I keep my confederates in the attic, and my shinsengumi in the cellar.
Ok, so that was a really lame opening line. Bite me.
Now, in my previous post I commented on the charges of revisionism being leveled against Senkou no Night Raid; after all, in many cases what was shown in the first episode was a mindset in the characters that did exist at the time as a result of virulent racism. So, ironically, the revisionism, if it was there, hadn’t hit yet.
However, there is at least one example of revisionism rolling about this season in the form of Samurai Reverse-Harem Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan. And it isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of revisionism in anime; far from it. In fact, creating tales of the Shinsengumi of the old Tokugawa regime is pretty much an old hat as far as the Japanese are concerned – little wonder that manga and anime began to tackle it given the plethora of literature and movies that already had. Hakuouki is just the latest entry in this very full field.
The non-Japanese viewer could be forgiven for mistakenly believing that the Shinsegumi were the inheritors of Japan during the Meiji Restoration, as they are painted in such glowing light by the creators of such works as Hakuouki, Kaze Hikaru, and Peacemaker Kurogane, amongst others. In many of these works, too, the bad guys are very clear – those blasted Choshu! Always around killing off innocent people, and making their kids then go seek revenge by joining the Shinsengumi! They’re just awful!
What is so amusing about this narrative is the fact that the Choshu supported the restoration of the emperor and the dissolution of the shogunate… aaaaand they were successful. In fact, members of the Choshu domain retained a high degree of power up until the end of World War II, when the emperor became, essentially, a figurehead as opposed to an actual political actor. The Choshu, given their support of the Meiji, also were, then, part of the effort which brought about the modernization of Japan. One could argue that without the Choshu, Japan would’ve found itself subject to the colonizing powers of Europe, as the bakufu had been seriously lagging in the arena of progress (which is also part of why they ended up losing the Boshin War; it particularly hurt them at Toba-Fushimi).
So the guys that get demonized in iterations of Japanese pop-culture are also the guys that are partially responsible for the foundation of modern Japan. Interesting.
At the same time, though, this really isn’t terribly shocking given the Japanese romantic notions of the samurai and their honor. The Shinsengumi were defenders of this old system, as they were defenders of the shogunate. The imperialist supporters (others included the Tosa and Satsuma domains) wanted to get rid of the feudal structure, which included the samurai. While the abolishment of the feudal system was of benefit to the underclasses of Japanese society, of which most Japanese nowadays are descendants, the whole notion of the samurai is extremely idealized in current Japanese society, admittedly for a litany of reasons.
What I find perhaps most intriguing about the entire thing, though, is my realization that this is actually fairly reminiscent of the idealization of the antebellum South in the U.S. The Confederate soldier is lionized, as is the leadership, for being willing to go toe-to-toe with their own countrymen to defend their way of life and traditions. Now, generally when one commits sedition and treason, they are not then held up as an example of nobility by members of the triumphant nation-state. No – they’re called out for being traitors and no one likes them; just ask Benedict Arnold. But in both the cases of the Confederacy and the Shinsengumi, we see this happening.
Admittedly, the Shinsengumi do differ in that the shogunate at the time was the legitimate government of Japan, whereas the Confederacy was the rebellious power in the American Civil War. However, the outcome is the same – they both were the losers, and they both had stood in the way of the establishment (or re-establishment) of their modern nation-states. And yet now both are frequently depicted as latter-day knights in shining armor.
I have to admit, though, that I find the tendency to render the Choshu as villains especially bizarre given the follow-up history in Japan and its rise as a world power following the Meiji Restoration. It just strikes me as so strange, perhaps because in the “mainstream” defenses of the Confederacy and its troops there isn’t an accompanying demonization of Union troops of the time. I will note that more radical members of the Choshu did plot to burn down Kyoto, which could understandably piss anyone off… although Americans generally agree that the Union burned Atlanta to the ground (not true! they burnt some, but citizens of Atlanta sort of took opportunity of the moment to burn a lot of stuff down themselves so that they could then re-build a modernized city to replace the previous version) and didn’t just plot to… Ah well. Its just that delicious spice of romanticism, hmm?
EDIT: Suggested readings – The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862-1868 (Conrad Totman) for background on the Boshin War and the Shinsengumi, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Tony Horwitz) for a really interesting look at both the Civil War itself and the lingering effects it still has in the American South.