When I reviewed Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds last month, I wrote at length about the lengths and detail that game goes to in keeping it as historically accurate as possible. Even though it’s a work of fiction, it’s one of the best accounts of the Shinsengumi that you’ll find in English, and its easy to distinguish between what’s fiction and what’s not.
As something of a follow-up to that, I wrote something about the real-life history of the Shinsengumi over at DigitallyDownloaded.net. Even at a couple of thousand words long, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg, but I think it offers a good, interesting overview of the historical Shinsengumi: who they were, how the operated, and why they remain controversial to this day. Here’s a little teaser:
Aside from the various players of the Sengoku era, there few people in Japan’s history that command as much pop cultural fascination as the Shinsengumi. A small group of rōnin charged with policing Kyoto during the violent final years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Shinsengumi quickly rose to fame (and infamy), and in the 150-odd years since their time, they’ve been the subject of numerous games, manga, anime, films, TV shows, and books. Walk through Kyoto, and almost every souvenir shop you see will have Shinsengumi works on sale.
Idea Factory’s excellent Hakuoki series, which recently saw a new release in Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, is perhaps the best-known Shinsengumi work available in English (and, conveniently, one of the most historically accurate). Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga Rurouni Kenshin isn’t specifically about the Shinsengumi, but it’s based on the aftermath of that period of time and includes certain members of the group in key roles. Other manga, Peacemaker and Kaze Hikaru, present a more direct adaptation of Shinsengumi history. Among the many films of famed samurai actor Toshiro Mifune was Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honour, and in 2004, NHK did a year-long drama series about the group starring members of idol group SMAP.
Most of these works embellish the story of the Shinsengumi to a lesser or greater extent, often romanticising but occasionally demonising the group. They’ve become almost mythical in their widespread appeal, but beneath all of the romanticism is a group of real people – people who, depending on your perspectives, and the attitudes of the historians you choose to read, are either the noble heroes of a dying era or a gang of ruthless, violent killers who policed Kyoto with an iron fist. As is so often the case with historical figures, there are seeds of truth in both sides of the coin.
I’m also planning to write more Japanese history articles over the next weeks and months, looking at specific members of the Shinsengumi and other key figures of the Bakumatsu era, starting with Sakamoto Ryōma and Hijikata Toshizō.
I hope you’ll read this, and look forward to more Shinsengumi and Bakumatsu articles in the future! If you have any questions, or there are any people / events / etc. that you specifically want me to write about, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help you out!