5.0 out of 5 stars New Model Army
The shinsengumi are unusual heroes. Not only did they lose their battle, which can sometimes be seen as honorable as in the case of the defenders of the Alamo, but they fought for the wrong side entirely. The group supported the military Shogun government against the efforts to restore Imperial rule which eventually led to the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of Japan. No doubt they would be little more than a footnote in history if they just weren’t so darn cool. And of course the uniforms.
There are dozens of movies about the shinsengumi, but this is the only one starring Mifune Toshiro. Mifune slips easily into the role of leader Kondo Isami, a farmer-caste born warrior who rose through the ranks by his strength and skills. Recruiting amongst the ronin and non-samurai warriors, Kondo and his co-commander Hijikata Toshizo (Kobayashi Keiju, Battle of Okinawa) develop a stern code of rules that keeps the rough crowd in-line. Completely devoted to the samurai ideals, even though many of them are not samurai themselves, including leader Kondo, the shinsengumi wage a lost battle against the overwhelming forces of the Emperor. Even losing, however, they do it honor and without compromise, so that their deaths continue to ring through the ages.
This was director Sawashima Tadashi’s last film, and he played it right for the heroic machismo. Although they do dwell somewhat on the outdated morality they are defending, showing off their cool uniforms and strict code there is no mistake who the heroes are in this conflict. Other films, like Taboo and When the Last Sword Is Drawn, delve deeper into the dubious morality of the conflict and the group, but not this one. Sawashima just plays it straight, and with the charismatic Mifune in the lead that is exactly the way to go. Sometimes it is alright to cheer on in film those you are secretly glad lost in real life.
As usual, Animeigo put together a great DVD for this classic flick. One of the most difficult parts to grasp about “Shinsengumi” is that it is a famous historical story, and the director doesn’t feel the need to explain who each and every character is. It is like watching a Revolutionary war picture and having a “General Washington” appear. There is no need to explain that this is the future first president of the country; we all know that. Same thing here. Characters appear without explanation because they would be familiar to every Japanese person. Animeigo’s unique “captioned subtitles” helps deal with this by popping up historical facts and character introductions. There is also a brief introduction to the history of the shinsengumi included as an extra feature.