Peace Maker Kurogane
I asked a crazy bishounen fancying female for an anime recommendation, so I really should have expected what I got. I didn't think it would be an issue mind, it's an anime all about blood sodden samurai warfare. But I should have remembered that proper bishounen fans have their own taste in drama as well as appearances.
This title takes place in an era just dying to have movies made of it, and indeed they have been. The time when a changing Japan experiences brutal conflict between the rebellious Samurai loyal to the Shogun and the civil forces loyal to the Emperor.. although the latter are perhaps more interested in keeping the Samurai from seizing control of Japan. Covert plans are hatched, murders, betrayal, running fights in the streets of Kyoto while the Ninja fight across the rooftops. It's very heady stuff.
The specific period we watch is focused on one 15 year old boy who has seen his parents murdered before his eyes and has sworn to grow stronger and have his revenge. And his plan is to join the Shinsengumi, the forward forces against the Samurai. Who are themselves becoming aware of a Samurai plot coming to fruition. They are dismissive of him initially, since he looks even younger than his tender years, but he has both hurt and fire within him to drive him forward.
Sounds juicy right? I imagine these Samurai drama are pretty popular in Japan but western audiences tend to find them possibly even more exciting. And this one seems to have all the trimmings for a great story. We mostly follow the Shinsengumi at their home base, which is nicely realised and develops quite a sense of place. It's also filled with all sorts of extremely interesting characters.
Sure, there's the "normal" troops, but everyone knows they're not going to amount to much. But commanding them are quite a few characters all with quirks of their own. The brash young commander, the large and barbaric commander, the girlish but deadly commander, the chillingly deep commander, the troubled soul, the spiritualist. heck, there's rather a lot of them. There's even a couple of Ninja hanging around the place as suggested in all good Japanese home & garden magazines. They're not exactly sure what to make of the lead, but decide that a servant is a starting point while they work it out.
On the other side of the fence are the rural samurai who've been filtering into Kyoto with rebellion on their minds. They, likewise, have a lot of rather faceless samurai and a number of characters leading them. Although only one, a rather chilling, charming psychotic seems to have a presence equal to the Shinsengumi. He also has a young servant, which provides a nice story symmetry. And of course they also have a couple of female Ninja hanging around. There's also some romantic interests, a shadowy figure and secret magics of the darkness to complicate things. Oh, and I left out the westernised gun wielding naval samurai.
So, you can guess what's going to happen right? The conflict between the two houses begins to heat up. The Samurai try to push their plan forward while the Shinsengumi try to work out what their true goal is. Spying and fighting, betrayal, discovery and the chance for our young lead to learn the craft of death and emerge as a powerful warrior for law and order. Sounds like an easy call for a good series.
And if you think that you're going to be in for a terrible shock. This title is actually, strangely, either very badly constructed or aimed at an older female audience. It becomes quickly obvious that the characters are far more important than the story. There's a lot of posing, lounging around with chest bared, lots of angst and events to keep that element simmering, a bit of character comedy to bring another aspect, a bit of romance, and precious little in the way of action. And the focus is solidly on the many attractive men, there's even quite a hint of homo-erotic love (nothing explicit, you ecchi). The female characters are also cool but quite restricted by comparison in number, screen time and dialogue.
The disadvantage for we shallow males is that it also has the shounen-ai tendency toward soap opera, fractured plot and glacial story progression. This is most obvious in regards to the lead character. The progression of his story starts strongly and then basically breaks into fragments. His character develops in all sorts of directions and is filled with weird events because the title is perhaps more interested in the interaction with others than progressing his story. The end result being that I actually came to hate the little brat, his histrionics, his unbelievably unlikely actions and the feeling he's wasting my time. Something that came to a point when I found myself verbally encouraging the psychotic to finish him off. He also takes precious time from the far more interesting characters surrounding him (as does Suzu), and there's too many of them fighting for screen time as it is.
So if you were expecting an action series you might well find the majority of this series somewhat distasteful. Sure there's a quite traditional opening, and the battle and maturation at the end, but the middle episodes wander all over the place. If you don't mind watching the characters go through their paces, and one or two powerful events which generate a sizable emotional pressure (which is after all the strength of this style) and a goodly portion of angst and introspection then you might well feel the opposite. Although I also feel that most will agree that the story is chaotic, switches between moods in a disturbing fashion, and the lead character is overly loud and lacks emotional depth and believability. It's also noticeable that many story elements are under-developed or don't actually conclude, possibly from trying to cram too many events and too many characters from the manga into the title.
On the positive side the production is very nice. The character designs are somewhat familiar but they express personality clearly and look great. There's some lovely flowing hair, sensuous movement and wonderfully posed scenes which are amplified by great voice acting. They fit the environment well, giving a feel for the era, and the atmospherics and fine detail are superb and well animated. The movement animation is good, a surprising amount of super deformed comedy stuff, but when it gets serious it can really deliver. It uses computer graphics to be able to do lovely pans and cinematic shots to generate some superb action sequences... there's just not that many of them. Those with short attention spans should go straight to the last second and third last episodes for some sweet (and really bloody) action though. The Ninja action (who are actually fully realised as characters) is also great. The music is best forgotten, decent gamelike action music, very subtle background music and some very strange rock music for the start and end.