Near the end of the Edo period in Nineteenth century Japan, the arrival of foreign traders finally shifts the balance of power away from the Tokugawa Shogunate towards the Emperor. It is the dawn of a bold new age. But not everyone sees it that way. Especially the samurai. Bands of ronin roam the capital city of Kyoto, slaughter any foreigners they see, mount heads on pikes and terrorize lowly common folk. For the sake of preserving the old order. Intent on joining the cause, Isami Kondo (Toshirô Mifune), a ruggedly idealistic farmer-turned-samurai, bids sayonara to his devoted wife (Yoko Tsukasa) and infant daughter. He crosses paths with the Tengu Group: a rowdy and murderous anti-foreigner unit led by rabble-rouser Kamo Serizawa (Rentaro Mikuni). Impressing all with his samurai stoicism and upright morality, Kondo is tasked by the Shogunate with forming a collection of student fencers into the so-called Shinsen Group. Under the ostensible leadership of Serizawa, these stalwart defenders of the Shogunate pledge to uphold the old feudal ways and hold back the tide of social change. However the vindictive, self-destructive, alcoholic Serizawa proves a liability. Forcing Kondo to take drastic action. Even so, while the Shinsengumi win one battle after another against Imperialist forces, it becomes apparent to Kondo that his actions are merely delaying an inevitable future.
1969 was a busy year for Toshirô Mifune. Japan's most iconic actor both starred and produced no less than five major box-office hits. Among them Shinsengumi, an expensive, all-star adaptation of a story that is as much a cinematic staple in Japan as the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table remains in the west. Interestingly although Mifune's presence leaves this the best known take on the story, connoisseurs rate Kenji Misumi's cheaper 1963 adaptation with chanbara staples Raizo Ichikawa and Tomisaburo Wakayama as the superior version. Impressively directed by the little-known Tadashi Sawashima, Shinsengumi both opens and fades out on blood sprayed directly at the camera. The first belonging to a freshly-slain European (?) dignitary, the second to a beheaded patriot, neatly book-ending a narrative arc that evolves from ferocious nationalism to a more tempered and contemplative world-view.
Initially Shinsengumi comes across a trifle disconcerting with its xenophobia and gung-ho violence. Like Isami Kondo the film swells with nationalistic pride, seemingly taking the rigid code of the samurai at face value. On the surface it is a crowd-pleaser, reinforcing then popular sentiments with stirring speeches (after all, no-one can deliver a speech extolling the virtues of the bushido code like Toshirô Mifune) and kick-ass action sequences. Mifune mesmerizes as the monolithic embodiment of samurai honour and the plot seemingly exists to bolster our sense that Kondo is an all-round great guy. Even though he has a bit on the side in the shapely form of 'reformed' courtesan Oyuki (Junko Ikeuchi). He whips the young samurai into shape, purges the Shinsengumi of corrupting influences, instills his men with an inflexible moral code and exhibits courage, loyalty and honour at almost every turn. However, like 47 Ronin and Seven Samurai, the reason Shinsengumi resonates with a Japanese audience is because it is a story of honourable men devoting their lives to a doomed cause. Something that struck a chord with a post-war audience and arguably even the generation raised after the bubble burst on the Japanese economy.
Despite their heroism, victories in battle and stirring speeches, gradually, bit by bit, cracks in the Shogunate and bushido ideology start to show. Kondo's near-fanatical devotion to the samurai code takes a heavy toll on his men. When fifty ryo goes missing from the Shinsengumi funds, Kawai (Katsuo Nakamura), the samurai's poor, mild-mannered accountant has to pay the ultimate price even though he is blameless. Having been forced to kill his best friend, the steadfast Yamanami (Kyosuke Ugami) commits ritual suicide prior to chastening Kondo for his rigid stance. Meanwhile Okita (Kin'ya Kitaoji), the group's dashing young Lancelot figure, discovers he has but two years left to live and chooses to die in combat rather than settle down with the woman he loves. All the while there is the nagging sense that the Shogunate themselves see the Shinsengumi as only a convenient means to an end and have little respect for their valor. Gradually even Kondo grows to realize that the Tokugawa regime is, as the film puts it succinctly "a house with rotting timbers." More importantly that his precious bushido code is flawed by its fatal lack of humanity. Without empathy, neither the mightiest warrior nor most learned scholar amounts to much more than a beast.
It is interesting to note that Shinsengumi came out the same year Mifune made Red Lion (1969), a chanbara that presents the flip side of the conflict depicted here, casting the Imperialists as a force of social liberation for an oppressed common folk against the staid and tyrannical feudal order. While lacking the subtlety and poetry of an Akira Kurosawa epic, Shinsengumi remains a fascinating and complex dissection of the samurai mythos.