My knowledge of Japanese history is really, really lousy. Everything I know about the Shinsengumi I learned from watching Rurouni Kenshin and Peacemaker and the little bit of information I've read online (if anybody knows of a good book about the Shinsengumi that's in English, do let me know in a comment!). That makes it really hard to write this synopsis with any degree of detail - I would've had to spend all my time writing names down, which would have interfered with what little enjoyment I managed to get from this show.
Now that I've prepared you for the suckiness of my synopsis...
Chizuru has come to Kyoto looking for her father, a doctor who has gone missing. However, after she witnesses members of the Shinsengumi kill a bunch of blood-thirsty, monster-like Shinsengumi, Chizuru is taken prisoner. It's possible that Chizuru could be killed for what she witnessed. However, the Shinsengumi are also looking for Chizuru's father, so, in the end, it's decided that, if Chizuru is a well-behaved prisoner, she might get the chance to occasionally look for her father a bit.
The problem is, everyone in the Shinsengumi is a wet washcloth where Chizuru is concerned, and it's not long before she gets to be wherever she likes. Not that she uses this as an opportunity to escape and go looking for her father. No, she cleans, cooks, does laundry, and does whatever else that needs doing. After she loses instantly in a fight against Saitou, it is determined that Chizuru would be able to defend herself well enough that she wouldn't get in the way if she accompanied Shinsengumi members on patrol, so her options for finding her father are opened up slightly. For the rest of the show, the general pattern is: Chizuru rushes into or stumbles upon danger, she shuts her eyes and flinches without ever drawing her sword, and some male saves her. She manages to draw her sword once, maybe twice, but that's all.
Being one of the Shinsengumi kind of sucks. Everyone hates them, and their own allies constantly try to either grab any and all glory from them or just outright betray them. In this show, they were also used as guinea pigs - Chizuru's father had been using Shinsengumi members as test subjects while trying to perfect a dangerous medicine. The medicine has great healing powers and can make anyone who drinks it stronger and nearly impervious to damage, but it's still imperfect and has unfortunate side effects, like insanity and vampirism. Despite these side effects, several members of the Shinsengumi willingly drink the medicine, including, by the end of the season, four members of the main cast.
A natural version of what the medicine is trying to create already exists - they are oni (demons), and, for the most part, female oni are rare. It just so happens that Chizuru is a female oni, which makes her much sought after by a group of male oni. By this time, the Shinsengumi have decided that they like Chizuru enough to die defending her, so they stand between her and the male oni, since Chizuru chooses not to leave with the female oni who offers to protect her.
All of this is happening at the same time various historical events that I'm sure those who are more familiar with the Shinsengumi than I am will probably recognize. The events at Ikedaya, the only part of Shinsengumi history that I know in any kind of detail (from Peacemaker), are over by the end of the third or fourth episode. By the end of the season, the Shinsengumi, now led by Hijikata, have elected to leave Kyoto (retreating after being betrayed by their allies) and go to Edo.
All I knew about this show when I started watching it was that it was about the Shinsengumi, it was pretty, and it would probably not be the best thing I had ever seen. I didn't realize until after I began watching it that it was based on a romance adventure game. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this show is going to be chock full of romance, though. It's actually quite bloody, and there isn't really any romance, unless you count Chizuru occasionally blushing over the (very, very gorgeous) higher ups in the Shinsengumi, the oni guy who wants to take Chizuru away and make her his bride (although I kind of think he's more interested in Hijikata or Souji than Chizuru), and the light flirting the Shinsengumi guys sometimes engage in with Chizuru after they save her for the umpteenth time.
To be honest, if my weakness weren't bishounen characters, of which there are many in this show, and if I hadn't liked the artwork, animation, and battles, I probably would have quit watching this show. It helped that I knew I only had to get through 12 episodes, although I'm kind of bummed that I may be forcing myself to get through another 12 during the autumn anime season. See, the thing is, this show is pretty boring. Some of that might have been that I had problems keeping the events and groups involved straight, but some of it was due to the show's hideously bad pacing. There are only 12 episodes in this season, and it isn't until the 5th or 6th episode that anything really happens. All that stuff about the special medicine is only hinted at until halfway through the show.
It doesn't help that Chizuru is weak and uninteresting. For a girl who's supposed to be an oni, she's pretty worthless in a fight. I laughed out loud when Saitou declared her able to accompany Shinsengumi members on patrol without getting in their way - in his words, her "blade is unclouded." Well, ok, but he beat her instantly in a practice fight, and she had demonstrated absolutely no ability to use her sword in a real fight. You know, the kind where there's blood and people die. You'd think that, after the first time she went out and had to be saved because all she did was flinch and tremble when someone drew his sword on her, no one would let her go out on patrol again, but that wasn't the case. Because of the ease with which she could be used as a hostage and, once the oni males got involved, because of the danger she attracted, she was basically a giant weakness for the Shinsengumi, but no one seemed to recognize that. Apparently, her cooking skills, gentle nature, and ability to tie a bandage were all well worth risking death for.
