The Shinsengumi in Japanese Animation – Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down?


A brief introduction: what in the world is anime?

Japanese animation – mainly referred to as ‘anime’ nowadays – has spread from East Asia’s archipelago nation to North America, and has grown to become fairly popular. (It is also pronounced ‘ah-nee-may’ derived from its original Japanese pronunciation.) This cartooning form, for those who are unfamiliar with it, gave birth to some of the more commonly known anime series in North American culture. To name a few, series such as Pokemon, Digimon, and Sailor Moon took North America by storm. Children wanted to buy the trading card games associated to the previously mentioned, as well as gadgets and toys from the shows. (I can vouch for that – I was once the proud owner of a Pokedex.)

In anime, some of the more recurring themes are magical school girls, aesthetically pretty boys, and ridiculously large-in-scale fighting robots. However, considering anime is of Japanese origin, they often like to tie in some of their own native culture into it. One more predominant, natively-Japanese theme is the samurai – the famous warrior class from medieval Japan. It would honestly take years to go through the mass amount of samurai anime series out there and thoroughly analyse their image of the samurai, which is why I have decided to focus specifically on one famous group of warriors: the Shinsengumi anime online.

A historical background of the Shinsengumi: what did they do?

In order to better analyse the Shinsengumi in anime, I believe it is necessary to give a short historical background on this samurai group.

At the time, the Tokugawa Bakufu – the military government that reigned from 1600 to 1868 – was more powerful than the emperor himself. With the arrival of the foreigners and the signing of an unequal treaty with them, Japanese citizens started to question the authority of the bakufu. And, during all of this, the samurai were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Tokugawa, mainly because they were made to be of the lowest social class. In result of this dissatisfaction, the bakufu thought it to be necessary to fight fire with fire, hiring masterless samurai (more specifically rÅnin) to protect the current shogun leader: they were called the RÅshigumi.

Initially, as per mentioned before, the goal of the formation of the RÅshigumi was to protect the Tokugawa Bakufu’s current shogun leader. Later on, however, this was changed to follow the slogan of sonno jÅi – “revere the Emperor, expel the foreigners.” Members of the samurai group were against the change and were adamant in protecting the bakufu, wanting that to stay their main purpose. The RÅshigumi then, strengthened by a few new-comers, changed their group name to Mibu RÅshigumi, as their headquarters were located in the small village of Mibu near Kyoto. Along with the name change, another goal change was made: instead of protecting the shogun, the members of the Mibu RÅshigumi would patrol the streets of Kyoto and act as a police force, reinforcing the law in the name of the bakufu. On August 18, 1863, because of this final change, this samurai police force was then renamed to how we know them today: the Shinsengumi, which translates to “Newly Selected Corps.”

Commodore Matthew Perry, of the American Navy, brought with him a Peace Treaty for Japan to sign – even though it was an unequal treaty – giving the United-States more advantages than Japan. This treaty forced the East Asian archipelago to open up more ports to the foreigners. Other Western countries saw the success of this treaty and immediately followed suite, having Japan sign similar treaties with England, France, Holland, and Russia. This caused an uproar within the samurai class, as they were completely against the idea of having any Westerners ‘polluting’ their country. The signing of the treaty was seen as lazy, and citizens were assuming that the government had been forced to open up Japan’s doors to these foreigners.

Japan was then split into two political parties: the Imperial Loyalists in Kyoto, a rebellion group that were against the military ideology of the Tokugawa, and the Tokugawa Bakufu in Edo (present day Tokyo). Despite the clash of these two governments, a rebel samurai group manage to assassinate General Ii of the Tokugawa shogunate – this event marked the end of the Tokugawa reign.

One of the most famous events in Shinsengumi history is the Ikedaya Incident in 1864. In a nutshell, a radical samurai planned to kidnap the emperor, burn Kyoto to the ground, and assassinate Matsudaira Katsumori (an important member of the government). The Shinsengumi found out of these plans and raided the Ikedaya Inn during the festival in Kyoto on July 8th, 1864. Two hours later, the battle ended with a few casualties and severely injured samurai on both sides.