Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto

Bakumatsu, as I will affectionately term this series for the rest of the review, is not really that bad a show. Indeed, it has (almost) all the elements of an excellent show.

Well, except for likeable, identifiable protagonists. … Or a sense of continuity. … Or a good sense of dramatic tension.

Ok, so maybe it’s lacking in a few departments. However, I really do need to stress that this show isn’t as bad as I’m about to make it sound. I thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of this show, even if it was lacking in a few areas. So I feel I really should mention, right now, that it is worth watching, if you have some free time. Honest.

That disclaimer out of the way, I’ll get to ripping this show the new one I know you really want to read about.

First off, the “history” of this “historical drama.” Bakumatsu takes place during a historical era in Japan known as (get ready for it!) the bakumatsu. The bakumatsu was an exciting enough period on its own – and one that has already received extensive treatment in both anime and cinema – marking as it did the end of both Japanese isolationism and the Tokugawa shogunate, as well as the adoption of an Imperial government.

However, Bakumatsu decided that, rather than simply being Ruroni Kenshin: Redux, it would take things a different way. A more magical way. A spookier way. Unfortunately, it was also a ridiculous way.

In the world of Bakumatsu, since ancient times, Japan has been the resting place for a powerful artifact of pure chaos and evil known as “the Lord’s Head.” It seems that way back in the day, a Chinese nobleman betrayed the emperor (or some such nonsense) and was beheaded for his crimes … and his head was left out on display for a while. Seems the nobleman didn’t really appreciate the Emperor’s artistic tastes, however, because soon enough the head started causing all sorts of problems – giving people the power to control and inspire others, as well as destroy castles and armies with evil magic. Fortunately, a group of spiritual warriors managed to defeat and contain the Lord’s Head temporarily, which gave them the time to bring it East (i.e., Japan) to seek a way to seal its power forever.

Unfortunately, when it got there, it started getting up to its old tricks again, and it escaped. The warriors, failing to complete their mission, remained in Japan to train the next generation to defeat the Lord’s Head whenever it reared its… well… head – which it did quite frequently, as it was apparently to blame for all sorts of chaos in Japanese history, including (but not limited to) the reign of Oda Nobunaga. Fortunately, every few generations the soul of the greatest warrior of them all (whom they termed “The Eternal Assassin,” for reasons which shall become obvious forthwith) is reincarnated in a child, whom the now-rather-monastic order take in and train, arm with a special sword and send out to complete his/her “destiny”: that is, to seal the Lord’s Head.

At the time of Bakumatsu, the current Eternal Assassin is a fellow by the name of Yojiro, who suffers from one of the worst cases of SBPS (Silent, Brooding Protagonist Syndrome) of any character I’ve yet seen. His entire motivation seems to be to fulfill his destiny, and while he doesn’t want other people to get caught up in it or injured by it, he’s willing to do a little damage if it’s necessary. The show does its best to drive this point home by making him as quiet and withdrawn as possible for the first half of the show or so – ironically, the best half – even when set among colorful (literally and figuratively) supporting characters who almost all try to engage him in conversation.

The majority of these background characters are, as it turns out, members of a particular acting troupe, who put on historical kabuki plays of their own. Apparently, the core of the troupe are the survivors of a particular merchant house that was put to the sword by order of one of the favored of the shogunate, under suspicion of harboring imperialist sympathies. With the help of a mysterious playwright, who lurks in the shadows for the most part, and hands them off finished plays that not only gradually reveal to the public the truth, but also cause those who were involved to take action to silence them – something they want to happen, in the hopes of drawing the one responsible out into the open, where they can kill him and exact their revenge.

In the first two thirds of the show (which could be broken into the “Revenge,” “Politics” and “Finding the Head” story arcs), they even manage to keep things moving at a fairly good clip. Historical events are unfolding, such as political tension between shogunate and imperialist forces (though you may need a bit of an explanation to understand a fair bit of the history going on); the Lord’s Head is causing some trouble but not so much that its existence is revealed to the general public; the revenge plays and players are having significant successes; even the English are getting involved, trying to secure both the Lord’s Head and the future cooperation of Japan.

