Movie: Recent weeks have seen a lot of boxed sets released for anime series and this is a trend I can live happily with. Banking on the thought that a lot of people would buy a complete season or series that left the individual (and far more costly) volumes languishing on the shelves of stores, companies such as ADV Films have come to the realization that the so-called TV on DVD market is huge but only as sets. The downside is that the companies also realize that pissing off their loyal buyers of the initially released single volumes could lead to many hard feelings so they truncate the extras in the sets to partially compensate for the tremendous difference in pricing. Interestingly enough, there is a very different dynamic to watching a series over a handful of episodes at a time and there have been plenty of times, such as with Kaleido Star, that the initial volume left me bored to tears while watching the slowly developing story was far more interesting to me as a set. Such was the case with the subject of today's review of Peace Maker: Complete Series.
While most of you are familiar the American Civil War that took place in the mid 1800's, it is likely that you have less exposure to similar wars (typically of a smaller scale) that took place elsewhere around the globe. One of the most war based societies ever was actively engaging in a civil war around the same time. The country in question was, of course, Japan. From factions that would attempt to align with outsiders to those loyal to the Sun God sitting on the throne in Kyoto (modern day Tokyo) and many in between, the country seemed to be always fighting as various warlords attempted to gain dominance, with shifting alliances and desires all making the country a volatile place to live. The people were divided into a limited number of classes, with the nobles rising from their birthright as supported by the vaunted samurai warriors we all love watching in the movie so much. The majority of the country were peasants whose lives were beneath the contempt of the ruling classes, with their lot in life tending to growing rice or otherwise being useful as they worked to the bone.
The premise of Peace Maker: Complete Series was initially centered on a youthful brat named Tetsunosuke Ichimura or Tetsu for short. Along with his brother, he attempts to join an elite warrior group that are the primary protectors of the of the country's capital city. His reasoning is that he wants to avenge the death of his parents who were slain by a rival faction and it would make sense to join those who also hold the group as their enemy. His shortness in stature and limited fighting ability greatly hamper his efforts to join the group although his sheer will and determination eventually cause them to offer him a position as a page (essentially an errand boy).
As time progresses, the trainers and leadership of the group point out to Tetsu that choosing their life means he will become a demon and have to renounce his humanity in order to survive the trials and tribulations of the path he "thinks" he wants to take. Youthful arrogance and inexperience aside, they see that he has something special, even if it isn't what he himself recognizes, so they keep him on board even as he seems to go out of his way to irritate the entire training compound (regularly at that). As the series progresses, Tetsu becomes somewhat less the focus of the show as the other main characters face their own fates, from the betrayal of friends and allies to the dangers of their primary mission. They are required to renounce almost everything and follow a set of strict guidelines where the sole punishment is death, making the stakes all the higher. Without ruining the story, I can't say much more than that but believe me, the pacing was great here and I'm glad I had the entire set to review at once because this was one of those times when I might've grown impatient had I been forced to rely on my first impression of the show. Here's what the original covers said about the seven volumes, in order of release:
"For 15-year-old Tetsunosuke Ichimura, childhood innocence has given way to a blinding thirst for revenge. Haunted by the vicious slaying of his parents, Tetsu decides to seek out the Shinsengumi, an elite group of swordsmen sworn to protect the capital. The Shinsengumi are engaged in a brutal conflict with the Choshu rebels, the same ruthless killers who murdered Tetsu's parents. In the name of justice and against the will of his older brother Tetsu desperately hopes to join the Shinsengumi.
But an incident late one night forces him to face reality. The Shinsengumi show themselves capable of the same brutality as his parents' murderers. Wading through a sea of espionage, intrigue, and flowing blood, the young boy must decide whether to shed his humanity and become a demon of the Shinsengumi, or to relinquish his hatred and become a Peacemaker in the spirit of his father. Revenge is sweet, but is it worth losing your soul?
To kill or not to kill? That is the burning question for vengeful young Tetsunosuke Ichimura. Could he actually bring himself to take a life? On top of that, although he's been accepted into the tight-knit ranks of the Shinsengumi swordsmen (sort of), they still won't let him carry a sword. Things start to get ugly when a band of rebel ninjas shows up in Kyoto to kick some Shinsengumi butt! Is Tetsu any closer to finding the elusive strength he longs for? What's the real story behind the peculiar young girl he befriends? And will he ever take a sword in hand?
Strange winds are blowing through Kyoto. A boisterous man sporting a gun, a cowboy hat, and a vocabulary full of foreign phrases breezes into town. Meanwhile, rumors are afoot about a fallen lord, a powerful mystic and their chaotic game that could threaten the capital. But trouble also comes in other guises.
