It’s always an interesting experience to see Japanese history treated in manga form — in fact, a fairly major subgenre of manga there (which hasn’t seen much in the way of translation here) are retellings of history from as far back as ancient China. Here we have one of the most durable bits of Japan’s past — the story of the Shinsengumi — resurrected in the context of a romance between a young girl and one of the historical figures involved, and it manages to be spry and compelling throughout. Done wrong, this kind of thing can seem off-putting or jarring, but here it remains rooted just firmly enough in the historical record to be enjoyable.
Kaze Hikaru takes place in the 1860s, a period in Japan’s history when the Shinsengumi (“Newly Selected Corps”), a militia assembled from both samurai and commoners, rallied around the embattled Shogunate and did their best to keep the country from being Westernized. The Shinsengumi have become popular heroes in Japan — the subjects of endless novels, movies, and yes, manga — although they probably are admired more for the zeal they brought to the job than the specific work they were doing. (Most people reading this will remember the Shinsengumi and the Meiji Restoration as bits of the backdrop from Rurouni Kenshin, where they fictionalized about as freely as they were here. They also figured into Peacemaker Kurogane, where they were fictionalized almost to the point of incoherency.)
Rather than give us a straight retelling of the history of the corps, which has been done in manga any number of times already, Kaze Hikaru gives us the Shinsengumi through the eyes of Tominaga Sei, a young girl who joins the corps in the guise of being a young man named Kamiya Seizaburo. Only one other member of the group — assistant vice-captian Okita Souji (a real historical personage) — knows her secret, and is fully aware that it would mean her death, and possibly his as well, if the truth were to come out. She has a great many lessons to learn in the Shinsengumi — not the least of which being that it’s one thing to say you’re going to be brave and fearless, and another thing to actually do it.
Most of Volume 6 deals with one of the most famous incidents in the Shinsengumi’s history, the Ikedaya Affair, which earns the Shinsengumi instant fame and adoration — a badly-needed bit of redemption since they were on the verge of dissolving themselves. Sei participates in this particular action, even going into a bit of a killer frenzy when Okita is injured in the ensuing battle. No, not injured, but simply sodden with someone else’s blood and unconscious with a fever. She throws herself into reviving her captain with even more zeal than she did cutting down conspirators in the inn — although her fighting has apparently earned her a reputation as a demon with the other members of the group.
As grand as it is to be thought of so highly, the incident kicks open a number of other doors that lead in dismaying directions. For one, Isamu Kondo, the Shinsengumi captain, has become so fond of Sei that he’s considering adopting her as his son for the sake of having a proper successor to the family — totally unaware, of course, that this he is really a she. On top of that is Okita’s own confused welter of feelings for her — something he has to balance against his devotion to the group and its leaders — mainly the firm-bordering-on-cruel Hijikata, a man who thinks nothing of nailing lit candles to a man’s feet to get him to talk). Sei does engineer a clever way out of being adopted and having his cover blown … which unfortunately only leads to an even deeper rabbit hole of trouble. This part of the story is handled most explicitly like romantic comedy, and it’s some credit to author and artist Taeko Watanabe’s skill that it doesn’t completely curdle on the pages.
Kaze Hikaru's a nifty repackaging of history that’s a manga analogue to the historical romances we’ve been getting in English for decades now. It may come off as a bit too “girly” for folks who want a historically-derived samurai manga along the lines of Samurai Executioner or Path of the Assassin, but I actually liked the way it served as a leavener for the unremitting grittiness of titles like those.