Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
After being wounded protecting Soji, Sei is recovering at the home of a family friend. While she's making decent progress, however, Soji is suffering emotionally as he comes to terms with the fact that he's in love with her. Meanwhile as the second year of Keio dawns, an alliance forms which will one day spell disaster for the Shinsengumi.
To speak in very generalized terms, there are two basic approaches to writing historical fiction: to loosely base around a famous event or time period or to go into much more detail about that event or era. Taeko Watanabe takes the latter route in her shoujo historical Kaze Hikaru, and as such it's a real shame that at this point Viz is only releasing one volume a year. Partly of course that is because the story rises and falls with the history of the Shinsengumi, and so not every volume is as action-packed as you might expect from what is essentially a war story. The other reason is that there's so much historical detail and information that if you're not well-versed in the group's history, you might find yourself a little lost when it comes to what's been going on. Despite these issues, however, Kaze Hikaru's twenty-third volume continues to tell a story it's easy to get pulled into, even when the action is taking a back seat.
This volume picks up with Sei under the care of Matsumoto Hogen, a doctor who already knows Sei's true gender. While it at first seems uncertain whether or not she'll survive, the worry exists that she may have to die even if the wound doesn't kill her – it's on her back, as you may recall, which in the Shinsengumi is considered a coward's injury and is assumed to be from fleeing in the face of the enemy. If that's true, it is punishable by death, since it signals a dereliction of duty. Fortunately for Sei, Soji is willing to go to bat for her on that front...but not necessarily because he wants her to come back to the Shinsengumi. With Sei's injury, to say nothing of Saito's admission of love for the girl, Soji is having to face the fact that he's in love with his subordinate, and that is not a comfortable realization for him. He doesn't want Sei to come back and be in danger again, but he also doesn't want to put her in the position of his wife, thinking his life too unstable to make her happy...and yet he's still unwilling to give her up. Soji spends most of the book in a state of emotional turmoil, even practicing what other members of the troop dub “Saito Hajime Style Ascetic Training:” standing in his underwear and dumping bucket after bucket of cold water over his head.
Historically, this volume is mostly concerned with start of the Satsuma/Choshu alliance, which will eventually become a problem for the Shinsengumi, and the continued machinations of Ito, who apart from setting his romantic sights on a very uncomfortable Hijikata, definitely has more irons in the fire than anyone's really aware of. These segments of the book, while interesting, are not quite as absorbing as the Sei/Soji/Saito parts, largely because while things are brewing, mostly they haven't happened yet, and since we are not privy to what's going on with Satsuma and Choshu, we only get hints rather than full details. The Shinsengumi is fairly complacent at this point in the story, so while Watanabe does her best to keep us informed of the historical background to her fictionalized events, there just isn't a lot for her to work with. It isn't dull, but it also isn't the reason to read the volume.
My assumption, however, is that the detailed historical content is only one reason we all have for reading this series. On the character front, this is a pretty good book, particularly for Soji. We've been watching him fight his feelings for Sei for basically twenty-two volumes now, so to see him finally come to terms with them is rewarding...even if he has no idea what to do now that he knows. Not the most emotionally mature specimen, Soji can't quite reconcile his duty as a bushi with his love for Sei, to say nothing of her own sense of duty, which she is unwilling to give up. The idea of marrying her, and thereby outing her as a woman and forcing her to quit the Shinsengumi, has arisen before (albeit with Saito), but no one seems to consider the fact that there's a good chance that Sei would just outright refuse. Of course she could be forced, but how would she feel about the man who did that in order to marry her? While first Saito and then Soji ultimately reject the idea, it is interesting to think about how much they respect her, and how that respect would translate into making her live as a woman again. When Soji realizes what Saito figured out a little while ago, that Sei is actually a better bushi than any of the men, it indicates that he is thinking about her as an equal rather than as a woman in times less concerned with gender equality. Whether or not he understands it, Sei's role within the Shinsengumi (which becomes differently dangerous this volume) is a key part of what draws him to her, and it bears watching as their relationship develops.
Although this book is a bit unbalanced in terms of interest and the ratio of history to character development, it's still worth the wait. Watanabe's old-school simplicity manages to convey all of the emotions needed (there's no action this time for her to show) and she's adept at creating panels that flow organically along the page, keeping the book very readable. While it's too bad that we won't see the continuation of the story for another year, at least we'll have something to look forward to next August, and plenty to think about with regards to the developing relationships and slow burn of history while we wait.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Good character development for Soji, danger to Sei in her new position is shown rather than overstated. Saito remains a great character with an amusingly active imagination.
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