Shinsengumi Imon Peacemaker covered a period up to the Shinsengumi's raid on the Ikeda-ya, or the height of the Shinsengumi's fame, and ended on a relatively high note. I say relatively, because the manner of the conflict that defines the characters in this series ensured everyone came out with a loss of some sort. I found the mental breakdown of certain characters as a result was wonderfully written. SIP makes use of heavily stylized violence that also manages to retain its grit. It's blood-drenched, yes, but it's not gory.
Peace Maker Kurogane covered the period after SIP, when the Shinsengumi were tearing themselves apart. Therefore, PMK, compared to SIP, is far more tense, and also far bloodier than its predecessor. Favourite characters murder each other, the younger characters grow up vicious and there's a civil war on the horizon. The growth of the younger characters was definitely interesting to watch. Neither SIP nor PMK was really into making feudal era Japan a happy place for kids, whatever their shounnen manga roots, and PMK is one of those series willing to be grim nearly to the point of sadism.
PMK was also never finished. Chrono Nanae, the author of both series, stated at the end of Volume 5 that PMK was going on hiatus. This was about two years ago, and she has since moved on to other titles. It ends on a pretty bad cliffhanger at that. My main gripe with PMK is that for about Volumes 3-5, time suddenly moves at a 100m dash. The writing suffers -- it's clear the mangaka was either trying to rush a resolution or was gradually losing interest in where the story was going. These would be the essential portions of the historical aspects of the story, which would've been nice to see more of, and also right in the middle of the massive spate of deaths that were leading to the Shinsengumi's end. Some of the characters appear far too changed in far too short a time. Some just change completely out of context. The main reason I'm wary of pursuing PMK though, is that even though I would love to see the way the characters I enjoyed in SIP met their terrible fates, there's a strong magic-based thread running through the historical one that irks me. Part of the entire charm of SIP was that it was a solid swordfighting series, without any pretensions of being something else. PMK loses itself in trying to use the magical element later on as instigators of the historical swordfighting elements in the plot. These issues of balancing both sides of the plot appeared to contribute to the writing problems I mentioned earlier. This was a real waste of at least one of the major characters, whose psychological trauma in SIP and resultant psychopathy in PMK would've been that much more malicious without the magic to explain things away. Perhaps, one thinks, this series was better left finished in SIP.
I should also mention that the art of SIP and PMK was the other reason I started reading all those years ago. Character design takes on a mix of generic yaoi-type uke/seme archetypes (which I'm going to suspect is part of the reason both series have such an avid female following...) and more recognizably shounnen manga faces. By this I mean there's a lot of square shoulders, pointy chins, swimming pool eyes and suspiciously good looking hair. I'm not saying I don't appreciate that the Shinsengumi was apparently a party of relatively pretty boys as much as the next person, but there are times in this series where I have looked at panels and found the super-shoulder pads thing a bit overdone. There is, however, an equitable contingent of short, not-too-great-looking, bratty and slightly annoying boy characters to help provide a mix, of which our intrepid hero is also a part of (had to be -- this is a shounnen, not a shounnen-ai, manga).
Expressions are vividly inked and varied, a real joy to look at -- characters are easily remembered by face. Chrono-sensei has an eye for detail that tells stories in the curve of a foot, the placement of a hand or even the fold of clothes. Battles are usually shown in full. There's no censorship or sudden cut-offs from a killing, which I appreciate. The action shots, again, are as gritty as they are stylish, not letting go of the fact the battles are bloody, but also not so gory this reader wasn't into staring into the lines for more of those gorgeous details, like the blood draping a sleeve attached to a still crimson sword. The angles, the way Chrono-sensei chooses to present each frame and where are beautiful. A fight between two shinobi really comes off as an acrobatic display, filled with the grace and style of watching the same on screen. A practice match in a dojo moves with swiftness and determination across the woodboard floors. There's a lot of fluid use of light and shadow to define space in a fight (like the flight of birds), which is particularly effective, again, during the nighttime fights of the shinobi, and also a lot of tight close-ups that lend a sense of claustrophobia to the swordfights.
The backgrounds are lush -- calligraphic leaves at the edge of a courtyard, with detailed floorboards, window panes and roof tiles. The attention to costumes and hair was very much appreciated on this reader's part. Part of my whole fascination with feudal-era swordfighting dramas has to do with the costumes, and it is always a pleasure to read an author who takes pride in detailing the wardrobe in which the story is told.
Still on the art, Fifay.Net has two very high-resolution scans of the first two volumes' covers here (click on the manga covers to see enlarged versions). The art here is indicative of the art inside the covers. It usually is that detailed. (Though the first volume would have you believe the protagonist is a little oni with lacquered nails...)
I've been able to find copies of Vol. 1-6 of Shinsengumi Imon Peacemaker (there is a newer release of the series by the Japanese publisher in only 5 volumes rather than 6 with covers more in line with PMK's), though finding Vol. 1-5 of PMK has been less fruitful. At least at prices that are not bad rather than somewhat disturbing. At most, I would probably be interested in Vol. 1-3 and 5 of PMK (Vol. 4 is interesting, though it's the lull in the storm). If anyone is reading this, and perhaps knows a good place to grab Vol. 1 and 4 of PMK (Japanese version), I appreciate the waving of hands.