Kaze Hikaru by Taeko Watanabe
This is a series that doesn’t knock you over the head with awesomeness but it gradually wins you over with its quiet charm. I remember liking the first few chapters of Kaze Hikaru when it started in Shojo Beat but I didn’t feel compelled to rush out and buy the books as they came out. Later I checked out a few volumes from the library and enjoyed them very much. After assembling a short run of early volumes and rereading them, I’m really getting into this series.
Tominaga Sei is left on her own when her father and brother are murdered. Determined to get revenge, she disguises herself as a boy and joins the group that will eventually become the police force known as the Shinsengumi. While she might not be the most skilled fighter, in her male guise of Kamiya Seizaburo she impresses the leaders of the group with her determination. She’s taken under the wing of Okita Soji, one of the Shinsengumi’s deadliest fighters. He hides his skill to some degree by often acting childish, but he’s often tapped for the most challenging and dangerous missions. Soji quickly figures out Kamiya’s secret, but agrees to help her in her mission to avenge the deaths of her family.
As Kamiya adjusts to her new surroundings, she realizes that the group that she’s joined isn’t filled with men who share her idealistic view of the Bushido code. While some members of the group are great fighters, other are corrupt and dissolute men. The leaders haven’t won full support yet from the government, so everyone is poor and occasionally some of the members resort to extorting money from townspeople. As the series progresses the leaders gradually jettison some of the dead weight (occasionally by violent means) and start enforcing a system of rules that will turn the ragtag bunch into the disciplined Shinsengumi.
Kamiya struggles with training and her growing attraction to Soji. She’s aided in her disguise by the geisha Akesato, a former girlfriend of her brother. Kamiya decides to stay with the Shinsengumi because she wants to protect Soji. He’s so often used to do the dangerous jobs that no one wants, and nobody is around to watch his back. While this ambition might seem a little hard to reach based on the differences in their skill levels, Kamiya gets a chance to prove herself during the Ikedaya Incident where the Shinsengumi prevent the burning of Kyoto. Kamiya saves Soji’s life and her actions prompt him to slowly develop a new awareness of the pupil that he’s been determinedly treating like a kid brother.
Watanabe’s character designs are generally fairly simple, with hairstyles and sight variations in facial shape serving to help the reader distinguish between the many members of the Shinsengumi. Simplicity can be a very good thing, as the fight scenes are also clear and She does a good job portraying Soji’s mercurial personality. He’s so light and carefree most of the time, but when he has work to do he turns into a deadly fighter. Many of the earlier volumes show Kamiya challenging her initial assumptions about the Shinsengumi. While she’s closest to Soji, she also befriends Hajime, who used to know her brother. Hajime also resembles her brother in mannerisms and appearance, and he may suspect that Kamiya isn’t a young boy after all.
Watanabe has obviously done a ton of historical research to create Kaze Hikaru. The costumes, houses, and settings all look detailed and accurate. Occasionally it feels like there’s a little bit of forced exposition as she fills in some of the historical details, but I’d much rather read a thoroughly researched series that occasionally feels a little slow than a series with less detail. At 28+ volumes, this is a very long shoujo series. I’m not sure if I’ll run out and fill all the gaps in my collection, but this manga is one I’ll be on the lookout for if I find some good sales. The combination of romance developing at a snail-like pace, cross-dressing, historical details, and fighting Shinsengumi adds up to a very compelling manga. I’m surprised that more people aren’t talking about this series online.