Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Heroes To Some, Villains To Others-Animeigo's Shinsengumi Chronicles

Few groups tend to raise such disparate images as the Shinsengumi, the Kyoto based group of swordsmen sponsored by the Shogunate that fought Imperialist agents (as well as other disruptive forces and crime in general) in Bakumatsu Japan. Heroes to some, villains to others, and a wildly popular subject for anime and manga, the Shinsengumi rarely fail to create strong opinions among those with an interest in Japanese history. Animeigo's newest release, 1963's "Shinsengumi Chronicles" (based on the first part of a print trilogy by Shimozawa Kan), takes a far more realistic look at the group than does Animeigo's other Shinsengumi offering, Mifune Toshiro's "Shinsengumi-Assassins of Honor" (1969). The film we reviewed last week had two big name stars as its headliner (Samurai Vendetta with Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro)-this one does as well, this time featuring Raizo and Wakayama Tomisaburo (billed here as Jo Kenzaburo). It's an excellent film from Daiei that features the distinctive down-and-dirty realistic style the studio's samurai epics were noted for-and a style perfectly suited for its subject matter.

Virtually all the characters in Shinsengumi Chronicles are based on its real life members and events. Raizo's character is Yamazaki Susumu, a member that largely functioned as a spy and because of his education also as an intermediary in 'polite society' such as the Imperial Court. Wakayama fills the shoes of the group's second leader, former farmer and Tennen Rishin-ryƫ sword instructor Kondo Isami. Most of the group's core members are on hand as well, including the first chief Serizawa Kamo, his deputy Niimi Nishiki, Kondo's second in command Hijikata Toshizo, sword prodigy Okita Soji, spearman Harada Sanosuke, and 'traitor' Todo Heisuke. The other main character is Yamazaki's woman, Shima (Fujimura Shiho). Shima functions as the voice of reason that continually tries to turn Yamazaki from the Shinsengumi towards a normal life. Interestingly enough, while Yamazaki was a doctor in real life, he is presented here as a ronin with no purpose in life and Shima is given the role of physician. Being based on a trilogy, the movie takes the Shinsengumi only so far as the Ikedaya Incident-an incident, however, that proved to be the group's finest hour and defining moment.

The Shinsengumi are cast in a poor light from the very beginning where a shot of a crucified man displays a placard that the group has killed him for his crimes against the state. While it's found out later he was killed by a ronin working for Imperialists from the Tosa clan to frame their enemies, it's clear the Shinsengumi have already inspired fear and loathing among many of the citizens of Kyoto. When ronin Yamazaki Susumu comes across a Shinsengumi member dying from wounds incurred when slaying an Imperialist, he takes the man's netsuke and attempts to return it to the group and inform them of what has happened. Initially he's repelled when the Shinsengumi's chief, Serizawa Kamo, snorts in disgust and walks off. However, he becomes spellbound when Serizawa's subordinate, Kondo Isami, displays concern and invites him to talk. Kondo had earlier restrained and apologized to Kamo on behalf of a geisha who had inadvertently insulted the drunken Shinsengumi chief. Yamazaki recognizes that Kondo, although a former farmer, embodies the true spirit of the samurai and believes that he has found a leader worth following. He joins the group despite the pleas of his woman and childhood friend Shima, who believes the Shinsengumi are nothing more than a group of murdering thugs who are worse than the men they hunt down.

From here the film focuses on the early history of the Shinsengumi and Yamazaki's inner conflict as he attempts to reconcile harsh reality with the ideals he thought that lived in Kondo. The extortion of money from merchants, the elimination of Kamo's faction and Kondo's rise to power, the casual murder of a sumo wrestler and the assassination of the police officer that arrested a Shinsengumi member for the crime, and the torture of suspected enemies all raise doubts in Yamazaki as to whether this is the life he wants to pursue. Yamazaki is seen as being a potentially traitorous element in the ranks, and is first set up to commit a murder by Hijikata Toshizo and Okita Soji. They then use this as a way to have him removed by the police, but Yamazaki is saved by Kondo's intervention with their sponsors, Aizu han. The situation has put the Shinsengumi's future in doubt, and it might take an extremely daring act to put them back in the good graces of the Shogunate-a chance that might be provided by the scheming Imperialists of Choshu han. Despite his misgivings, the distrust of his comrades, and his discovery by Tosa assassin Okamoto Kyuzo (who had slain the ronin hired by Tosa to frame the Shinsengumi early in the film), Yamazaki sets out to discover the plot-and does so, facing down the conspirators alone while the bulk of the Shinsengumi is attacking the wrong building. With enemies numbering not only the Imperialists but also among his own allies, will Yamazaki be able to survive?

