Heian Period ‘Godfather’ brought to life on NHK

Kenichi Matsuyama takes title role in 'Taira no Kiyomori' drama

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Marlon Brando’s title character in the 1972 film “The Godfather” might not be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of 12th century warlord Taira no Kiyomori, but the comparison has proven particularly effective for public broadcaster NHK, which will air a yearlong Sunday-evening drama about the famous samurai next year.

NHK executive director Takeshi Shibata first announced the new drama, “Taira no Kiyomori,” in October 2010. At the time, he didn’t know who would play the lead role, but he knew what he wanted from the show: “an energetic Heian Period (794-1185) version of ‘The Godfather.’ “

It was likely little more than a throwaway line, but it reverberated in unexpected quarters. Included as a quote in a short news item on an Internet site, the comparison grabbed the attention of young actor Kenichi Matsuyama, who, like most conscientious Japanese at the time, was shaking his head in disbelief at the latest national pension scandal, which was then just coming to light.

“I had just read about how some people who had already died were still being paid pensions, and that some people weren’t even aware that their parents had died,” the now 26-year-old Matsuyama explained at a recent NHK press conference. “I was surprised at just how frayed the connections between family and friends had become in society,” he said.

Not that the tale of the Taira clan — or the Corleone family, for that matter — has much to do with pensions. What it does have to do with is the importance of strong family bonds — something that Matsuyama thought contemporary Japanese society needed to be reminded of. He asked his staff to contact NHK to get some information about the project.

“I was just interested in being involved. I didn’t expect that they’d offer me the lead role,” Matsuyama said. Maybe not, but in the five years previous, the modest Matsuyama had starred in no less than 15 films, including the “Death Note” series and an adaptation of novelist Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood,” and emerged as one of the most popular actors of his generation. Of course they offered him the role.

Taira no Kiyomori (or Kiyomori of the Taira), is one of the best known people in Japanese history, and aspects of his life have been depicted in every form of popular entertainment from novels and painted scrolls to films and manga.

The most famous is the 14th century epic poem “Heike Monogatari,” which has been translated into English several times, usually as “The Tale of Heike.” Up to 500 pages in length, the English translation is considered along with the “Tale of Genji” as one of Japan’s classics of literature.

Kiyomori’s story inevitably begins with the mystery surrounding his birth. What’s clear from historical records is that he was born in 1118 in an area that is now part of Mie Prefecture and raised as the son of the Taira samurai Tadamori. What’s not so clear is by whom he was actually conceived.

For the new NHK drama, scriptwriter Yuki Fujimoto has adopted one of the most common interpretations, which is that Kiyomori was the son of the retired Emperor Shirakawa (Shiro Ito) and a young, unnamed dancer (Kazue Fukiishi) who had been raised by one of Shirakawa’s mistresses, Gion no Nyogo (Seiko Matsuda). Through a tragic twist of fate, the dancer’s baby ends up in the care of Tadamori (Kiichi Nakai), and, after he is commanded by the emperor to wed Gion no Nyogo, she becomes Kiyomori’s defacto mother.

From there, the action jumps to depictions of the young Kiyomori’s rough-and-tumble upbringing — racing horses against the young Yoshitomo of the Minamoto clan, against whom he will ultimately develop a deadly rivalry; and battling alongside his father against pirates in the Seto Inland Sea.

Tadamori and Kiyomori’s success against those pirates wins them favor with the emperor and this sets off the engine of the Taira narrative: that of the rise in political status and power of the family, first under the stewardship of Tadamori and then Kiyomori.

Executive director Shibata has written that he is keen to depict the world of the late Heian Period with a fair degree of realism. “I didn’t want it to be like the world you see in screen paintings, a world of formal beauty. I wanted it to be real and energetic,” he explains.

That approach is obvious in the first of the drama’s 50 episodes, which was shown to members of the press recently. Rowdy arguments animate the markets, samurai and soldiers snarl fiercely at one another, rain pours and dust hangs in the air like permanent filter on the camera lens. Stills from later episodes reveal that when the meddlesome pirates appear, they are a filthy bunch, but even then they are only slightly better than the perennially mud-caked Kiyomori and his roughhewn warrior clan.

Matsuyama himself seems to enjoy the adventurous nature of many of the shoots. Asked if he found any of it physically or mentally trying, he appeared surprised at the question: “I’m still young, so it’s fine. It’s always mostly men on the set, so we are always up for a challenge,” he said.

