There’s certainly not much flash to Meiji Gekken 1874. Both on the page and on the screen I would say it’s more prose than poetry. A workmanlike production of a workmanlike story, but working it is. At least for me. And the main reason, apart from very competent storytelling, is that it’s found an angle from which to view this comprehensively fictionalized setting we haven’t seen before. I don’t think you can make a Meiji samurai and solider anime that’s truly original any longer, but you can make one that feels fresh if you focus on the factions that haven’t already been portrayed ad nauseam.
In Meiji Gekken 1874 that’s the former rebels of Aizu, forced to the fringes of society with the rise of the Satsuma warrior elite. It’s the yakuza, who turn up in stuff like Rurouni Kenshin and Peace Maker but only on the fringes of the story. It’s the Chindai, the warrior garrisons which acted as a sort of uniformed yakuza gang cum terror squad for the government. And the police, always a presence in these stories but rarely the center of them as they are here.
Where that leaves Shuragami isn’t totally clear yet. He’s the one element that doesn’t fit into any of the historical boxes here, yet ironically the most conventional anime character in the cast. As for Shizuma he did wind up joining the police, partly due to Kawaji’s persistence but also because it provides the best chance to locate his fiancée. The police are pretty much constantly at war with the soldiers of the Chindai, who certainly come off as the bad guys here. The police don’t have much authority over them of course, and the ever-disdainful Osanai urges the rookie to give them a wide berth. But Shizuma is an idealist to the core, and turning a blind eye to bullying of the citizenry is not in his nature.
Having made enemies of one yakuza group (which has proceeded to defame him in order to save face) Shuragami turns to their rivals the Moriya to offer his hand. Initially rebuffed he destroys the entire rival gang as a peace offering (a rain of blood, indeed) and is welcomed aboard by the Moriya boss. Later he winds up fighting side by side (well, back to back) with Shizuma after the Chindai attack a local theater (both Shizuma and Osanai are theatre buffs). Shuragami is there because the same Chindai group attacked a Moriya labor or and stole his tobacco box, making he and Shizuma allies for the moment. I sense, however, that they’re destined to face each other as enemies eventually.
The injustice that pervades the era will be very familiar to fans of Rurouni Kenshin or any of the major Meiji series. Even here the Chindai basically get off Scot free (the ones Shuragami hasn’t killed, anyway) because there’s been a rebellion in Saga and all able-bodied men are needed to quell it. In times like this good and evil can be very hard to distinguish, but clearly Meiji Gekken 1874 is going to champion the cause of the lonely few who tilt at windmills. It’s a story with some potential and I’m interested to see where it goes.