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November 01, 2010

Shinsengumi Chronicles

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Shinsengumi Chronicles: I Want to Die a Samurai
Shinsengumi shimatsuki
Kenji Misumi - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Between this film, Samurai Vendetta last month, and more from the Sleepy Eyes of Death series coming soon, AnimEigo is showing lot of love for Raizo Ichikawa. For myself, I would hope to see a subtitled DVD release of an earlier film starring Ichikawa, Conflagration by Kon Ichikawa (no relation), from the novel by Yukio Mishima. As for films the actor Ichikawa made with director Kenji Misumi, an aspect ratio correct DVD of Buddha, the first Japanese film shot in 70mm, could be of interest. Of the many films starring Raizo Ichikawa, possibly the hardest working actor at Daiei Studios, Shinsengumi Chronicles lingers in the mind for its portrait of a way of life about to collapse.

There is an irony to the title as the characters are not samurai, but members of a paramilitary group that was open to men who not of the samurai class. Taking place beginning in 1863, a somewhat fictionalized account of a part of Japanese history, the film has some contemporary reverberations. At a time when the Tokugawa shogunate was at war with factions seeking more direct rule by the royal family, the Shinsengumi acted on behalf of the shogunate, periodically stepping over civil authority. The film raises the question about what is meant by patriotism, as both sides would claim to be acting on behalf of Japan, while causing hardships for the civilians caught in the middle. The Shinsengumi also proclaimed themselves to be followers of the rules of Bushido, yet several members would break those rules, a reminder of Lord Acton's principle regarding the corrupting influence of power.

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Ichikawa plays the part of Susumu Yamazaki, presented here as a young man seeking meaning in his life. Convincing the leadership that he has the will and necessary fighting skills to be part of the Shinsengumi, Yamazaki gradually sees the widening gap between the professed ideals of the organization, and the actions of the leaders who act out of self interest, contradicting the rules, and covering up for each other. Isami Kondo, the swordsman who inspires Yamazaki to join the group is shown as easily pliable and manipulative, organizing the deaths of two of the founders of the Shinsengumi for their infractions, and ready to make Yamazaki the fall guy for the actions of others. Yamazaki's friend, and would be lover, Shima, provides bookends to the action. A doctor, she witnesses the crucifixion of a declared traitor by the Shinsengumi at the film's first scene, while the final scene is of her watching Yamazaki march away with the Shinsengumi, his heart hardened by the hypocrisy of the leadership, yet desperately holding on to that vestige of self-identity in spite of that knowledge. Shima is helpless in either healing her country or the man she loves.

Without the introductory titles or knowledge of the history of Japan, one might be hard pressed to identify when the action of Shinsengumi Chronicles takes place. I might be reading more than intended, but one scene encapsulates the impending end of an era. Kondo is seen being photographed. Within one shot we see several men, in traditional Japanese dress of kimonos, with classical artwork in the background. Within this scene is a camera, a new invention from the west, that provided a new means of creating and preserving images. It would only be a few short years before more western technology would appear in Japan, followed by even greater changes in the wake of the Meiji Restoration.

The DVD supplements include the extremely helpful notes regarding the historical background for the film's story, plus additional notes explaining part of the dialogue. Among the several trailers for other AnimEigo DVDs is one for the 1969 film, Shinsengumi. Between that film and Shinsengumi Chronicles, one could debate one the differences between the two actors playing Isami Kondo, Toshiro Mifune and Tomisaburo Wakayama. Even if Shinsengumi Chronicles is not one of Kenji Misumi's top films, it still is indicative of the director's consistent craftsmanship. As Robin Gatto for Midnight Eye, perceptively wrote: "Misumi's true nature is to be found in a clear contrast between poetry and nihilism."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 1, 2010 05:27 AM