Mentally, however, he acknowledged that he has found depicting Kiyomori tough, especially where death is involved. “A lot of people died young back then, and I think the idea of having to part with people is one of the key themes in Kiyomori’s life,” Matsuyama said.

Asked what kind of person Kiyomori was, Matsuyama recalled a famous scene from the samurai’s life. In 1147, the militant monks of Mt. Hiei, north of Kyoto, are angry that the government is trying to reclaim some of the land they have been using.

“All these monks march into Kyoto in a kind of rally, demanding change. They have a portable shrine with them. Because everyone was superstitious back then, everyone is petrified of the shrine. So the monks put the shrine in the middle of the road and then leave it there and say, ‘If you want us to move it then you have to agree to our demands,’ ” Matsuyama explained.

Kiyomori ends up openly defying the monks, and hence the gods, in a famous scene that usually involves him shooting an arrow directly at the shrine. Matsuyama didn’t go into details of how the scene will play out in the new NHK version, but he noted the way Kiyomori is not afraid to challenge accepted wisdoms.

“He is true to his own heart. And he is not afraid to try to change things if he thinks it will lead to improvements,” Matsuyama said.

It is this same aspect of Kiyomori’s personality that Matsuyama hopes the present-day audience will be able to learn from.

“People these days don’t seem to really live as they like,” Matsuyama said. “They tend to be influenced by other peoples’ opinions. Like, if people are told that this or that program is the most popular, then all of a sudden they start thinking that that program is their own favorite. People seem happy for their lives to be bent to fit the norms.”

In contrast, Matsuyama continued, Kiyomori was not bound by customs and he resisted any constraints on his own position in society. “He refuses to be the emperor’s guard dog,” Matsuyama said.

Fans of the actor will recognize similarities there with his own personality. In his appearances on TV variety shows, Matsuyama only ever makes half-hearted efforts to hide his native Aomori Prefecture-dialect and some fans are so taken by his disarmingly honest persona that they have edited and uploaded to video-sharing website YouTube compilations of moments during his TV appearances when his country-boy character shines through.

The impression of Matsuyama being endearingly straight-forward and honest was more or less confirmed in the minds of the nation’s young women when he was snapped up earlier this year by Japan’s most eligible bachelorette, Koyuki, the 35-year-old actress who not even Tom Cruise was able to seduce on screen in “The Last Samurai.” Koyuki is now pregnant with their first child.

Matsuyama’s recent nest-building would suggest that he needs no help in understanding the value of family ties. Nevertheless, Kiyomori will provide a useful template — at least until about the last two decades of his life. The samurai successfully steered his family to a position of authority in Kyoto that none of his kind had ever known before, but then the power got to his head.

Kiyomori eventually gave one too many of his relatives plum government jobs, thereby making enemies not just of the monks and the emperor but the other samurai families too.

It’s the later that was his biggest problem, and thus the yearlong NHK drama will climax in the famed Genpei War, when the Taira family must face the wrath of the Minamoto — a rivalry better known in English by the alternative readings of those two family names’ Chinese characters: Heike versus Genji.

NHK’s 2012 taiga drama “Taira no Kiyomori” will air on NHK-G each Sunday evening from 8 p.m. commencing Jan. 8.

Kiyomori of the Taira in popular culture

Keeping track of the complex political machinations and myriad characters that inevitably feature in NHK’s yearlong period dramas can be tough. But with Taira Kiyomori there is a large variety of English language literature that will help you get the most from the show. Here is a small selection:

Helen Craig McCullough, “The Tale of the Heike.” Stanford: Stanford University Press. (1988). A recent English translation of the original story.

Eiji Yoshikawa, “The Heike Story” (translated by Fuki Wooyenaka Uramatsu), Tuttle (1956). An English translation of historical novelist Yoshikawa’s modern-language version of the story.

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Tales of the Heike Clan” (1955). The first of a three-film series based on Yoshikawa’s novel. Only the first part, which covers Kiyomori’s formative years, was made by the master-director Mizoguchi.

Tezuka Osamu, “Phoenix: Civil War” (originally published in Japanese in 1978-’80; published in English in 2006). Manga legend Osamu used the Genpei War as the basis for the “Civil War” volume in his “Phoenix” series.