Kaze Hikaru Vol. 8-9 (VIZ Media)

kazehikaru-header.jpgThe continuing tale of Sei, a young woman posing as a man to join the Shogun’s fabled samurai guard, the Shinsengumi.

 

 

200 pgs. ea.; B&W; $8.95 ea.

(W / A: Taeko Watanabe)

Literature is full of stories of women passing as men, from Hua Mulan (heroine of The Ballad of Mulan) who disguised herself in order to serve in the Chinese army in place of her aged father, to Isaac Singer’s Yentl, whose motivation was continuing her study of Torah. Of course there were real-life examples as well, from the 17th-century pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read to the 20th-century journalist Dorothy Lawrence.

To this history add the Japanese fascination with confusing and confounding gender boundaries (Ranma ½, Gacha Gacha, etc.) and the central conceit of Kaze Hikaru makes perfect sense. Which is: in mid-19th century Japan, Tominaga Sei disguises herself as a boy in order to train as a samurai and avenge the deaths of her father and brother. Maintaining this disguise is not easy, especially after she falls in love with an actual guy, and she must deal with the conflict between her real and assumed identities against the backdrop of the waning years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a time of great social unrest as many different factions are trying to seize power.   

Sei takes the name Kamiya Seizaburo and joins the Shinsengumi, a group of samurai loyal to the Shogun. Like many other characters and situations in Kaze Hikaru, the Shinsengumi really existed, and the fictional story is spiced with true details about this period of Japanese history. It was a time of incredible change in Japan: when Kaze Hikaru begins in 1863, only five years remain before the Tokugawa Shogunate (established in 1603) will be replaced by the Meiji emperor and Japan will begin the modernization process which will rapidly transform it from a feudal empire to one of the most industrialized countries in the world.

Watanabe finds the right balance between action and character development in Kaze Hikaru, creating psychologically astute portrayals of the emotional relationships among her characters while providing enough battles and historical detail to keep the series grounded in its period. The art carrying the main story is basic shojo, with a more geometric/detailed style used in flashbacks and references to actual events: both are reasonably well-executed and adequate for the purpose, but nothing special. The great appeal of this series for me is the amount of historical information worked into the story, and the many explanatory notes: it’s like getting a series of history lessons packaged within a soap opera. I also appreciate the non-idealized portrayal of bushi life, as the men drink, quarrel, and spend time with prostitutes: in fact, if you’re interested in the variety of ways that trade was practiced in 19th-century Japan, Kaze Hikaru will give you a good introduction.

Vol. 8 opens with the Kinmon no Hen or Forbidden Gates Incident of July 1864, which put down a rebellion of the Choshu faction at the cost of perhaps 30,000 lives and the destruction of many civilian’s homes. After spending some time with the samurai as they go about their daily lives, most of the volume is taken up with a flashback telling the back-story of Okita Soji, Sei’s trainer.  It’s a discerning psychological portrait of an impoverished boy who grew up to become one of the great warriors of his generation.

In vol. 9, the Shinsengumi are reorganized and Kamiya is assigned as personal assistant to Yamanami Keisuke. This takes her away from direct contact with Okita and raises speculation among the other bushi about whether Yamanami’s interests in Kamiya are confined to military operations. Watanabe takes the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of male-male affections among the samurai, and before long, Kamiya receives a collective mash note and the news that if he doesn’t select one of the men as his lover, they will fight it out with the winner taking him as the prize. The situation is particularly complicated because Kamiya is becoming aware of her feelings as a woman but must maintain the façade of masculinity in order to retain her place within the Shinsengumi.

Each volume includes several extras, including translation notes and a bonus manga explaining historical and cultural details of the period. Kaze Hikaru is rated T+ or "recommended for older teens," presumably due to the implied sexual content. Further information, including an online preview, is available from http://www.shojobeat.com/manga/kh/om.php. | Sarah Boslaugh

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