Sunday, July 19, 2015

Nippon Reviews: Shinsengumi

Shinsengumi: Written by Mamoru Sasaki and Kon Ichikawa, directed by Kon Ichikawa.  Running Time: 86 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Originally produced for television over 15 years ago, Shinsengumi had long flown under international radar until now, when Nippon arranged its first-ever international screening.  It is an animated film, but not in the manner most outsiders would think of when you say the words “Japanese” and “animated.”  Based off of a black-and-white manga, Shinsengumi tells its story using cutouts figures from the manga itself, each being moved around via strings or sticks in front of similar cut-out backgrounds, creating a three-dimensional, puppet-like effect.  Different figures are swapped in with different facial expressions depending on when a particular character is speaking or laughing, and action is signified by jerky movements of the figures meant to embody the thrusts and parries of the sword.  While much less-known (and certainly less-popular) than the traditional hand-drawn styles known and loved by many Westerners, it is a fascinating method to watch when it’s done properly, providing the viewer with a wholly new way of looking at how animation can be utilized in service of a story.   

            To provide the setting of the movie, some history is needed- prior to the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century, Japan was nominally ruled by the Emperor, but was in actuality controlled by the Shogun, a powerful daimyo (lord) with enough resources and might to maintain de facto control over the entire country (all in the Emperor’s name, of course).  This dichotomy often led to split loyalties among the less-powerful daimyos, with some supporting the Shogun, and others declaring their loyalties to the Emperor alone.  This split was one of several major factors that led to the Restoration itself.  Just prior to that, however, a group of lord-less samurai were drawn to the capital by the promise of the creation of a new military wing designed to serve the Shogunate.  While the plans for the unit fell through, a small group stayed anyway, deciding to form their own organization, and declared their fealty to the Shogun.  In addition to the traditional laws and codes concerning samurai, they drew up additional rules for themselves regarding marriage, behavior, money, etc., and called themselves Shinsengumi. 

            The group was small at first, but the forceful nature of their charismatic leaders and the attraction of their strict rules of behavior drew various other samurai into their ranks over the years, and by the 1860’s, Shinsengumi had become a powerful force in its own right, operating almost as a combination police-and-secret-service force rooting out plots and enemies on behalf of the Shogun.  This, of course, created many enemies for them amongst those opposed to the Shogunate, and when the events leading to the Restoration began, Shinsengumi found themselves right in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times in recent Japanese history. 

            Although the movie is animated, and the narrator admits that most conversations and personal scenes are dramatized, all of the figures and events depicted are straight from historical record, so in many ways Shinsengumi functions as a thorough documentary on the history of a group that continues to be somewhat controversial in Japan to this day.  Was Shinsengumi a group of remarkable and talented people who admirably stuck to their beliefs and their codes even when the world around them began to shift?  Or were they just a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs looking for a veneer of legitimization, allowing them to kill and enrich themselves at will?  As with most great movies, Shinsengumi leaves the decision up to us, sticking to just presenting many of the individuals that led the group, warts and all. 

            I can truly say I have never encountered any film like this one.  I was, at first, hesitant that I would like the cutout/puppet method of animation used, but it is done with such finesse and skill that I couldn’t help but warm to it as the film goes on.  The simplicity of it also lends a surprising amount of gravitas at certain moments- in a few instances, a raid by Shinsengumi is built up with an image of just the heads and swords of those involved slowly moving closer to the camera in front of a pitch-dark backdrop.  It’s such a basic and simple visual technique, which makes it all the more surprising how effectively such shots create an environment of threat and anticipation. 

            Though small in its visuals, Shinsengumi carries itself with a confidence and dignity that makes it a fascinating watch for anyone open to a new animation style, or someone just looking for a fresh glimpse into a fascinating period in Japanese history.   Highly recommended. 

-Noah Franc 

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