Would it be unseemly if Appellate Judge Dan Mancini showed this peacemaker the back of his hand?
Blinded by revenge, anger, and determination…
The 2003 anime series—originally released by ADV Films in seven three- to four-episode volumes—returns in an economical boxed set that eliminates supplements and presents all 24 episodes on five discs.
Facts of the Case
Set in the 19th century on the cusp of the Meiji Restoration, Peacemaker tells the tale of diminutive 15-year-old Tetsunosuke Ichimura and his older brother Tatsunosuke. Having witnessed the murder of his parents at the hands of Choshu rebels, Tetsu tags along with Tatsu to join the Shinsengumi, the bakufu's elite police force. A pacifist like their peculiar father, Tatsu wants only to be an accountant for the Shogunate's warriors. The fiery and impulsive Tetsu wants to learn swordsmanship so he can take revenge on the Choshu rebels who robbed him of parents.
Once accepted by the Shinsengumi, the brothers enter a shadowy world of clan intrigue, discovering that even the noblest of warriors is capable of horrifying cruelty. The Shinsengumi rogues gallery includes avuncular leader Kondo Isami and his polar-opposite Vice Commanders, the menacing Toshizo Hijikata, and the bookish Keisuke Yamanami; a cross-dressing spy named Soji Okita; Sanosuke Harada, Shinpachi Nagakura, and Heisuke Todo, a trio of buffoons/fearsome warriors; and a rotund mascot piglet named Saizo.
Tetsu becomes page to Hijikata and, despite his hot-headed antics, slowly begins to win the trust and respect of the Shinsengumi. Meanwhile, he meets Saya, a young orphan girl and geisha-in-training with whom he feels a deep connection. On the path toward his destiny, he also encounters one Ryoma Sakamoto, a peculiar gun-toting warrior who sings "The Star Spangled Banner," and has intriguing information about Tetsu's father.
Peacemaker would be a solid, if derivative, little show if about 12 episodes' worth of material were excised. As it stands, it's a horrible mutt of an anime whose underlying tragic tone must constantly compete with cloying, over-the-top, excruciatingly unfunny slapstick. It's a mess of poor storytelling. The end result of its makers' various misfires is a show whose target audience is difficult to gauge. On the one hand, Peacemaker has a historical backdrop and some underlying sexual content that makes it an adult entertainment. On the other hand, its comedy is bound to annoy anyone above the age of 12.
Chief among the culprits in this tonal disconnect is the story's hero, Tetsu. Any sympathy we might have for his tragic family history is pretty much torpedoed by the wide-eyed, spiky-haired imp's shrill and bullish hijinks. He is, in other words, a typical anime child. This is a shame considering Tetsunosuke Ichimura is a historical figure, the page of real-life Shinsengumi hero Toshizo Hijikata. The real Tetsu is an exceedingly minor figure in Japanese history, remembered for having, by order of Hijikata, spirited his master's most treasured possessions to safety while the Shinsengumi faced annihilation at the fall of the Shogunate. It's just the sort of tale of nobility in the face of tragedy that the Japanese adore, but you won't find it in any of Peacemaker's 24 episodes. Instead, the cartoon Tetsu is just that. He's a rad, smart-mouthed teen/wannabe samurai. We're supposed to think he's cool, I guess. I mostly just wanted to throttle him.
Perhaps I would think Tetsu cool if I were 10 years old. The problem is that the show's mix of violence and sex suggests it was targeted to adults. Action sequences are relatively spare, but they usually include arterial spray, impalings, and gallons of blood. The sexual content is delicately handled but fairly overt. Prostitutes play a central role in the action (a common feature of jidei-geki). There is also an undercurrent of homosexuality among the Shinsengumi samurai—this is generally historically accurate, though it's handled with a sly irony in the series. Those elements are fine for adults (as a matter of fact, they add some needed texture to an otherwise rote plot structure), but push the envelope for kids young enough to delight in the show's broad humor. The ick factor, however, is amped up considerably by hints of pederasty and child prostitution. Sure, Tetsu and his semi-girlfriend Saya are supposed to be 15 years old, but they're also supposed to look like 10-year-olds. The slavering of whorehouse patrons over Saya, and the Shinsengumi warriors' collective obsession with Tetsu's cuteness is just flat-out creepy at times.
