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Tales of the End of the Feudal Era Win New Fans at Home and Abroad (April 12, 2004)

Shinsengumi Festival
The Shinsengumi Festival (Hino City Tourist Association)
Images of Japan's premodern warriors fighting a losing battle against the tide of modernization were well represented in the most unlikeliest of places earlier this year: Hollywood. Among the nominees for this year's Academy Awards, presented on February 29, were Watanabe Ken, who co-starred in The Last Samurai, as Best Supporting Actor, and The Twilight Samurai, directed by Yamada Yoji, as Best Foreign Language Film.

Domestic audiences, too, are "rediscovering" these proud and tragic figures from the late nineteenth century, when Japan chose to turn its back on its feudal past and embrace the path of Westernization. This is evidenced by the popularity of a television series depicting a group of shogunal vassals who were active on the eve of the Meiji Restoration.

Shinsengumi Boom
Japan faced a crises of historic proportions towards the end of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868). The shogunal regime in Edo (now Tokyo) was losing its grip on power, and killings and riots were rampant in Kyoto, the home of the imperial court. To maintain law and order near the shogunal compounds in the city, the regime enlisted the services of a group of ronin ("masterless" samurai). Led by charismatic Kondo Isami, the Shinsengumi was a valiant group of swordsmen who had no fear of death. The group numbered 200 at its peak, and it battled the forces from Satsuma (now Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (now Yamaguchi Prefecture), who were intent on overthrowing the shogunate.

Shinsengumi Festival
The Shinsengumi Festival (Hino City Tourist Association)

While ultimately deserted even by their feudal lords, the Shinsengumi adhered strictly - and sometimes mercilessly - to the warrior code of honor and fought to their death. Their courage and refusal to flee despite their enemies' possession of firearms have made them frequent subjects of historical novels and dramas for television, film, and stage.

The most recent "rediscovery" was prompted by a popular historical drama series on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.). Starring Katori Shingo of the pop group Smap as Kondo, "Shinsengumi!" features young stars, many of whom have never appeared in historic epics before. The script was written by Mitani Koki, best known for his situation comedies, who lends a comic, bittersweet touch to this heroic tale.

"Shinsengumi!" is off to a booming start, claiming audience ratings of as high as 29% in January. In the past, this drama series - which each year highlights figures from Japan's history - has primarily catered to middle-aged viewers. This year, though, it seems to have struck a chord with younger audiences.

The boom has moved beyond the living room, moreover. Hotels in Kyoto are offering special accommodation packages that take visitors to Shinsengumi-related destinations. Shinsengumi souvenirs are also selling briskly, with some items setting all-time sales records at certain shops. Hoping to capitalize on the Shinsengumi boom, some tours even take visitors to locations associated with the enemy Choshu clan.

Timeless Values
The transition from rule by the sword to a constitutional monarchy in the nineteenth century has spawned a number of historic heroes. Over the past several decades, though, the spotlight has been focused on those who, like Sakamoto Ryoma, turned their backs on tradition and ignited Japan's modernization drive. Interestingly, the current boom gives center stage to those who gave their lives for a "losing cause" in the battle against the tide of time.

The rediscovery of these heroes has been ascribed to people's search for timeless values in a world that is changing at a mesmerizing pace. People appear deeply moved the unwavering loyalty members of the Shinsengumi swore to their warrior code, knowing full well that a new era of Western values and weapons was dawning.

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Related Web Sites
The Last Samurai (Japanese only)
The Twilight Samurai (Japanese only)

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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