There are few Shojo Beat releases as notorious as this - not because of its content or quality, mind you, but because of how poorly it has sold and how long its release has been dragged out.
KAZE HIKARU, by Taeko Watanabe. First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2006.
In 1863, a group of samurai called the Mibu-Roshi have been gathering in Kyoto. Their goal is to protect the shogun in the face of the oncoming Meiji revolution. Their latest recruit is the handsome, determined young Seizoburo Kamiya. What they don't know is that Seizoburo is actually a 15 year old girl named Sei Tominaga. She was the doctor of a local daughter, trained in swordsmanship by her older brother, who lost them both to roving samurai due to their political loyalties. Grappling with her teammates' slovenly ways and the locals' suspicions is one thing, but what will she do when one of her teammates discovers her secret?
I don't envy the folks at Viz trying to sell this series to American readers. The Shinsengumi are just another part of Japanese history, the sort of thing every Japanese schoolkid learns about at some point. That's not a part of history that your average American manga reader learns about unless they purposefully seek it out. Odds are good that the most exposure your average American kid had to it at the time this was first released would have been the heavily fictionalized portrayal in Rurouni Kenshin. Kaze Hikaru was always going to have a hard time finding an audience and that's a terrible shame because it starts off really well.
Watanabe is known for doing her research on this series and it really shows. She weaves in a lot of cultural and political elements into the story, everything from the casual homosexuality between samurai (Sei has to deal with a fair bit of sexual harassment, as her elders presume she is a very pretty boy) to the various pro- and anti-shogun factions at play. It's done quite seamlessly, allowing the information to go through without straight-up stopping to story to deliver a history lecture. Her passion for history is evident on every page. The downside is that means she's lobbing a lot of proper nouns and old-fashioned honorifics at the reader on a regular basis, and the translators were stingy when it came to translation notes, so reading this requires paying attention and maybe keeping some Wikipedia tabs open.
That's not to say that Watanabe slacks off when it comes to the fictional parts! Sei is a great heroine, and one who feels very believable as a sheltered 15 year old. It's one thing to go to the lengths of disguising oneself as a man, but it's quite another to have her dreams of noble samurai fighting for a good cause shattered by the universal experience of learning just how gross and weird young guys can get when you gather a bunch of them together under one roof. She's also trying to work through her grief, particularly for her older brother, and combined with the stress of her training and hiding her identity it can get to her at times.
Luckily she has Soji Okita, whose mellow attitude not only makes him a good mentor but the best confidante possible after he accidentally discovers Sei's true identity. Even if I can't always remember which guy is which beyond Sei and Soji, her writing (along with Annette Garcia's localization) is good at giving them distinct voices and personalities. It's the human drama that grabbed me here, and it's what I could latch onto even when the historical side of things got to be a bit much.
There's something kind of charming about the character designs in Kaze Hikaru. There's a certain simplicity to their broad faces and dark eyes, but Watanabe is able to customize them as needed to make them distinguishable and get across their personalities. That same simplicity allows her to use them as a canvas for some really great facial acting. Her panels are fairly similar: unfussy in construction, but well-constructed with a quiet elegance. To no one's surprise, she also takes care with the historical details: the buildings, the costumes, even the hairstyles.
This manga is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 45 volumes available. 30 volumes have been released and are currently in print.
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