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We are crossing a bridge made of wood towards a city full of proud, squared shaped houses with walls made of rice paper and dark colored tiles on top. There is so much people on the streets that it is difficult to walk. The fishermen carry fresh caught sea produce, women with small children pass by, Buddhist monks request alms, a wandering artist with a wooden box hurries by our side, and a proud looking guy carrying a sword discusses the prices of some groceries with a loud voice merchant. Not so far away, a splendid white castle watches over the citizens.
Welcome to Edo Tokyo! The capital of Japan is an energized city, thanks to the efforts of the Tokugawa shogunate, named after the military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu. The emperor and his court are symbolic rulers, while the shogun is the real authority of Japan. Nevertheless, we are going to focus more on the latest years of the Edo period on this article, after Commodore Perry arrived to demand the country to open to the world. This provoked a deep division between the daimyos. There were two groups. The nationalists, called Ishin-shishi, were in favor of closing Japan once more and were fiercely loyal to the Emperor. Their motto even was “Revere the Emperor, expel the Barbarians”! On the other side, we have the shogunate. And among this shogunate side, we have the Shinsengumi. Perhaps you have heard of them. Their motto was “Slay evil immediately”, and they have appeared on several anime and Japanese cultural products. They are a thing in Japan, but it has not always been like that. Do you want to discover the hows and whys of the Shinsengumi? Keep reading!
But what on Earth is a Shinsengumi?
We know it, my dear otakus. Japan is so hierarchical that they have classifications for everything and everyone. And here we were thinking that all those guys swinging swords were simply samurai! But fear not. We are right here to clear off your confusion. So let’s take a rest at this small tea house, we will explain while we enjoy some fragrant tea with mochi sweets, looking at the people passing by…
Can you see those guys in black wide pants, blue coat with white triangles on the sleeves and white headband? They are the Shinsengumi. Shinsengumi means “New squad”. They were organized by the shogunate to become a special police force. The Shinsengumi were recruited from the elite sword dojos of Edo, but their original purpose was to protect the daimyos who were deciding to terminate foreign trade in Kyoto. However, their leader Koyokawa Hashiro also recruited masterless samurai (called Rounin) to support the Emperor. Eventually, other supporters not born in samurai families joined the cause.
Does this ring a bell? Which famous anime has very important conspiracy episodes in the Kyoto of the latest Edo period? If you thought about Rurouni Kenshin (Samurai X), you are right! Its creator, Nobuhiro Watsuki, borrowed heavily from history to create Kenshin and his friends, especially the real life Saito Hajime. Although the character was done more sadistic than the true life counterpart, Saito served as a pivotal point of view for the story. His first appearance in the anime was disguised as a pharmacist, selling medicine to cure light injures or broken bones. This was a real disguise used frequently by the Shinsengumi to collect intelligence.
Other characters inspired by the real Shinsengumi in Rurouni Kenshin was Kanryuu Takeda, who appears as a rich drug dealer employing Megumi for his schemes. Hannya from the Oniwabanshu was also inspired by the personality of Susumu Yamazaki, another real life Shinsengumi who had a background as a doctor before becoming a Rounin.
But not only Watsuki has been inspired by the Shinsengumi in the manga world. We also have Peacemaker Kurogane, which narrates the fictionalized life of the Shinsengumi Tetsunosuke Ichimura. He also has a brother in both real and anime versions, called Tatsunosuke. The anime, besides being full of action, has its moments of romance, comedy, and a pig (a pig, for God’s sake!). We can see the daily life and training of the Shinsegumi, even looking at the role of the “den mother” Ayumu. Perhaps what is most interesting about the anime is how the older brother Tatsunosuke joins the Shinsengumi to fight for the sake of peace, while Tetsunosuke’s wish is to revenge their parents’ death.
We also have the more recent Gintama, which goes into the supernatural realm. Here, instead of having an important conflict with foreigners, some spatial aliens take up Edo’s government and are the main evil ones of the story. The protagonist, Gintoki Sakata, works in a store with other outcast members of the society. We could say that Gintoki is some sort of Rounin who does odd jobs and encounters the Shinsengumi frequently on his adventures, but all in all, the show is more focused on comedy.
