It might seem like something of an oxymoron calling a series about the Shinsengumi — Japan’s most infamous police force — Peacemaker. If you’ve seen any of the Samurai X OAVs or the Rurouni Kenshin TV series, you’ll already be familiar with — at least in vague, creatively licensed terms — the main players in this well known period in Japanese history. During the death-throes of a two hundred year-long period of isolation for Japan from the outside world, civil war raged between the Shogunate (who wanted to keep the country free of foreigners and stay in power) and the Restorationists (who wanted to open the country up and restore the Emperor) and neither were exactly faultless in their methods. Accounts of atrocities and brutal assassinations abound on both sides, and the Shinsengumi’s code, written by the army’s vice captain Toshizou Hijikata, is in itself a striking argument for the unforgiving stance of the Shogun’s administrative forces; the Shinsengumi was known to be as severe on its own members as it was on its enemies.
So how a series about their side of things can turn out to be as stunningly brilliant as Peacemaker actually is, not to mention come across as sympathetic and gripping as it does, would almost be a mystery except for the fact that it is quality from the word go. Story, characterization, imagery, plot-twist and drama together raise the bar of anime to new levels and its not going to be every other series that manages to meet this standard.
A lot of this has to do with the source material. Nanae Chrono’s manga series Shinsengumi Imon Peacemaker and the sequel (currently in English publication with ADV Manga) Peacemaker Kurogane, is nothing if not remarkably well executed, deeply felt, funny, charming, beautiful and frightening all at once. A lot of course also has to do with the skill with which Gonzo’s production team translated this material to the screen, retaining the original range of emotions without ever losing sight of the point.
The point being of course (and here’s where the aforementioned oxymoron stops) that blood violence and vengeance only begets death, loss and heartache, and in fact, the latter three sometimes happen regardless of the choices one makes, rather than because of them. Tetsunosuke Ichimura — short for his fifteen years (his friends take to calling him ‘puppy’ eventually) and determined to join the Shinsengumi, become a samurai and avenge his parents’ murder — is the focal point of this conflict of desire and honor over need and humanity. His journey from blind idealist to determined realist, despite his weaknesses and fears and his desperation to become a ‘demon’ for the sake of his own internal peace is, over the course of the series, saddening, delightful, alarming and amazing by turns. The cast of characters that surrounds him are all equally fascinating and well fleshed out and very little is introduced that does not in some way contribute to the overall themes, keeping the numerous sub-plots from becoming too confusing and maintaining focus right to the very last scene.
And this would be enough to win anyone’s heart (as Tetsu almost immediately does), but the buck doesn’t stop there, oh no. Peacemaker also has its share of bloody action, hilarious comedy (and I do mean that. Keep your eyes peeled for the episode in which Hijikata’s Haiku makes an appearance somewhere in the third or fourth volume and try to keep from rolling on the floor), adult themes and some stunning direction by first-timer Tomohiro Hirata, and it doesn’t wait until the third page to get the party started. As well, Gonzo are always good for their well-paced, glossy, slickly choreographed visuals and superb soundtracks, and with another great transfer across to the English DVD print by ADV this is one of the best things you’ll watch all year. Subtitles are excellent and the dubs are good, but don’t miss the chance to enjoy Tetsunosuke’s sandpapery rasp mid-tantrum (he’s voiced by girl, as is Souji Okita) because really he just has to be heard to be believed.
Which, actually, now that I think about it sums up the entire series. Its roller coaster range of emotions, from outright enjoyment to downright shock, will leave you wondering what the hell you’ve been watching up until now and why you even bothered. And that is no puppy thing.