This is the extended version of the anime story published in Protoculture Addicts #81. Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
The chaotic events that preceded the Meiji era (1868-1912), the period where medieval Japan, which had been kept in isolation by the Tokugawa Shogunate (Bakufu) for more than two centuries, stepped into modernism, have always been a source of fascination for both Japanese and non-Japanese alike. The events in question started with the rather innocuous 1853 arrival, in Uraga bay, of the American “Black Ships” commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry. Perry had transmitted to the Shogun a letter from President Willard Filmore, a letter whose content boiled down to this: “stop your isolationist policies or else”. The Shogun, afraid of losing power, had then accepted to make certain concessions. This provoked a feud between those wanting to protect Japan’s integrity and its allegiance to the Bakufu (the Emperor and his court were favorable to the Bakufu, but for their own reasons…), and the Reformist (foremost the Choshu and Satsuma clans) who wanted Japan to step into the modern world. Thus started a bloody, yet relatively secret war between two ideologies.
Thanks to the popularity of Rurouni Kenshin (Samurai X in English), Nobuhiro Watsuki•s tale of a wandering Samurai of the early Meiji era, most anime and manga fans now know about the Reformist side of the conflict. Kenshin, whose war name was Himura Battosai, fought against the Bakufu’s elite warriors, the most dangerous being the feared Shinsengumi, also known as “The Wolves Of Mibu”, for some of its most illustrious members came from that area. While the Shinsengumi (whose emblem was the word “Makoto”, lit. “Truth”) was composed, at its peak, of ten brigades or patrol troops of about 30 men each, it is the names of some of those brigades’ leaders that passed to history, names like Okita Souji (1st troop Captain), Saito Hajime (3rd troop Captain) and Hijikata Toshizo (Vice-Commander). It is the story of those “Wolves” that is recounted in Kurono Nanae’s Peacemaker Kurogane.
Peacemaker Kurogane starts in 1864, before the “Ikeda-iya Incident” which made the group so well known to wanna-be Samurai heroes (at that time, the Shinsengumi was less than a hundred men strong) and guaranteed them a place in history. A 15 year-old red-haired boy, named Ichimura Tetsunosuke, comes to the Shinsengumi headquarters’ gate and demands to join them so that he can avenge the death of his parents, killed by the Reformist. While Tetsunosuke (“Tetsu”) is rather short for his age, his spunk and desire to serve the cause charms Okita Souji, who manages to have him accepted as page for Hijikata Toshizo, the feared Vice-Commander of the Shinsengumi. Tatsunosuke, Tetsu’s older brother (and master of apologies!) also joins the group as librarian so that he can watch over his rather hot-tempered little brother, whom he loves very much. At first, Tetsu finds his new life cool (even if Hijikata is a rather demanding task master), but he soon discovers the truth about the Shinsengumi: if you want to be one of them, you have to become like them. And the Shinsengumi are blood-thirsty demons, as Hijikata and Okita will demonstrate to him. Tetsu will also learn from Okita that no mistakes can be tolerated in their world and that a slip of the tongue can cost a man his life. Later, Tetsu will meet Suzu Kitamura, who will become his friend. But, unbeknownst to them, they should be enemies, as Tetsu is part of the Shinsengumi, which Suzu hates with a passion and Suzu is the page of Toshimaro Yoshida, the man who killed Tetsu’s parents! This revelation, near the end of the series, will drive Tetsu on the edge of madness. Will he be able to continue his search for revenge? And will he ever know why Yoshida butchered his parents like cattle, but spared him? The answers will come on a cold, damp night, while Okita’s troop (14 men in all) battles Yoshida’s men (more than 40 of them!) at Ikeda-iya (an hostel where members of the Reform movement had taken shelter while waiting for their orders) and Tetsu joins them, taking on Yoshida himself in a bloody fight to the finish…
Samurai series are pretty popular these days and it seems that studio GONZO (Blue Submarine #6, Yukikaze, Last Exile, Vandread) wanted a part of the action. It seemed that adapting Nanae Kurono’s Peacemaker Kurogane would be a good choice for such a series and they were right! I was quite impressed by this series’ story and for more than one reason. First, the arrival of Rurouni Kenshin, while tremendously successful and entertaining, had only shown one side of the war that preceded the Meiji era. It is true that the first OVA series of Kenshin had shown some of the Shinsengumi’s activities and main characters (mainly Saito and Okita), but, that was not enough to give us a good idea of who these guys really were and what they were fighting for. That is taken care of in great detail in Peacemaker Kurogane, since we meet ALL the important figures of the Shinsengumi and we get to learn their motivations. Second, it quickly becomes evident that Tetsu is NOT just a gimmick to give us an entry in the Shinsengumi’s world. He is a true character with motivations of his own, not just the “Character You Can Identify With”. Third, we get to see ALL the sides of the Shinsengumi. OK, Okita is girlish and very kind, but he is also a monstrously efficient killing machine that loses all humanity in battle and the switch between the two is instantaneous (Hijikata is even worse!). The same goes for all the other Shinsengumi guys, including the peaceful Yamanami and the good-natured Kondou. The result of this is that you can never guess what is going to happen next, as the characters can go from humorous banter (the episode with Hijikata’s Haiku book is a riot!) to murderous rampage in a flash! Keeps you on your toes and at the edge of your seat, believe me! And fourth, the story is gripping, as you really want to know what is going to happen to Tetsu and how he is going to vanquish his inner demons.
As for the animation, once again, Studio GONZO delivers the goods. The character designs are superb (even if some of them are hard to distinguish from one another. Ex. Hijikata and Yoshida), even if they are a bit “kiddy” for such a subject. The character design of Tetsu is very particular (weird eyes!), but it does make him unique. As for Okita, his feminine looks may have been exaggerated to emphasize his strength and murderous abilities. Kenshin fans will probably be EXTREMELY surprised by the way Hajime Saito is portrayed in Peacemaker, as he is at the antipodes of Kenshin’s Saito! And how can we talk about Peacemaker’s character designs without mentioning Saizou, Okita’s little pig, who is as cute as he is bad tempered! The animation itself is beautifully done for a TV series, with especially fluid movements in battles.
In short, although I had not expected much from this series, I found myself enthralled by it and felt a bit betrayed when it became evident that there would only be 24 episodes! My only warning for this series would be about its violence. A few episodes (the death of Ayu-ne and the ones at Ikeda-iya) are particularly violent and disturbing, so, despite the somewhat “kiddy” look, this is not for little kids. If you are a fan of Kenshin and have the chance to see Peacemaker Kurogane, then do it, you will not be disappointed!