Maybe the stories based on the Shinsengumi lack appeal for us girls… but fear not, that is why we also have Hakuoki ( Hakuoki - Demon of the fleeting blossom). It has been so popular that we have a cute chibi styled third season (Hakuoki Otogisoushi) currently running. The story goes more into the fantasy realm, as the protagonist, Chizuru Yukimura, is searching for her father. As a physician, he created an Elixir of Life which is of great interest for the Shinsengumi, thus, Chizuru disguises as a man and is recruited in the special police force.
Shinsengumi are alive!
As we can see, the portrayal of the Shinsengumi in the anime world has evolved from historical inspiration to a more fictionalized style where they are mixed with pretty much everything. But their presence in modern Japanese culture does not stop there!
Although the first popular media of the Shinsengumi was on 1920, it was since the decade of the 60´s where a boom of T.V. dramas and movies started showing up in the screens. For example, we have Shinsengumi Shimatsuki, Shinsengumi Keppuroku, The legend of Shinsengumi, and Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honour. We can notice the high status in which these guys were regarded, as the famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune worked on this last film. A more recent movie was Gohatto (Taboo), from 1999. Here we can see how homosexuality was accepted between the members of the Shinsengumi. Finally, a film called The last sword is drawn, based on a novel, was released on 2003. It portrays the story of Saitou Hajime and another Shinsengumi, Kanichiro Yoshimura. The movie was highly prized by the critics and the public, due to its poetic and emotional views on honor and family. And… should we remember that Rurouni Kenshin has a great trilogy of live action movies? Just in case that you want to see another version of Saitou Hajime :p
Video games also have made rendition of the Shinsengumi with Fu-un Shinsengumi (released in 2004), Hakuoki (with several releases since 2008), and Total War Shogun 2, Fall of the Samurai (released in 2012). But, if you are more of a real life otaku, you can get your props and head to such localities as Hino and Itabashi. Once a year, festivals themed around the Shinsengumi are celebrated there. You can see what is expected in a festival in Japan, which means people dressed in antique attires and carrying a miniature shrine, but there also are sword fighting competitions. And how about the idol group Shinsengumi Lien? See? Shinsengumi are pretty much alive on this era!
The Shinsengumi in history
All of this sounds so cool! A gang of warriors and their allies, fighting to protect the Emperor with the utmost honorable attitude. Because we also know that the samurai developed the bushido, a strict code of conduct. So, it was natural for the Shinsengumi to follow it, right? Most of their portrayals in modern culture point to that.
Unfortunately, this was not always the case. Although the information about the Shinsengumi is scarce and fragmented, biographies, narratives from Shinsengumi members or relatives, letters and diaries are available. In the first place, the first Shinsengumi were not rich. Let’s remember they were recruited among the Rounin. They also are said to have extorted and raped people from the locality of Mibu, where they received the nickname of “Wolves of Mibu” from the fearful locals. Other leaders had records on several crimes, particularly against women and subordinates. So yeah, very honorable.
Even the leaders had disagreements between them that were settled with duels or plain betrayal, and in some cases, (like Hachiro Kiyokawa, Serizawa Kamo and Yoshio Tonouchi), they paid with their lives. When someone deserted or a small group of them separated with intentions of forming their own Shinsengumi group, they also were killed (like the Goryo Eji group). Historians believe that the Shinsengumi were so skilled in killing that they were considered as the most lethal among the samurai. Nevertheless, we have to remember that we are talking about undercover rebels who had to tail the Imperialists. Thus, the Shinsengumi were some sort of terrorist organization parading as a local police corps.
As we can see, history rarely can provide black or white portraits of its protagonists. In the case of the Shinsengumi, the most honest portrayal of them might be found in Rurouni Kenshin, where the characters tend to fall into gray areas. But perhaps the ultimate appeal of the Shinsengumi and their increasing popularity in the last years is due to their independent and rebellious spirit, in balance with honor, loyalty and teamwork. Although their role in history was short (their leaders were killed or caught and the group was dissolved by the times of the Meiji restoration), their good qualities very well could be a fine example of what young Japanese generations might strive for.
So, time for questions! What do you think about the Shinsengumi? Which is your favorite Shinsengumi in anime? (remember that we mentioned a few). Which other iconic people from Japanese history would you like to see revived in modern days, and why? We will be waiting for your questions and comments. See you soon!