Samurai are making a bit of a comeback in anime, from Samurai 7 re-imagining Akira Kurosawa's seminal Seven Samurai to Samurai Champloo imbuing feudal Japan with hip-hop cool. Samurai are in vogue, and with the classic Rurouni Kenshin manga being released by Gollancz, now seems the perfect time to look at ADV's samurai actioner, Peacemaker Kurogane.
Unlike many other Samurai shows, Peacemaker actually has its basis in historical fact. Before the 1860's Japan was a nation closed to the world until the West challenged it's policy of isolationism. What followed was a vicious civil war as the anti-imperialist supporters of the old feudal system clashed with the modernisers who wanted to restore the rule of the Emperor. Peacemaker focuses on the cloak and dagger struggle between the Shinsengumi (a powerful government-sanctioned anti-imperialist samurai group) and the Imperialist Choshu rebels in Japan's ancient capital Kyoto. The story revolves around 15 year old Tetsunosuke Ichimura, who joins the Shinsengumi to get revenge against the Choshu rebels who brutally murdered his parents. However, he soon finds that the Shinsengumi are no saints, in fact they can be as vicious and ruthless as the Choshu rebels he despises, faced with this reality Tetsunosuke must make some difficult decisions. Through the Shinsengumi he can attain the power to avenge his parents' death, but in doing so may become no different than the killers he seeks. How far is he willing to go for revenge?
With animation from current wonder-studio Gonzo Digimation and a strong traditional story of revenge, Peacemaker on the surface has the ingredients you would expect to make another great series. However, the delivery doesn't always live up to the superb visuals and intriguing story. The tone frequently switches quickly between horrific action and slapstick comedy, and seems very jarring at first. However, as the volume progresses these changes in tone begin to take on more significance, contrasting the romanticised and naive view Tetsunosuke holds of the Shinsengumi with the grim reality. The comedy aspect is unremarkable, generally treading a path of action based slapstick and comic misunderstandings which will be familiar to fans of shows like Dragonball and One Piece, but the series' strength lies in the more mature story taking place in the background.
Whilst the comedy and light hearted content of the episodes isn't that special, the really hard edged and gory action most certainly is. For the most part everything seems to be happy and cheerful but as the series explains more about the Shinsengumi things take a much darker tone. The violent action scenes and political machinations are gripping, unlike the carefree comic padding that fills most of the episodes on this disc. The revelation of the darker sides of the Shinsengumi swordsmen is superbly done, and the horror of Tetsunosuke when their brutality is displayed is palpable. Undoubtedly the most interesting character so far is Soji Okita, the cheerful (and extremely effeminate) swordsman that takes Tetsunosuke under his wing. Harmless he may seem but his disarming demeanour hides a deadly warrior, and the demonstration of his skill and hidden ruthless nature during a battle in an alley is truly the highlight of the volume. I really hope that you learn more about him over the course of the series.
Tetsunosuke himself isn't nearly as engaging as the other members of the Shinsengumi, but I am intrigued to see if he will eventually become a deadly killer like those around him. At the moment the series appears to be setting the scene for his character to grow and make the difficult decision of what path he should follow, but in this volume his dilemma is far less interesting than what is going on around him. Complex plots and counterplots are building, and the reality of the Shinsengumi is starting to be explored. Their code of honour demands full adherence to the Samurai code of Bushido, which dictates that if they fight then they should either kill the opponent or - should they lose but survive - commit ritual suicide. It will be interesting to see how this takes effect in future volumes, especially considering that few people in the UK will be familiar with the history behind the story, so unlike the Japanese we won't know what is going to happen to these no doubt famous historical characters.
It's a shame that this volume doesn't focus more on the darker aspects of an intriguing story, but considering the way it appears to be going future volumes will no doubt become far more dramatic and action packed. Unlike the Japanese we don't really have any pre-conceptions about the characters or events, but the series doesn't appear to demand too much prior knowledge and this will give most Western viewers the opportunity to form their own opinions. It must be said that the episodes on this DVD contain too much padding which does little to progress the story, and whilst the contrast between the light and dark aspects of the series does make the characters more interesting, the balance between the two definitely needs some work. Peacemaker Kurogane promises great things to come, but this first volume is simply enjoyable and interesting when it could have been spectacular.
As usual for ADV releases we get a bumper crop, with the standard ADV trailers and clean opening and closing sequences supported by the original Japanese TV spots and a series of production sketches. Unfortunately the production sketches are presented like a video, with the art slowly fading in and out whilst music plays in the background. I'm not really a fan of this style of gallery but I am a fan of the reversible DVD cover and the intriguing fold out insert which features interviews with the Japanese creative team, two short stories and notes on Tetsunosuke and Soji. Overall great stuff again from ADV.