Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The photograph that Soji and Sei – in women's clothes – sat for has some unexpected consequences when Hijikata decides that Sei “in drag” would be perfect for an undercover spy mission to sniff out an assassin. When Soji finds out, he is completely hysterical, which starts to make him face his feelings.
It has been a long wait for this next volume of Taeko Watanabe's well-researched shoujo take on the Shinsengumi, but as it turns out, it was worth it. Not only does this volume up the romantic subplot, it also features Sei dressed as a girl as she carries out an undercover mission for Vice-Captain Hijikata under the guidance of Hajime Saito. Watanabe's Saito has consistently been an interesting and entertaining character whose presence in the last few books has been missed, so his return is a welcome one. But more importantly, this volume forces Soji to really think about his feelings for Sei, and why he had her dress as a woman in the photograph in the first place.
The volume opens with the photographer delivering a print of Sei and Soji's picture. While Soji is excited, and the rest of the group is fascinated and frightened by the concept of photography (Hijikata can't get the name right to save his life), Sei is less thrilled. What will happen if the rest of the troupe sees her as a girl? Then there's what the pose implies about her relationship with Soji – something that neither of them is quite comfortable with. Soji and Sei manage to dispose of the image, but unfortunately for them, Hijikata becomes aware of Sei's “cross-dressing” prowess, and he decides to send her on a spy mission with Saito...without telling Soji.
While ostensibly the main plot of the book is Sei's spy adventures, the real meat is in Soji's reactions to her being sent out without him. His hysteria is palpable, causing Hijikata to question his ability to remain an efficient commander of someone he is so attached to. Soji himself doesn't seem to understand why he's so worked up, and his slow discovery of his own emotions, although far from complete, makes for some of the most compelling pages. And lest we forget the history that Watanabe is devoted to, there are still some hints of the tragedies to come.
As always, Watanabe mixes some humor in with the more serious parts, and this time those moments belong to Saito. With his conviction that Sei is a boy who just happens to look very feminine, his misinterpretations of a few clues to the contrary are very entertaining. Likewise his overwhelming love (or lust) for the her he thinks is a him lead to some very amusing moments of jealousy, such as when he grumbles internally about Sei being willing to do some things for Soji and yet not for him. With Saito's expressionless face these internal moments are all the more amusing. Sei also gets her share of humorous misunderstandings, and for historically informed readers, the assassin she has been sent to pursue will also bring a few laughs. This is none other than Sakamoto Ryoma, a man much written of in fiction about the period, and Watanabe's version of him is not quite what some readers will be expecting. He is the subject of her end of volume research commentary, and as always it is clear that she worked exhaustively to come up with her portrayal of him.
One of the strengths of Kaze Hikaru as opposed to other shoujo renditions of the Shinsengumi, or a few shounen ones, for that matter, is the meticulous research and fidelity to history that Taeko Watanabe maintains. While many of the characters are far prettier than they likely were in real life, that can be seen as a manga conceit, and there tends to be an overall sense of place and time that is often lacking in depictions of such a well-known group. From Sei's weaponized hair pin, which Watanabe tells us was quite common, to the different clothing worn by travelers and various tradesmen, the world of Kaze Hikaru is tangible and real. If this occasionally serves as a reminder that the story will likely not end with roses and puppies, that is to the author's credit. This is historical fiction with an equal emphasis on both the history and the fiction, and it is the stronger for it.
If you are a fan of Japanese history, the Shinsengumi, or just a really good cross-dressing story, Kaze Hikaru is a must-read. The long pause between releases at this point could be a good thing for those of you who have yet to pick it up, as you have your chance to catch up with the twenty published volumes. Rich with detail but never overwhelming and full of likeable (and hateable) characters, this is shoujo that goes just a bit beyond the norm to bring us a story that we can really sink our teeth into.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Some very funny Saito moments, real development for Soji. Excellent period detail without being overwhelming.
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