Japanese can roughly be split into two camps: those equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of history and those who have only a vague idea of who the samurai were or that a Shogun once lived in what is now the Imperial Palace. The history geeks on one side and those who couldn’t care less on the other.
Back in the 20th century, Japanese jidaigeki (samurai period dramas) targeted the former, particularly those middle-aged and older individuals still steeped in the traditions and values of a bygone and terribly insular era. To the historically unenthusiastic, jidaigeki came off as gloomy and creepy. These period dramas depicted a world where women were slaves, children were miserable and everyone went around with preposterous hairstyles. Not surprisingly, jidaigeki was positioned on the fringes of the mainstream entertainment market. Audience ratings for NHK’s epic taiga period dramas — widely acknowledged as the last word in credible-but-watchable jidaigeki — dropped from a 39.7 percent high in 1987 to a 12 percent all-time low in 2015.
But Japan’s weird and isolated history may be able to reach new audiences as long as jidaigeki’s self-seriousness stays in the background and the fun factor is pushed to the forefront. The genre sells, and it could well become the newest facet of “Cool Japan.”
A good chunk of those now embracing period dramas are the passionately committed rekijo (history-loving women), who occasionally dress as their favorite warlords or even their favorite battleships from 20th-century wars. Such a phenomenon would have been unthinkable in the early 2000s, a time when many Japanese were still embarrassed or uncomfortable about their history, particularly the Edo Period (1603-1868) and Showa Era (1926-1989). Both are crammed with inconvenient incidents of manipulative macho brutality and incredible discrimination against women.
But NHK’s 2011 taiga drama series, “Ryomaden,” changed the jidaigeki landscape. Featuring the handsome Masaharu Fukuyama as 19th-century samurai Sakamoto Ryoma, “Ryomaden” showed Japan struggling as it severed ties with its samurai heritage and opened up the country to foreigners. “Ryomaden” also featured Western actors such as Tim Wellard, in the role of Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant who played a crucial role in the industrialization of Japan.
In the series, Ryoma was a selfless and open-minded gentleman — everything a samurai wasn’t supposed to be. Here was a historical figure the Japanese could get behind and identify with. And the drama’s portrayal of women wasn’t bad either, showing how a few wielded real power by doing business with foreigners.
Having said that, jidaigeki remains almost exclusively the domain of Japanese nationals, mainly because there are few translated episodes (though NHK exports a few of their taiga dramas overseas), and a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese history is necessary to enjoy it. But give jidaigeki another couple of years and maybe even that will change.
“Nobunaga Concerto” (“Nobunaga Kyosokyoku”) now playing in theaters across Japan, is a case in point. Starring such exalted stars as Shun Oguri, Osamu Mukai and Kiko Mizuhara, the movie was a popular Fuji TV series — based on a best-selling manga series by Ayumi Ishii (3.5 million copies sold and counting) — before being adapted for the big screen.
“Nobunaga Concerto” turns the legendary and macho Oda Nobunaga — one of Japan’s most powerful and dangerous 16th-century warlords — right on his head. Long viewed as the epitome of Japanese male ambition, full of schemes and violence, Nobunaga (Oguri) is shown here as frail and insecure, burdened by the responsibilities of being head of his clan.
One day, he happens upon a modern Japanese teenager, Saburo (Oguri in a double role), inexplicably transported to the 1570s. High schooler Saburo never cracked open his textbooks and only has the faintest notion of who this warlord is. But Nobunaga, seeing a healthy young man from the future who happens to look just like him, makes a proposal: They will switch places and the kid can helm his clan. Nobunaga gives himself the name Akechi Mitsuhide and becomes a low-ranking samurai, freeing himself from the pressures of unifying the nation and all the other pain-in-the-backside tasks on his long to-do list.
If Saburo had been the studious type, he would have known that the real-life Mitsuhide betrayed Nobunaga in Kyoto on the night of June 21, 1582, when he set fire to Honnoji Temple, where Nobunaga had temporarily set up digs. Mitsuhide’s sudden act of treason changed the course of Japanese history. Nobunaga fought off Mitsuhide’s forces as well as he could, but ultimately committed seppuku. As soon as the news was out that Japan’s most terrifying warlord was dead, second-in-command Toyotomi Hideyoshi seized power. Within two weeks, Mitsuhide was killed.
“Nobunaga Concerto” is largely a story of Saburo’s efforts to keep history intact and preserve the Nobunaga legend. Once Saburo dips into the history book stashed in his backpack, he finally learns that real-life Nobunaga built Azuchijo — Japan’s most beautiful castle — consorted with foreigners, permitted Christianity and even dressed in Western threads. He was also the hottest warmonger on the map, everyone wanted to sleep with him, and his official wife, Kicho (played by Ko Shibasaki), adored him.
Saburo has a heck of a good time getting to be Nobunaga. The ending, though, is tinged with sadness — the stamp of a classic jidaigeki tale.
“Nobunaga Concerto” beat “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on opening weekend, racking up over ¥616 million at the box office. The story ties in with NHK’s taiga drama of 2016, “Sanada Maru,” written and directed by hitmaker Koki Mitani. “Sanada Maru” is similar in tone to “Nobunaga Concerto”: irreverent and funny and ready to sacrifice history on the altar of palatable entertainment.
One thing’s for sure: We’ve had it with the suffering-and-endurance side of Japanese history. It’s up to the new wave of jidaigeki to show us something different.