Ah, how to start out. Well, I only looked into Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto (I’ll use BKI for short in the future) after my friend started watching it, and I immediately fell in love with the character designs. Why? Because Kozaki Yusuke did them. Yes, the illustrator of the Speed Grapher light novels, who also did the character designs for the Speed Grapher anime, in addition to that of No More Heroes. So, one can only imagine how excited I was for this series. But then, my friend had to go and tell me that he dropped the series because he thought it was boring. I was greatly saddened by this but since I had already gotten all the episodes, I figured I might as well work my way through it. BKI took a whole half year for me to actually finish, so the earlier episodes are pretty fuzzy by now, but in the end it was really quite enjoyable. And, I don’t see many reviews on this out there, so I figured it was worth it to spread the love.
So without further ado, let’s dig in, itadakimasu!
So, the plot is set in the Bakumatsu era (in Japan, where else has a Bakumatsu era?), as implied/promised by the title. There are 4 major concurrent stories the plot follows: the main character, Akizuki Youjirou’s, quest to seal a cursed skull called the “Lord’s Head”, the Yuyama troupe’s quest for revenge on Nakaiya Juubei, the seemingly random deeds of Ibaragi Soutetsu, and the story of the historically inevitable fall of the Shogunate. There’s also a side story dedicated to Kanna Sakyounosuke, but I’ll deal with that afterwards.
Note On Hindsight: Just skip to the rating breakdown and review box if you don’t want to read the long, drawn-out summary. It was harder than I expected to make the series into a nice compact post.
The fact that there are four concurrent stories being presented has “hazard” written all over it. Unlike series like Durarara!! and Baccano! (or, see Laevatein’s Baccano! review), BKI isn’t conveying just bits and pieces of many stories to the viewer, nor is it conveying bits and pieces of one full story that the viewer can piece together on their own. No, BKI is throwing 4 full plots at your face and somehow you have to make heads and tails of it. The anime does a decent job in terms of fluidity, but leaves a lot of work to do on the viewer’s part. I’ll go over the first 3 stories I mentioned, but not the actual historical portion of the plot because, firstly, I’m unfamiliar with it and secondly, even if I were familiar with it explaining would take too long and be unnecessary (although helpful).
I’ll start with the Yuyama troupe’s story, since it ‘ends’ the earliest (well, it doesn’t really end, but their revenge is exacted by mid-series). The troupe consists of a female leader whose stage name Yuyama Kakunojo. She was born to a merchant family, but her parents were killed as part of the Ansei Purges, which were portrayed as secret mass murders of supporters of the Emperor. She and one of the apprentices of her household, stage name Ebisu no Zukin, were saved from death by her father’s friend, and they escaped from their burning home (but not unscathed, Ebisu suffered from burns that scarred his entire body) and started the idea for the Yuyama troupe. They were eventually joined by their playwright, Ibaragi Soutetsu, two ex-convicts (who were actually framed), and two children named Benibara and Kobako. The troupe traveled around Japan trying to uncover the truth behind the Ansei Purges, and even managed to off all the leaders of the Ansei Purges (with MC Akizuki’s help), but all the work was in vain until about halfway through the series. For the troupe’s last performance together, Ibaragi lures Nakaiya Juubei onto the stage, and due to some very good foresight, Ebisu manages to get him chained to a boat that was blown to smithereens by English cannonballs. However, this was at the expense of the life of Ebisu, who (obviously) did the chaining.
Nakaiya Juubei, on the other hand, was quite the character while he was still alive. He was in possession of the Lord’s Head for the majority of time he actually had screen time, and has to be killed twice during the series before actually dying. I’ll use the opportunity here to explain the Lord’s Head. Apparently it’s the skull of some Chinese general who dared defy the Emperor, and due to his rage and lust for war and violence and all that is bad, his spirit lived on even after he was beheaded and brought to Japan to be sealed. The Lord’s Head constantly gets unsealed by crazy antagonists and brings chaos to wherever it treads. Now back to Nakaiya. Nakaiya’s goal was to find a worthy vessel for the Lord’s Head to possess. He makes various deals with all sorts of Englishmen and Frenchmen to ask for support and eventually infiltrates a peace meeting between two army chiefs (Saigou Takamori and Katsu Kaishuu) in hopes of having the head possess one of the chiefs. Alas, the infiltration of the peace meeting was the death of Nakaiya, literally. Ibaragi Soutetsu (remember, the theatre troupe’s playwright) steals the Lord’s Head, the chiefs successfully agree on the bloodless surrender of Edo castle to Imperial forces (this is 1868), and the troupe (along with MC Akizuki) themselves barge in and stab Nakaiya multiple times. Everyone thinks Nakaiya is dead (he’s not, at least not yet; this is only the first time he’s killed on screen), and Ibaragi vanishes as well. Both Ibaragi and Nakaiya turn up again on the ship of Admiral Enomoto Takeaki before the Yuyama troupe’s final performance that leads to Nakaiya’s death.
