Hakuouki S1 - Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan
The end of the Tokugawa Shogunate is nigh, but there are those who remain loyal to the shogun and his waning power. Among them is the special police force known as the Shinsengumi, a group of dispossessed samurai who will go to any length to protect their shogun and their people.
In this time of turmoil, a young woman named Chizuru Yukimura travels to Kyoto in search of her missing father, a practitioner of Western medicine. Witnessing a fight between the Shinsengumi and mysterious, unnatural beings known as Rasetsu, Chizuru is apprehended, but allowed to stay with the Shinsengumi as they are also on her father's trail. Slowly but surely, she forms relationships with the various members of the group as events unfold that will forever unravel the fabric of Japanese society as they know it.
We here at THEM like to call this the "sparkling vampire samurai boyfriend" show, because this is actually based on a dating simulation / visual novel aimed at women (otome game) where the heroine, Chizuru, dates the various samurai of the Shinsengumi, rendered here, unlike in actual reality, as dazzlingly pretty men. Clearly I am the completely wrong demographic to be watching this in the first place, but the Mrs. and I got roped into this by the biggest Hakuouki fangirl we know, Mippa. Of course, we were actually physically visiting her at the time, so we knew this was inevitable and trusted her judgment.
Generally we have (understandably) little faith in productions based on dating sims and visual novels, because by and large, such adaptations tend to be shallow and superficial takes on already shallow and superficial original works. Hakuouki on the other hand has a rather shocking amount of depth and genuine drama, featuring a main character who isn't a complete doormat, and a cast of rather handsome men with their own detailed personalities and agendas and, every so often, ridiculously badass action scenes.
The Shinsengumi is hardly new ground for anime: Rurouni Kenshin and [b]Peacemaker Kurogane[/b] cover the same time period and, at times, the same historical personages, with wildly varying results. What most manga and anime treatments of the Shinsengumi have in common is that they generally use the public-domain characters as background for a story featuring an original character as the protagonist. This is not so with Hakuōki: the Shinsengumi themselves remain front and center for the entirety of the series, so you get to see their rise and fall as a faction up close and personal. The danger, then, is in having Chizuru be either too passive or too perfect - thankfully the folks at Idea Factory have somehow managed to balance her out as being more dynamic than the standard female samurai era character tropes we expect (certainly a good deal more assertive than, say, Bella Swan), but not anywhere near an idealized Mary Sue, either, so don't expect her to magically become a sword master overnight, as that's just not going to happen.
One big wrinkle that makes this interesting is the use of the "Rasetsu" plot device - essentially, there's a drug called "ochimizu" that turns people into superhuman battle gods, at the expense of literal bloodlust ... and other, more insidious side effects that are explored as the series progresses. It allows for some flexibility with the use of historical characters who would, in real life, have already been killed or otherwise passed into obscurity, while also being a constant source of tension within the Shinsengumi itself. However, this is hardly the only source of plot twists and surprise revelations in the series!
On a technical level, Hakuouki ranges from barely passable to well-done. There are certainly more than the fair share of standard Studio Deen animation techniques like speed lines and quick pans, and while the animation is a cut above their usual fare, it's only just. Pure action fans will likely be disappointed, though that's clearly not the demographic they're going for. The art, on the other hand, is well-executed, obviously meant to appeal more to women thanks to the plethora of shirtless fan-service scenes, yet never so obtrusive as to detract from the story.
What does detract from the story, at times, is the pacing, which, to viewers who haven't played the games, may come off as positively glacial, though it is to be said that this work definitely concentrates more on the Shinsengumi as people rather than as warriors: it's a clear tradeoff that will clearly work better with some fans than others. The storyline also does cross the line into melodrama at times, though this is often just as true for live-action Shinsengumi stories so should not be taken as necessarily a specific dig at this franchise.
Just like in the original games, the anime version of Hakuōki features an all-star lineup from Chizuru (Houko Kuwashima, who has come light-years from her debut as Yurika Misumaru in Martian Successor Nadesico) through the Shinsengumi, featuring, among others, Shin'ichiro Miki (Allen Schezar, Vision of Escaflowne) as fiercely determined Toshizo Hijikata, Showtaro Morikubo (Shikamaru Nara, Naruto) as deadpan snarker Soji Okita, and Toru Okawa (Roy Mustang, Full Metal Alchemist) as sentimental, yet strong commander Isami Kondo.
So, are you the kind of anime fan who enjoys watching a harem of pretty boys? Then if you haven't watched this already, I advise you to do so at your earliest convenience because you will undoubtedly enjoy this. How about the rest of us? Well, it can a bit of a mixed bag at times thanks to occasionally dodgy animation, but the storyline and characters remain compelling enough to be worthwhile.
An easy five-star for the biggest fans of pretty men, this opening chapter of the Hakuouki saga is still a compelling and fascinating story even for people who are more into history than shirtless samurai. Purist action fans looking for high frame rate sequences will drop this a star or even two, and are highly advised to go elsewhere. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: Strong violent content, including a fair amount of blood and onscreen deaths. One character suffers from a chronic debilitating illness whose effects are shown onscreen. Female-oriented fan service galore, but no nudity. Recommended for older teens and above with parental discretion.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Hakuouki S1 - Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan © 2010 Idea Factory / Design Factory
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