Raizo's performance as Yamazaki Susumu allows him to display an emotional range that was absent in some of his films-Yamazaki is an idealist in a world full of characters on both sides with seemingly no standards. Yamazaki is caught between the honor he believes is embodied in Kondo Isami and the dishonorable acts he is required to perform as a Shinsengumi member. The moral dilemma at times puts Yamazaki into the role of the 'deer in the headlights', frozen into inaction and confusion-even when his life hangs in the balance. Raizo excelled at roles such as this, even bringing an undercurrent of the 'frustrated idealist' to his most famous film role, nihilistic ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro. Yamazaki's attempts at espionage also bring to mind Raizo's roles as ninja Goemon/Saizo in the Shinobi No Mono series. Fujimura Shiho as Yamazaki's love Shima plays her role effectively, being the picture of Japanese womanhood-feminine, strong, and both supportive and critical as the situation calls for.

For the Shinsengumi's leader Kondo Isami there were few actors better suited for the role than Wakayama Tomisaburo. Kondo tended to let Hijikata Toshizo (his deputy) perform the actual administration of the group while he provided the strong, silent symbol that the group could use as their anchor. Wakiyama's best known for roles in which he has relatively little dialogue and for his precise and vicious swordsmanship, both being attributes that served him well in portraying Kondo. His rather gruff and unpolished appearance also helped define the character, a farmer-turned-samurai. Wakayama (like many chanbara stars) also had a lot of experience playing characters that had lofty ideals but were eminently pragmatic (most notably Ogami Itto from the Lone Wolf and Cub series) and provides the balance between Yamazaki's idealism on the one hand and the ruthlessness of ones like Hijikata and Okita on the other. This is perhaps best seen when he is confronted by Yamazaki over some of the group's acts and delivers his response while staring at the Shinsengumi's battle standard-the flag displaying the kanji for sincerity. His faith and confidence in Yamazaki shows that honor is indeed still alive within the ranks of the Shinsengumi.

Director Misumi Kenji helmed many other violent samurai action films, including entries in the Zatocihi, Shinobi No Mono, Hanzo the Razor, and Lone Wolf and Cub franchises. The fast pace and brutal violence evidenced in these efforts are also on full display in Shinsengumi Chronicles. However, unlike many chanbara directors, Misumi never hesitated to show sword duels for what they were-ugly, chaotic, and bestial. This is best evidenced in the closing minutes of the film where a lingering shot of corpses frozen in awkward positions amongst the post-Ikedaya carnage shows that there's little real glory in killing, even when it's for a greater good-particularly so when it's juxtaposed with the Shinsengumi wearily trodding off. Misumi traces the culture of violence through the development of the Shinsengumi's new members, most notably Yamazaki's aide, young Oshu. Oshu is almost childishly insistent on his wish to become a samurai-someone with status, someone important. When first donning his Shinsengumi 'colors' and thrusting his sword through his sash, Oshu is beaming like a kid getting his first toy-and when first killing a foe, only thinks of how this act will make him a man in the other member's eyes. This has interesting parallels to the mentality of US street gangs-as does the Shinsengumi's insistence that new members be 'tested' by slaying an enemy as soon as possible (or implicate themselves in one of the group's more illegal activities, making it tougher for them to go rouge). The allure and glamor of the gang life is underlined when Oshu buys a woodblock print of a valiant samurai-with that appeal symbolically exposed as false when his blood spills over it in the aftermath of a fight. And as shown towards the end when Yamazaki literally turns his back on Shima (his chance at a normal life) and never looks back, once you're in, you're in for good (that of course being one of the Shinsengumi's rules-no one could quit the group). The heat of the Kyoto summer also played an interesting part in the film-no doubt this was shot in summertime, because all the actors are in a constant sweat. This helped to further infuse their characters with the uncomfortable sense of edginess that summertime temperatures can bring.

Just as it did for another recent release, Samurai Vendetta, Animeigo has included two sets of program notes. One set covers the historical background for the Shinsengumi and provides a general overview of the situation during the Bakumatsu. The other set comprises the standard cultural and film notes. Happily, both are extremely well done and extensive, using solid scholarly books as sources (such as "The Emergence of Meiji Japan", a digest version of volume five of the "Cambridge History of Japan"). Viewers unfamiliar with the history of Japan at that time will find their enjoyment of the film to be greatly enhanced by reading the Shinsengumi set. Other extras include cast and crew bios, a still gallery, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for three other related Animeigo releases (Mifune's "Shinsengumi" and Raizo's "Samurai Vendetta" and "Sleepy Eyes of Death" series). The translations are as good as we've come to expect from Animeigo, including the bonus of a complete translation of the credits (something many companies releasing Asian films fail to do).

Shinsengumi Chronicles is one of the more accurate film portrayals of the historical group. It never hides the excesses or blemishes of its members but never simply writes them off as Shogunate thugs. Despite the infighting, extortion, and treachery the group was often noted for, when it came time to fight for their ideals, they were by and large the most effective and passionate group the Bakufu had to offer (and in many ways not much different from their Imperialist foes). Heroes to some, villains to others, but never boring-and with Raizo and Wakayama, a chanbara hound's delight. You can get a copy of Shinsengumi Chronicles direct from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store.

All images courtesy and copyright 1963 Kadokawa Pictures, Inc