When I wasn't yelling at Chizuru to stop running headlong into battles in which she'd only get in the way, I at least got to admire the pretty artwork and characters. Since my most recent exposure to the Shinsengumi was Peacemaker, however, some of the characters in this show took some getting used to. For instance, I kept confusing Hakuouki's Heisuke with Peacemaker's Shinpachi. After falling in love with Peacemaker's gentle and scary Souji, Hakuouki's Souji seemed a little sociopathic at first, but he eventually grew on me, as much as any of the characters in this show could. Unfortunately, with this many characters, simultaneous historical and supernatural storylines, and only 12 episodes, most of the characters weren't much more than a name and a basic personality. For me, the most interesting characters were Sannan (the only Shinsengumi member who tried to be cruel to Chizuru), Kazama (an oni guy whose motives I keep hoping will be more interesting than "he wants Chizuru as his bride" but who will probably disappoint me in the end), and Souji (I hope his gunshot wound and tuberculosis haven't taken him totally out of the picture).
The combination of decent animation and lovely artwork helped make the battles another one of the few things to enjoy about this series. Unfortunately, the one battle I was really looking forward to that the opening credits hinted would happen, the battle between Kazama and Hijikata after he's taken the medicine, was cut short. What little there was of the battle before other characters stopped it was pretty good, though. The episode when this battle occurs, the last episode of the season, is also the first episode where Chizuru almost took part in a real fight. She drew her sword, prepared herself, and I got a moment to foolishly think that she would get a chance to display some oni powers beyond the ability to heal quickly before Kazama stepped in and killed all her would-be opponents. Darn you, Kazama!
One thing I was wondering: in the end, was Hijikata the first person to take the medicine who was not really affected by its side effects? Supposedly, everyone else who takes the medicine can't be out during the day, but Hijikata seemed to do just fine. Plus, he spent time around a blood-soaked body and didn't go crazy. Hopefully that gets addressed in the second season, but I don't think I'd be terribly surprised if this kind of blatant breaking of series rules ended up going without comment.
Another thing I wondered: why did Chizuru continue to dress as a male? After all, she fooled no one. I only have a few years of anime-watching to rely on, but I'm pretty sure her body language was blatantly female (particularly the way she held her hands), so why even bother wearing male clothing?
Overall, this season was a slog to get through, and I don't imagine that the next season will be any better. Despite knowing this, I will probably end up watching the next season. Why, you ask? One, the bishounen. They, and cute animals, are my kryptonite. Two, I hate watching or reading only half of something. Unless I just cannot bring myself to inflict any more upon myself, I must at least try to watch the rest. Three, I hope to see more of the characters I liked, and I'm still hopeful (probably foolishly so) that Chizuru will blossom into someone who doesn't constantly need to be saved. Of course, since I think most of the Shinsengumi end up being killed (although maybe in this show they'll all just be turned into vampires?), Chizuru either has to learn to defend herself or resign herself to being some male oni's bride. And, finally, four, I like the voice acting. Shinichiro Miki (Bleach's Urahara) is Hijikata, Nobuo Tobita (Getbackers' Akabane) is Sannan, and those are just the ones that sparked an immediate "Hey, don't I know that voice?" response.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - This series takes place after the end of the Shinsengumi and includes at least one person from the Shinsengumi (Saitou). The battles are more over-the-top than anything in Hakuouki, and it's at times a bit goofier, but it may still appeal to those looking for another historical series with lots of battles and a smidgen of romance. The female characters are also less wimpy than Chizuru, although I know that's not really saying much, since just about anyone is less wimpy than Chizuru.
- Peacemaker (anime TV series) - This is based on a manga series (or two?) - I own part of it, but haven't read it yet. This anime covers a period of time before and just after the events at Ikedaya and focuses mainly on a young boy who joins the Shinsengumi for a chance to avenge his parents' deaths. It's not as dark a picture of the Shinsengumi as is shown in Hakuouki, and the show has quite a few light and/or silly moments, but it may still interest those looking for another interpretation of the Shinsengumi.
- Kaze Hikaru (manga) by Taeko Watanabe -The main character in this one disguises herself as a boy in order to join the Shinsengumi and get a chance to avenge the deaths of her father and brother. Those who'd like another historical story involving the Shinsengumi, something with action and maybe a bit more romance, might want to try this.
- Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - My one non-Shinsengumi-related suggestion. This one's a good one if you'd like something with action, a historical feel, and fantasy aspects and thought that Hakuouki didn't have nearly enough romance for your tastes. The heroine in this one is a modern day girl transported into a pseudo-historical world inside a book. In that world, she is the priestess of Suzaku, protected by her Celestial Warriors. If she can find all seven of her Celestial Warriors, she will be able to summon Suzaku and go home. Like Chizuru, Miaka is surrounded by gorgeous guys who constantly need to save her - if you like the idea of that, this may be the series for you.