Late Edo, Japan. The time of the Shogunate. In the 1840s, pro-imperialistic political currents flourish in the shadows, plots about overthrowing the Shogun and giving power to the Emperor being heard in almost every back-alley tavern. Tensions rise among the clans loyal to each side, the stench of impending bloodshed growing ever stronger.
This was the time Okita Souji was born in, in the night of solar eclipse 1842. Named Okita Sōjirō Fujiwara no Harumasa at birth, he was born into an old samurai family from Edo (today's Tokyo), as the third child, and the very first son to Okita Katsujiro, one of many in their family line to serve the Tokugawa Shogunate. Souji's parents, however, both died by the age of 1845, leaving him and his sister Kin (9) in the care of the eldest girl Mitsu, aged 12 at the time.
The three struggled together since their earliest days, making what they could of their lives since they were all so young. By the time Okita turned 8, it has probably become clear to Mitsu that she could hardly raise a boy properly, which ended up with her taking him to a local dojo, Shieikan, to a company of men who would be able to give him decent education and training to no expense they could not afford anyway.
The head of Shieikan dojo at the time was Isami Kondo, a young man in his twenties who was very passionate about the Shogunate, nationalism, and honor of the Samurai in general, and who was adopted into the dojo owner's family as a worthy successor. Handing over the boy into the guardianship of Kondo-san, Okita Mitsu went back to keeping her household, getting married not long after.
Souji, on the other hand, quickly grasped the things taught to him in the dojo. He has soon proven to possess a nonpareil talent with either bokken, shinai or katana. Not long has passed, and he was being sent as a teacher to homes all around the area of river Tama, to give lessons for the Shieikan. There is even a story that he defeated the swordfighting instructor of the Shirakawa clan aged 12. Okita Souji was an all-around prodigy, light-tempered and endlessly cheerful off duty, and ruthlessly serious as a teacher or as an opponent.
In the dojo, his biggest friend and support has been Kondo Isami himself, who was always there as a, perhaps figure of both elder brother and father for Souji. Another very important person in his life was a young medicine peddler who stopped by Shieikan often, Hijikata Toshizo - a village boy who dreamed of becoming samurai - just as everyone in the dojo did. Mind you, no man in the Shieikan was a samurai by blood or legacy, but a mere peasant learning to hold a sword. Such was the need of the people in those stirring times.
Closing to the age of 18, Souji has achieved the highest rank in the fighting style Shieikan dojo taught - he became a master of the Tennen Rishin-ryū style, and the head coach of the dojo only a year after. And just in time he completed his training...
In the year 1854, the USA forced Japan's Shogunate into opening their shores to the West by threatening with a military conflict, leaving them little to no choice. The imperial extremists understood this act as an act of betrayal to the country, forming numerous clan alliances against the Bakufu (the Shogunate), most prominent one being the Choshu-Satsuma clan alliance - with the goal to return the Emperor to the full power over Japan. At this point, desperate Shogun called upon all the remaining loyal forces thorought Japan, samurai or not. Men of Shieikan saw this as an opportunity to prove themselves as true, loyal warriors to the Bakufu. And so, many of Edo dojos grouped into a single unit - the Roshigumi (the ronin squad), and marched to the capital of Kyoto. As they arrived and regrouped many times over under the orders of Shogun, they eventually formed the Shinsengumi - or "the new squad", with Kondo as the chief, Hijikata as the vice-commander, and Okita as the head of the First Shinsengumi Unit, one of many who patrolled the streets of Kyoto, safeguarding the Shogun's city. They were somewhat of a special police squad, both feared of and loved by the people, depending on whose side they were on.
Many an incident they contained, supressed and survived during their years of service as the Shinsengumi. Perhaps the most famous one was the Ikeda Inn incident in 1864, a night raid on an inn in the center of Kyoto towards which all the intel on an enemy base led - thus neutralizing the imperialists' plan to burn Kyoto to the ground. During this incident, Okita Souji collapsed due to unknown reasons, for the first time.
The Shinsengumi was a unit of strict ideologies, high honor, and cruel codes. Hijikata himself made a 10-rule code all the members should abide to, and in which inobedience ordered seppuku with no options for redemption. This earned the man a title 'Demon vice-commander'. Second vice commander of the Shinsengumi and a close friend of Okita's, Yamanami Keisuke was convicted to seppuku because of desertion, and with Okita as his second, no less.
The colors of Shinsengumi were very strange for the time - sky blue overcoats with white triangles depicting white mountains of Japan against the blue sky, and a flag with a single symbol on it - 誠 (makoto), sincerity, or truth. Red and white variations of crests and symbols were known to exist for the battle occasions.
Even though the codes and regulations provided strict discipline and behavior in the squad, it is recorded in history that all of the members were like brothers, no less, united under a single ideal of honor and glory.
