Sunday, May 27, 2012

Looking at Japanese History Through Pop Culture: The Bakumatsu

I like looking at the stories told in other cultures, because they often have different flashpoints for us, events of cultural significance that decades or even centuries afterwards they still resonate with us.  In the U.S. we seem to be in love with World War II, given the number of movies about it.  The American Revolutionary War is still a big deal too, especially when still in school.

Judging from Japanese cultural exports, in the form of anime and video games, one of their cultural flashpoints is the Bakumatsu.

I first learned about the Bakumatsu (the closing years of the Edo period and the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate) from watching the Rurouni Kenshin anime, which actually takes place after the Bakumatsu had ended and dealt with the rough times that followed.  Unfortunately Asian history is rarely taught in the U.S. so I didn't have much of a clue as to what the Bakumatsu was, other than was the end of the era of samurai and the beginning of westernation by Japan.

That alone should make it interesting, because Japan modernized at an incredibly rapid pace once the nation set its mind to do so, but the war that resulted in westernization was already over in Rurouni Kenshin and the main hero was a former Imperialist.  He was on the side that won.  His enemies, sometimes reluctant allies (depending on when in the series you're watching), often were people who had lost.

Among them was a fictionalized version of Hajime Saito, who had belonged to the Shinsengumi, a special police force that had been employed by the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The Shinsengumi had been popularized in movies, manga, anime, and games, still put out over a century after their passing.

What I didn't get, was that the Shinsengumi had been on the losing side of the war.  In the U.S. it might be equivalent to having Robert E. Lee and company glorified in pop culture... which they're not.  The American Civil War might come up every now and then in media, but on the level of multiple games and TV series and movies?  We tend to focus on WWII if we go for historical drama or video games.  It was also a war where the side we root for won.

So why the Shinsengumi so popoular?  Why the guys who lost, many of whom did not survive?

I recently played a game on PSP called Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeing Blossom.  And now I think I finally understand.

The above video is something I stumbled across on YouTube.  I was unfamiliar with the anime series being shown, but as I watched the video I found myelf engrossed.  The only names I recognized off the bat were Hajime Saito and Souji Okita (the video runs through a large cast of characters, about 80% of whom are historical figures), but something about this fanmade video made me want to watch the anime series it came from.

When I discovered the that title of the anime was read as Hakuoki, I had a flash of recognition.  I'd heard of it before.  It had originally been a video game.  In fact, the game had just been translated into English earlier this year, which meant it was still in print!

Hakuoki follows the story of a teenage girl, Chizuru, who joins up with the Shinsengumi because they are looking for her missing father and they believe that having her assistance will help them in their search.  The story is not a straight historical, there are supernatural elements to it, and while I'm sure the details of the major historical events are fudged with a little, the outcome is still the same.  The player gets to experience the rise and fall of the Shinsengumi through the eyes of a teenage girl, later young woman, who has fallen in love with one of them (player's pick).

It might not be the same for all paths, since the game is like a choose-your-own-adventure but with lovely anime style pictures and excellent Japanese voice acting, but on my path through the game I spent most of my time with a fictional Hajime Saito.

In trying to understand Saito's motivation for being part of the Shinsengumi, particularly as the Shinsengumi starts crumbling, I think I learned a lot about why they have a place in modern Japanese pop culture (a romanticized place, I'm sure, but there nonetheless) and why the Bakumatsu is a popular subject at all.

Listening to Saito and the Shinsengumi I began to understand their despair as the years spent honing their swordsmanship come to nothing against the most modern western firearms.  Saito in particular has spent nearly all of his adult life as a killer of men, not because he's cruel, but because that was his job and he was working under orders.  Now he was facing an era where warriors would no longer fight with swords, and what was he without his?

Throughout the game the Shinsengumi roll with awful punches, particularly in the later chapters they prepare for losing battles against better geared opponents with rifles and cannons.  Some of them do it out of loyalty to the shogun, some because of loyalty to their commander or their group, others because they do not otherwise know what to do with themselves.

Living with these characters, and seeing their determination to keep fighting despite the fact they know it's a losing battle, showed me why they make a good story.  Even if they do not have a happy ending, their spirit in the face of losing everything they know, is something that resonates across time, even across cultures.

There is an epilogue that runs through the main cast and discusses their fates.  My character ended the game with Hajime Saito, who is one of the few Shinsengumi members who survived the real Bakumatsu, so I don't know how it works in other endings when the main character is paired with someone else.  I skimmed Wikipedia to see if the fates of the other major characters were the same in real life and for the most part they are (though one of them uses a rumor for his fate rather than what probably actually happened).

It makes the ending bittersweet, because even though my character survives, not all of the people she was with live to see her again.  It was not unexpected, in a historical game set during a period of revolution, and I think holding to that element of tragedy is what makes the game memorable.