Now backtrack again, to Akizuki Youjirou, the MC, the main protagonist. Akizuki is a wandering samurai in search of the Lord’s Head. His whole purpose in life is to seal the head with his Moon Tear sword, and therefore he carries the title “The Eternal Assassin.” Through flashbacks we learn that he becomes acquainted with a man named Sakamoto Ryouma, and becomes his bodyguard. They have their mentor-mentee bromance, until Sakamoto is assassinated. Akizuki becomes the prime suspect but is later released. Nevertheless, the death of his mentor greatly affects Akizuki’s personality and turns him into an even more unsociable protagonist than he was before. He bumps into the Yuyama troupe when he saves Benibara and Kobako, and follows along with them in hopes of finding Nakaiya (and the head) as well. However, when Ibaragi steals the head, Akizuki changes targets. He tries to look for Ibaragi but instead finds his old friend, Okita Souji of the Shinsengumi. Akizuki stays with Okita for a short period of time, until Okita dies of was seemed to be tuberculosis. I don’t really understand the point of this little segment, but in any case, Akizuki reunites with the Yuyama troupe during their last performance. Upon seeing Ibaragi and the Lord’s Head, he attempts to seal the head. However, what happens instead is that the head escapes to a conveniently nearby ship (placed there by none other than Ibaragi) and possesses Enomoto Takeaki. The newly possessed Enomoto becomes suddenly becomes a brilliant admiral and fights his way (against the new Meiji government’s Imperial forces) northwards to Hokkaido, where he sets up the Republic of Ezo, independent of the rest of Japan.
After Nakaiya’s real death, the Yuyama troupe disbands. Akizuki decides to wander aimlessly some more in search of Ibaragi, while Yuyama Kakunojo (the leader of the troupe) realizes that she’s fallen in love with Akizuki and follows him in his travels. Amidst their little “elopement,” Akizuki visits Tokugawa Ieyasu’s shrine, and finds out that Tokugawa was also an Eternal Assassin. In the shrine he and Kakunojo find a second Moon Tear sword, and Kakunojo becomes its chosen wielder. Their travels later lead them to Hijikata Toshizou (again of the Shinsengumi), who ends up joining up with possessed-Enomoto after realizing (thanks or no thanks to, surprise again, Ibaragi) that the Tokugawa Shogunate was doomed. At that point, Hijikata separates from Akizuki, although they are both headed north. During one particular battle, Akizuki and Kakunojo actually catch up with possessed-Enomoto, and Akizuki tries to extract the Lord’s Head and once again seal it. However, (the turning point of the anime!) Kakunojo’s Moon Tear sword possesses her and causes her to act according to the wishes of the Lord’s Head. Despite her burning love for Akizuki, she stabs him with her sword, and he falls into the sea. Upon gaining control of her mind, Kakunojo is driven to the brink of insanity and despair.
Kakunojo stays at a hospital in the Republic afterwards, and the story more or less follows her from there on. Enomoto works on strengthening his forces and eventually brainwashing his subordinates, while Ibaragi does his miscellaneous mysterious deeds here an there. Kakunojo is a shell of a person until Ibaragi tells her that Akizuki is in fact alive. Then, the story snaps to Akizuki’s mini epiphany about following his true destiny after being saved on a beach of a small island. He rushes to Hokkaido (he hitches a ride on Hijikata’s ship, which was supposed to receive a Trojan Horse from the Imperial forces), and the viewers realize that Ibaragi sends for the rest of the members of the disbanded theatre troupe as well. Akizuki shows up during a battle between Hokkaido natives and Enomoto’s troupes, and again charges straight into trying to seal the Lord’s Head. However, he is once again stopped by a possessed Kakunojo, brought to battle by (surprise, again, I’m starting to see a pattern here) Ibaragi. This time, she does not revert back to her old self and instead submits to her true destiny to protect the Lord’s Head.
From there onwards, Kakunojo turns rogue (like how Euphemia of Code Geass started gunning down the Elevens) and starts putting on shows of her own under the Yuyama name. She turns into a brainwashing machine, donning her angelic Joan of Arc garb, and works for possessed-Enomoto to rouse the people of the Republic in his favor. Here, I’d like to introduce the totally random character named Kanna Sakyounosuke. Kanna is a true tragic character: he thinks he was abandoned by his Japanese mother, he was bullied (while he was a child) and then looked down upon (in adulthood) by both his English and Japanese peers because he had mixed blood. Most unfortunate of all, he constantly becomes infatuated with women who look like his mother, only to be betrayed by them as well; this sad man has a terrible case of the Oedipus complex. Kanna shows up sparingly throughout the series, acting as bodyguard first for Katsu (bloodless surrender of Edo Castle guy), then Nakaiya, then finally the viewers realize that he is actually an English spy in charge of obtaining the Lord’s Head (though he develops a personal vendetta against Akizuki). However, by that time, the English abandon him as well, and he is manipulated into protecting Kakunojo, who he sees as a replacement mother and believes is the only one who would forgive his sins.