As the civil war raged on in Japan, The Shinsengumi lived through many battles, running back and forth from Kyoto to Edo, all the way until the Shogun's peaceful surrender in 1867. The imperialists were the ones to use foreign help in the form of firearms and western clothes, rendering steel, swords and honor of the Bakufu forces practically useless. Kondou Isami was captured and executed as a petty thief by the imperialists, without as much as an opportunity for seppuku.
The remainder of the pro-shogunate forces would not surrender after all the blows they endured. They began falling back to the north of the Honshu island, taking what was left of their hopes with them. At this point, it has become clear that Okita has contracted tuberculosis, and was unable to move with the rest of the forces. What's more, he has returned home to Edo, to a secluded house where his elder sister Mitsu brought him meals and medication on a daily basis.
It is said that Okita kept his cheerfulness and high spirits throughought different stages of his disease, to the very end having a smile on his face. In his last days, he often reported seeing an elusive black cat in his back yard, never being able to see it closely or pet it, saying how it haunted him as his lost friend Yamanami. Once, he gathered all of his strength to chase after the cat, fell, and never stood again.
Okita Souji, the best swordsman of Bakumatsu, died on July 19th, 1868, aged 26.
One by one, Shinsengumi captains fell, or ran into hiding to little success. The last surviving man fighting in the name of Japan and the Shinsengumi was Hijikata Toshizo, who fled to Hokkaido and there established the first Japanese republic, Ezo. He died when the imperialists came to claim the island, in the battle of Hakodate, writing his one last, "death poem";
"Though my body may decay on the Island of Ezo,
My spirit guards my lords in the East."
So ended the Shinsengumi, and the greatest dream of men who wanted to play samurai.
Phew, that was a history lesson.
Now, about the actual cosplay of mine, since you now know about the background of the character!! This depiction of Souji comes from an otome game (it's a dating sim game, yes) Hakuouki. Hakuouki has many episodes which derived from many different periods of time Shinsengumi went through - firstly, as they were, peasant samurai fighting for their dreams (Hakuouki: Shinsengumi Kitan), secondly, when they attempted to counter the westernization by adapting themselves by cutting away their hairs and changing clothes (Hakuouki: Hekketsuroku), and finally, the version I cosplayed, the one which glorified their Shinsengumi origins until the end of their very lives, accompanied with appropriate designs (Hakuouki: Bakumatsu Musouroku), all of them magnificently illustrated by Kazuki Yone, an amazing artist.
My first call was to do the first version, with the red kimono and green hakama. However, when i met up with the girls - Ferasha and Cherry, we agreed to do the fanciest version instead (even though I'm bound to do the first and the second one too!!).
This costume was... somewhat of a nuisance. I've been using three different sorts of faux leather on it, and each made different problems for the sewing machine. I ended up sewing all the red leather motives with my bare hands, I was that desperate, and I was also running short on time for sewing, so I just concluded I won't repair my machine on time and yoloed the leather by hand. That's me. Ferasha and Cherry hopped in with preparing my headband and almost-geta-shoes (flip flops) for Chibicon 2016, on which Ferasha and I had a panel on Shinsengumi.
The tales of the Shinsengumi have, in truth, been told many times over in the popular culture, and this is perhaps a sole case when losers and the, historically, bad guys - have been so gloriously depicted many times over, and with such compassion. I cannot simply name all of the anime and mangas whose stories are revolving around these guys. Not that I mind, truly - on the contrary, I'm such a big fan of anything about them that I find it hard to explain (and no matter how dumb, true). For instance, here are Hijikata and Okita, as depicted in Hakuouki series, Peacemaker Kurogane, Shinsengumi Mokuhiroku Wasurenagusa, Gintama and Bakumatsu Rock. These are just a few franchises which made their take on Shinsengumi...
Now, why am I only showing you Okita and Hijikata, you may ask? Well, I happen to have a soft spot for this... homoerotic ship of characters, in any franchise there is. c:
Actually, Ferasha and I somehow started our friendship over chatter about HijiOki...
Nothing about this couple is historically confirmed, but there's certainly a suspicious dose of coincidence between those two.
One of the most popular ones is that Hijikata's death poem, "Though my body may decay on the Island of Ezo, My spirit guards my lords in the East", is not about the loyalty to the Shogun at all, but about the mourning of Okita's passing in such a sad, untimely manner, so far away from him.
And, as an appropriate response, one of the japanese books I dug out from Amazon had this very interesting theory that this was actually a letter to Souji, just before he would die.
Same piece of literature reports Souji's answer to be a poem about the confrontation of reality, and the shattering of their ideals, their dreams, and anything that might have existed between the two of them:
"Without a stir, it would fall into darkness,
Flower and water..."
Okay... I know it's no time for tears, but I'd always shed a few for these people.
Oh, and not to forget one with the team. This one is so obviously edited into a happy and peaceful surrounding. Believe me, Shinsengumi saw none in their time.