Her Majesty’s “off-the-books” special forces in the area. You can tell, because the one leading them is working on his mutton chops.
Studio Sunrise

Unfortunately, at this point, the show takes a bit of a nosedive. Yes, it retains some interesting plot lines and twists, and by the time you’re fairly tired of the show, you’ve been watching it for long enough that you feel you should stick it out to the end; this doesn’t change the fact that you do get tired of it.

Yojiro, for all that he wanders around, searching for the Head and doing whatever he can to halt its influence, remains pretty much one-dimensional. I’ll admit, I liked the fact that he was willing to do what needed to be done, even if he didn’t entirely agree with it (considering all the whiners out there in anime protagonists, it was a breath for fresh air), but at some point we need to see more of a character in order for him to be anything other than a concept – in this case, duty. We see a bit of his past, including some of the motivation he, personally, has for hating the Head, and we see him get betrayed again and again, but he never opens up enough for him to remain interesting through 26 episodes, except as an allegory.

The prevalence of the head is also somewhat responsible for the decline of the show, having an inverse effect on how believable and interesting it is. The idea of a shadowy entity that is both controlled and controller of significant figures (and remains shrouded and removed from official record) is an interesting one and is part of the reason the government conspiracy genre of fiction is so popular. At first, the head is just that, and even its ability to inspire/control men already loyal to the possessed is questionable.

However, as the head gains power (rather rapidly) throughout the show, it comes more into the open. By writing it as such, the show eschews the political and military power plays that made it so interesting, and becomes a simple monster hunt. A monster hunt that culminates in a stereotypical self-sacrificing face-off in a giant floating fortress that’s impervious to cannon-fire, and can destroy entire armies and fleets without any help, thereby defeating the entire purpose the army it went to such great lengths to create.

I would also be remiss were I not to mention the song, which the head of the Kakunojou Revenge Troupe sings more and more of as the show progresses. It’s a bit of a childish poem, which I’d imagine would be useful for calming the young’uns and teaching them to count – and it seems to have a bit of a nostalgic effect on Yojiro as well. However, in later episodes, the recitation of it takes up to two minutes, as she goes up to the double-digits, and its words become increasingly sinister.

None of which you’ll care that much about, as by that point you’re not only tired of hearing the song, you’re also tired of having it repeated as many as three times per episode.

On a more positive note, the art of the show is excellent. The character designs are fairly unique, and the animation is fluid and realistic. Yojiro’s supernatural swordsmanship at times is offset by the fact that he moves fairly realistically except when fighting enemies empowered by the head. He’s not even all that exceptional at it when he fights normally and is, several times, fought to a standstill by those more experienced than he. The colors of the show are also a bit muted, and they combine with the art style to create a fairly down-to-earth appearance, which works nicely in setting the mood for the first two thirds of the show.

The music, similarly, is beautiful. The introduction, while a bit too fast for its melody at times, borders on haunting (without going over, sadly), and the closing grows on you as you watch. The characters’ voices are all done well – Yojiro’s quiet, mostly monotone complementing his fatigued appearance and single-minded isolationism quite nicely – though a bit too quiet at times. Fortunately, almost all the characters have either melodious or sonorous voices, so they’re not unpleasant to listen to, even if I’ve not much of a clue what they’re actually saying without the subtitles.

Given that it had so much going for it, then it’s a shame that Bakumatsu manages to sink into the realm of the unremarkable due to a lackluster conclusion and sub-par character development. Motivation, both of the primary protagonist and antagonist, is really the only main sticking point throughout the entire show, as it seems to work a little too hard at sustaining the sense of mystery that was so critical in making the beginning of the show interesting.

Were I to know when I first considered watching Bakumatsu what I know now, I still think I’d watch it… I’d just invest far less interest in it so I wouldn’t be as disappointed when the whole turned out to be less than the sum of its parts.