As if all this weren't enough, Tetsu's character arc is almost non-existent for much of the show. Every time one thinks he's growing and learning, he slides immediately back into his previous buffoonery. Then, with only a handful of episodes to go, the comedy is dropped and Tetsu begins to emerge as a resolute warrior. The story actually picks up speed here, and I found myself—despite my better instincts, and the fact that the turns of plot were happening about 10 episodes too late—hoping I was hurtling towards a satisfactory climactic payoff. Unfortunately, the face-off between Tetsu and his parents' murderer is not only clichéd, but rendered absurd by Tetsu's clumsily-handled development as a warrior. The idea that the boy-samurai has a snowball's chance in hell against his vicious opponent requires an unreasonable amount of suspension of disbelief. Other subplots aren't satisfactorily folded into the main plot, either. For example, the presence of the oddball Ryoma Sakamoto, who speaks broken English and has some sort of connection to Tetsu's father, is explained for the most part, but amounts to nothing for anyone without foreknowledge of the historical Sakamoto and his role in both the Meiji Restoration and the establishment of the Japanese navy. The ending's lack of substance or satisfying closure is final proof that most of what's come before is meaningless, time-wasting fluff. Peacemaker is a simple story told with a maximum of irrelevant distractions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my raking it over the coals, Peacemaker isn't all bad. When its focus shifts from insipid comedy to the tragic fatalism of its central plot, it can be compelling. Its textured world of cynical warriors, cross-dressing spies, and family drama amid clan conflict is lots of fun in the rare instances in which those dramatic elements aren't immediately steamrolled by Jar Jar Binks-style antics in the next scene. It's too bad that the drama isn't allowed to blossom until about midway through the set's fourth disc. The revenge plot and somber tale of the disintegrating Shogunate are nothing fans of Japanese flicks haven't seen a million times before, but they're still entertaining.
The final six episodes manage to hit most of the significant beats of the Ikedaya Jiken, a legendary skirmish on July 8, 1864 in which the Shinsengumi laid a smackdown on Choshu rebels holed up at the Ikedaya Inn in Kyoto. The sneak attack delayed the rebels' plans to burn the capital to the ground and kept the Shogunate in power for a few more years. Those familiar with the tale will get a thrill seeing its various details (which are part history, part legend) play out in the show: Hijikata's brutal torture of a Choshu captive in order to gain information about the plot; the injuries to Nagakura and Todo at the Inn; the sly drama surrounding Okita's chest wound (the historical figure may or may not have suffered from tuberculosis). Unfortunately, these historical elements take far too long to emerge. As presented, they feel like a coda to the cheap comedy. What's more, the integration of Tetsu's revenge plotline into the Ikedaya showdown feels forced. It's dull cliché compared to the far more compelling historical drama in which it is staged.
The animation is also top-notch for a television series. Combining traditional hand-drawn animation with a tasteful use of CGI and even some rotoscoping for the swordfights, Peacemaker offers a pleasant visual experience. The use of light and color is attractive. Action sequences are thrilling. ADV Films' DVD presentation of the series is suitably attractive. Colors are accurate, and show no signs of bleeding. Detail is sharp. Digital artifacts of any kind are minor and extremely isolated. If nothing else, this is a good-looking series.
The default audio option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of an English dub. The technical quality of the track is magnificent, though the voice performances are atrocious. It's obvious the actors are more concerned with matching animated lip movement than delivering convincing line reads. The original Japanese track is offered in stereo with optional English subtitles. It's clean and as dynamic as its two-channel format allows. The performances are far more natural and convincing (though Tetsu's still an annoying little rapscallion, regardless of the language he speaks).
It's unfortunate that Peacemaker suffers from narrative schizophrenia. Were it either a goofy comedy for children or a historical drama for adults, I might be able to recommend it. Since it attempts to be both—and fails to be either—it isn't worth 600 minutes of anyone's time.
That said, fans of the show (whoever they may be) will find Peacemaker: Complete Collection a great deal, assuming they're willing to give up the clean opening and closing credit sequences, TV advertisements, and text-based supplements of the original releases.
Guilty as charged.
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