Seeing Tetsu falling farther into depression, Yamanami and Heisuke take it upon themselves to give the boy a vacation-and an education-that the young boy will not soon forget!
Impatience runs rampant through both the Shinsengumi and Choshu camps. Still, no wounds are as deadly as the ones we inflict on ourselves. Caught up in the painful memories of his past, Tetsu's hatred threatens to consume him as it grows stronger. At the same time, Susumu questions his worth in light of his failure on the enemy front.
A web of treachery awaits the men of the Shinsengumi. Spun by an Onmyou mystic in the charge of a fallen and unbalanced lord, it threatens to destroy the Shinsengumi altogether. At the same time, a man posing as Okita has begun cutting down Shogunate patrols, while a band of Choshu ronin make a brazen assault in broad daylight! But the Shinsengumi have their own web-weavers – and they send a spy straight into the heart of the Choshu clan. As the trap closes its jaws, who is hunter and who is prey?
Spurred on by an acute desire for justice, the Shinsengumi prepare to smoke out their enemies. But playing with fire can get out of hand, and pyromania sets in on both sides. The conflict reaches a fever pitch as hands all-too-eager for battle stoke the flames of war. But not everyone is prepared to fight. Deeds from the past paralyze Yamanami, and lingering memories send Tetsu into a catatonic fit. The question must be answered now: will he become a demon and run with wolves? Or will he choose a path of peace?
The time: July 8, 1864. The place: Ikedaya. In hushed tones, the Choshu rebels plot their most sinister undertaking yet: the burning of Kyoto. Outside, all is quiet. But suddenly, the doors fling open and the Shinsengumi announce themselves with a battle cry as they set upon the Choshu clansmen. Meanwhile, on the rooftops, Susumu squares off with his nemesis, the mysterious female ninja. But for Tetsu, the battle rages within. Away from the fighting, he struggles to come to grips with what he must and cannot do. Can he fulfill his promise to Saya? His vow to his parents? Whichever path he chooses, he can no longer dodge the question. With lightning precision, the swords of the Choshu and the Shinsengumi will clash in a spectacular battle! You won't want to miss a second of this gripping conclusion to Peacemaker!"
I really liked this show once I got into it but I don't think that would've been the case if I had to wait months between the releases of the original volumes (something I rail against in favor of season or series sets all the time). Collected on five DVDs, I only wish I had seen the extras from the original series that my pal John Sinnott got to watch when he reviewed the original releases but that was a small price to pay considering how much cheaper and compact this set was. I'm going to suggest this set as Recommended to anime fans in general but even more so to those who appreciate medieval Japan and samurai intrigue as it had plenty to offer in terms of replay value and depth. Here's a list of the episodes contained within the set but keep in mind that the slow evolution of the characters was a cut above the pack more often than not and individual episodes rarely stood out compared to the series as a whole:
1) Cherry Blossoms
12) Big Brother
21) Battle Array
Picture: Peace Maker: Complete Series was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in by director Tomohiro Hirata for airing on Japanese broadcast television. The subject matter limited the kinds of colors used in most episodes with white, black and blood red being the three dominant colors on display. I thought the detail was eye pleasing, the sharpness suitable to the type of show this was, and the technical quality of the animation presented as fitting in most ways. There were some minor limitations to the animation but none that bothered me or distracted from the storyline of the show. I saw no routine compression artifacts or video noise throughout the series but there were occasional visual flaws that nitpickers might fuss about (light shimmer, aliasing, and some pixels on very rare moments).
Sound: The audio was presented with the usual choices for a newer show in that it had the original 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track (with optional English subtitles) and the newly made dub by ADV Films that sported an improved 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track. The vocals in each offered up a different experience so I couldn't really claim one as being "better" than the other although a few of the dub cast sounded slightly off at times. The English language track did have better separation and dynamic range and ADV should be complimented for their sound engineering work done to the show as the music and special sound effects really drove the show at times.
Extras: As a value oriented boxed set, the extras were edited off of the original releases so there were none here. The five discs were placed in thinpak cases in a cardboard box but that's it.
Final Thoughts: Peace Maker: Complete Series offered up about ten hours of entertainment full of thrills, spills, and fighting action all punctuated by some very solid pacing and writing. The thematic concepts were handled well here and the original comic the series appeared in, Nanae Chrono, probably was limited compared to this one. I haven't seen ADV's Manga release of the series outside of a few minutes at a local store but the nuances of each supported the story a whole lot. The technical qualities of the DVD set were very decent and the value for me was better than average so give the show a look if this is the type of anime you enjoy.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk