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Hinata no Ookami, vol. 1, by Misaki Saitoh. Grade: B+
I like Misaki Saitoh's work, and I've mentioned Taimashin and Totsu Gami in this blog before. Then, when Book-Off had their 85 yen sale (all 105 yen manga at 85 yen, or about $0.80 USD), I pretty much went through the whole store (well, the whole shonen manga part of it) looking for stuff to buy. I got 11 books at one time, including the Hatsuka Nezumi series, as well as the 4 available volumes of Hinata no Ookami. Like most of the artists that I like, Saitoh has a very distinctive art style. Because Comic Birz is a seinen (young men's) magazine, her lead male characters tend to be attractive, ala the SMAP model, which is what a lot of Japanese males hope to attain to. They're also highly educated, strong-willed, and extremely irritating to be around. The backgrounds of Saitoh's earlier works, especially Taimashin, had a tendency towards big splashes of black that turned out muddy. Fortunately, she's figured out how to make the backgrounds look better now.
(Inside cover splash page - Hijikata, Souji and the courtesan.)
The full title is "Hinata no Ookami - Shinsengumi Kidan", or "The Wolf in the Sun - A Shinsengumi Romance Tale". When the American Black Ships arrived in Yokohama and forced Japan to open its ports to international trade, it resulted in a major split in the political forces within the country. The two main figurehead leaders were the Emperor and the Shogun. When the Tokugawa shogunate attained power in the 1600's, it relegated the Emperor to strictly a spiritual leadership role. Initially, the reins of power were in the hands of the Shogun, but after a few generations of inbreeding and inept governance, actual power fell to the Shogun's advisers, referred to as the Bakufu. By the 1800's, the Bakufu had also become weak and corrupt. The Bakufu's decision to capitulate to Commodore Perry was seen as both a sign of this weakness, and as an opportunity to overthrown them. Two sides were formed, with the "Loyalists", including Ryouma Sakamoto and Saigo Takamori, working to return power to the Emperor, and Isami Kondo and Toshizo Hijikata forming the Shinsengumi with the intent of giving power back to the Shogun.
(Kondo demonstrates his sword skills.)
Hinata no Ookami revolves around the founding and ultimate downfall of the Shinsengumi. The first chapter has Hijikata encountering a courtesan, and ends with him introducing himself to the readers. From here, the story switches to about 1863, when the Shoganate formed the Roshigumi, made up of masterless samurai from a variety of sword schools in Edo (old Tokyo), and sent them to Kyoto (the capital of Japan at the time) to protect the Shogun from the Loyalists during his visit with the Emperor. The story follows Hijikata on his journey from Edo to Kyoto, his encounters with the leaders Kiyokawa and Kamo Serizawa, and Kiyokawa's plan to stay in Kyoto to serve the Shogun when the Bakufu tried calling them back to Edo. Hijikata was a member of Isami Kondo's school, and as the manga tells it, Kondo was opposed to Kiyokawa's plans. Kondo also ended up getting into a sake drinking match against Kamo Serizawa, of the Serizawa sword school, and Hijikata saves Kondo by drinking the bucket of sake himself (and thus passing out ingloriously).
(Hijikata versus the bucket of sake. The bucket wins.)
Overall, Hinata no Ookami is a historical fictional retelling of one of Japan's key turning points, which ultimately led to the removal of the Shogunate, and the whole Meiji Restoration period. It's entertaining, but not necessarily 100% accurate. Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese history.