that people want to revisit their story. A group of militia who fought and died protecting the Tokugawa shogunate in the final years of the regime, these warriors are tragic heroes of the end of the samurai era and because of this status they have been given a mysterious yet charming quality in fiction. This may seem surprising, though, given they fought on the losing side of the war.
Formed by Isami Kondo and Toshizo Hijikata, who took on the roles of Commander and Vice Commander respectively, the Shinsengumi were not samurai in the traditional sense. They came from all walks of life: Kondo and Hijikata were from farming families, for example, while the child prodigy and leader of their first unit, Souji Okita, was a samurai by birth. At the height of their activity in Kyoto, anti-foreign sentiment was in the air following Commodore Perry’s demand for Japan to open its borders and they worked to stop imperial loyalists from the Choshu, Satsuma and Tosa domains from usurping Tokugawa military rule. Even when things turned against them they continued to fight for what they believed in, despite it being a lost cause — only two survived the carnage.
Their story has been heavily romanticised across a variety of media. Games like the RPG Hakuouki, anime like Peacemaker Kurogane, and Ryotaro Shiba’s historical novel Moeyo ken (Blaze, My Sword) are good examples of this. The latter, which was originally published in 1964, established an archetypal image of the group as national heroes, as well as certain character traits which are still used today. It put Hijikata at the forefront of the narrative and focused on his friendship with Okita, putting their commander Kondo on the side-lines. A similar thing happens in Peacemaker Kurogane, a series that looks at the history of the militia group through the eyes of a 15-year-old recruit.
Tetsunosuke Ichimura, the quick-tempered new member of the group, joins with the intention of becoming strong so that he can avenge the deaths of his parents at the hands of a Choshu samurai. His father always hoped he would become a Peacemaker, a term he coined with an American-loving reincarnation of Meiji Restoration hero Ryoma Sakamoto, but he is torn with what he should do, follow his father’s wishes or become a killer under the Shinsengumi banner. As he toils over this decision, he is appointed as Hijikata’s page-boy and spends his days brawling or hanging out with Okita and other notable members of the group like Hajime Saito, Shinpachi Nagakura, and Sanosuke Harada.
Based on Nanae Chrono’s manga of the same name, this incarnation of the Shinsengumi presents them as an amiable and spirited lot who often play tricks on each other or give each other support in hard times. The relationship between Hijikata and Okita takes centre stage once more as they act like proud parents over Tetsunosuke, looking out for him and commenting on his growth as a fighter. Hijikata is quick to scold him while Okita, who is given a rather effeminate design here, is doting and tries to get to the heart of his traumatic past. They’re shown as kind-hearted individuals, and we are given very little information about their enemies — more reason to side with them in this narrative.
The show doesn’t shy away from their violent nature, though. Both Hijikata and Okita showcase their malevolent side to Tetsunosuke so that he is aware of what he’s trying to become, for example, and historical events like the famed Ikedaya Incident are also presented in grim detail. Even so, these fierce battles are few and far-between in the anime, the emphasis is on their camaraderie and character development rather than their blood-lust. The series acts as a good introduction to the fallen heroes of the Shinsengumi, and with a new film series in the works to continue the story this is certainly a good chance to catch up.
Peacemaker Kurogane is re-released in the UK by Anime Limited.