Kaze Hikaru, vols. 1-21

Kaze Hikaru 19When her father and older brother are murdered by political rebels, fourteen-year-old Tominaga Sei vows vengeance. Taking the sword skills her brother taught her, she disguises herself as a boy named Kamiya Seizaburo and journeys to Kyoto where she joins the capital’s newly formed peacekeeping force, a ragtag bunch destined to become the legendary Shinsengumi.

Led by a tightly knit core of friends from the same country dojo, the Shinsengumi offers harsh discipline, grueling training, low pay, barely-existent hygiene, no privacy, and little appreciation from the public it serves as it routs out violent rebels who want to restore power to the emperor and continue Japan’s centuries-long isolationist policies. Living with so many sweaty, smelly, vulgar fellows dispels Sei’s romantic illusions of samurai, yet the men’s selfless bravery, kindness, and fierce loyalty to one another and the shogun make her proud to be one of them, so much so that she considers never going back to being a girl again—a plan that would be a lot easier to follow if she weren’t helplessly in love with the one man who knows her secret, her superior officer and the group’s deadliest swordsman, Okita Soji.

Kaze Hikaru deftly balances the heart-centric emotion and humor of shojo with the action and complex historical and political drama usually reserved for male-oriented titles. The result is an intelligent, funny, poignant, and patiently related tale rich with history and populated by a large cast of wonderful characters drawn from both life and imagination.

Sei is one of my absolute favorite female leads. She may be small and blush at the drop of a hat, but short-tempered, trouble-finding, boyishly adorable “Kamiya’s” colleagues rightfully trust “him” with their lives. Quick on her feet, skilled with her blade, and bound and determined to be a true bushi (a respected, honorable warrior), she kills without hesitation when duty demands it, but never loses her capacity for compassion. As she comes of age in a fragile social and political environment with little room for error and little tolerance for those who step out of their prescribed class and gender roles, Sei struggles to balance the part of her that loves Okita as a woman with the part determined to fight and die beside him as a man.

Complicated, confused Okita doesn’t make that struggle any easier. Although he capably teaches Sei and helps her maintain her secret, he’s often an overgrown child, teasing her as he would a little brother, playing with the neighbor kids, binging on sweets and then commenting on their curious effect on his bowels, and hanging on his beloved superiors like a devoted puppy. But Okita’s bushi instincts never sleep, and that carefree, childlike demeanor can evaporate in an instant. At first, Sei doesn’t know what to make of his incongruous behavior, but the closer she gets, the more she sees the profoundly awkward, vulnerable, and giving soul behind it and strives even harder to be strong enough to protect him.

Watanabe’s deceptively clean and simple linework provides a wealth of personality and historical detail. Her nuanced faces are almost cartoonlike in their basic, streamlined form and can take a few chapters to differentiate, but once you get to know and love them as Sei’s second family, you’ll have no trouble telling them apart (brief cast listings in each volume help). Watanabe uses her omake (creator’s note) to chat about her extensive research into the surprisingly fascinating intricacies of such things as calendars, hairstyles, clothing, architecture, swords, and how women of 19th century Japan dealt with their periods, all of which just adds to the enjoyment of the already deeply involving storytelling.

This ongoing series’ historically appropriate violence is neither bloodless nor gratuitous and the mildly strong language seems tame for the tumultuous times. Similarly, diverse sexualities are openly acknowledged but not graphically depicted, with the characters’ circumstances and the cultural mores of the era easily explaining the unselfconscious men’s bare bottoms, bawdy jokes, and enthusiastic visits to the pleasure quarters.

Kaze Hikaru‘s perfect, addictive mix of romance, humor, and historical/political drama is a winner (literally—the series won the 2003 Shogakukan Manga Award for shojo in Japan). Older teen and adult fans of other popular Shinsengumi tales (Gintama, Peace Maker/Peace Maker Kurogane, Hakuôki) will feel right at home here, as will sighing romantics, history lovers, and fans of swords and samurai stories in general.

Kaze Hikaru, vols. 1-21
by Taeko Watanabe
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421501895
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781421505817
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781421505824
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781421510170
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781421510187
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781421511634
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781421511641
Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781421515373
Vol. 9 ISBN: 9781421517346
Vol. 10 ISBN: 9781421517353
Vol. 11 ISBN: 9781421517360
Vol. 12 ISBN: 9781421524153
Vol. 13 ISBN: 9781421524160
Vol. 14 ISBN: 9781421524177
Vol. 15 ISBN: 9781421524184
Vol. 16 ISBN: 9781421528014
Vol. 17 ISBN: 9781421528021
Vol. 18 ISBN: 9781421528038
Vol. 19 ISBN: 9781421528045
Vol. 20 ISBN: 9781421535845
Vol. 21 ISBN: 9781421535852
Viz, 2006-2013 (ongoing)
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)