Now that Kanna is finally fully explained, the cast is set to clash in an all out battle royale. The other members of the Yuyama troupe realize that the new Republic is turning into a replica of the corrupt government responsible for the Ansei Purges, and attempt to fight back. Hijikata realizes that Enomoto is actually possessed by an evil spirit, and attempts to assassinate him. He ultimately fails and is shot down by Kanna’s bullet. Akizuki continues the fight, and manages to kill Kanna off. Next on his list is Kakunojo. Instead of killing her, he cuts off her Joan of Arc costume armor, and somehow by stripping her she regains consciousness and forfeits her Moon Tear sword to him (alas, I never understood the symbolism behind this, I just wanted her to die at this point). The severing of the link between Kakunojo and the Lord’s Head also causes the link between Enomoto and the Lord’s Head to waver, and Ibaragi conveniently arrives (this man is always in the right place at the right time) to offer himself as a vessel for the Head. Now the stage is set for the final battle between Akizuki and Ibaragi. Akizuki wins, obviously, and the viewers learn that Ibaragi’s wish in the first place was actually to be killed by Akizuki. The irony. The series ends, and Akizuki decides to go overseas to see the rest of the world, while Kakunojo vows to wait for him for eternity. The corny ending is almost eerie in comparison to the chaos in the episodes before, and left a bad taste in my mouth.
This is where the interest stuff begins! Reviewing the voice actors. And other stuff. But first voice actors. The cast is actually pretty decent. I was most surprised by Akizuki’s voice actor, Namikawa Daisuke. He’s in everything these days, so it was refreshing to listen to some of his earlier roles where he played a serious character. Also part of the cast is Inoue Kazuhiko (he played Ibaragi here, but he’s probably most famous for playing Kakashi from Naruto), Nakata Kazuhiro (he played Enomoto, but was also Hirano Kouta from HotD) and Suwabe Junichi (one of the ex-cons, he’s the token sexy voice in every other female-geared anime). The female seiyuu were excellent as well, especially Satou Rina, who played Kakunojo (and did kabuki-speak almost every episode).
I generally didn’t have too many complaints about the art and animation, aside from the inconsistency in quality. This is an “old” anime (it was broadcasted between October 6, 2006 and April 6, 2007) so I didn’t expect HD/Bluray clarity and detail, but there were still times when I would pause the frame and face-palm slightly. For example, close-ups of Kakunojo would often reveal that her eyes were too large to fit the realistic style of everything else in the anime, not to mention that her eyes looked like frog eyes. In some episodes the quality would just be so low, faces would either greatly lacked detail or would be strangely proportioned. Unfortunately, there was also usage of the overrated glowing eyes main characters get when they go into their super-mode.
The fight scenes were generally very reserved in terms of flamboyant move sets and shiny special effects. That’s not to say that the fighting was entirely without effects or that it was boring; it was just a bit anticlimactic considering how BKI is an action series. However, for once I didn’t mind. The series stays true to being realistic, and in real life, sword fights really aren’t that flashy. The directors decided to focus less on fan service and more on keeping true to the facts, which may or may not have worked in their favor.
On a similar note with realism, I was very impressed by how many real events BKI covered. I didn’t realize until later, but all of the historical events that occurred in the anime were indeed true. There was actually a Saigou Takamori and Katsu Kaishuu, and they really did discuss the bloodless surrender of Edo Castle. Sakamoto Ryouma existed as well, and he was really assassinated. Likewise, Enomoto Takeaki did fight the Imperial forces and become president of his own Republic of Ezo. (On other notes, Okita Souji did die of tuberculosis and Hijikata Toshizou actually joined Enomoto and later he did die of a bullet wound to his spinal cord).
My last complaint will be dedicated entirely to Yuyama Kakunojo. She was by far the most annoying character in all of the series. I hated her character designs, and I hated her personality. She was just the stereotypical useless heroine who was unexplainably infatuated with an indifferent main hero, who would constantly hinder the main hero’s progress towards his goal, who stopped and tried to help every single crying human-animal-insect she passes by, and who somehow rubbed off on the main hero and ultimately changed him for the “better.” Did I mention, she also breaks into song at very inopportune moments? Although Kakunojo wasn’t quite as bad as a certain Marina Ismail, types like her have always been the subject to my burning rage, and what irritates me the most is that they almost never die.
Gochisousama deshita, over and out.