Legendary, dirty samurai gets makeover

Pin-up star Masaharu Fukuyama relishes role of Ryoma in NHK's 2010 Sunday-evening drama

by Edan Corkill

Singer and actor Masaharu Fukuyama hit the nail on the head when he said that Sakamoto Ryoma is the kind of person onto whom anyone can project themselves.

In the 142 years since the legendary samurai was assassinated in the middle of the Meiji Restoration, which he helped bring about, Ryoma has inspired at least seven television drama series, six novels, seven manga and five films — and those are just the works of semi-fiction.

What all this creative output has achieved is to gradually unshackle the man from his historical reality. Like Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Jesse James, the 47 Ronin and many others before him, a broadbrush version of Ryoma’s tale now exists in the popular consciousness, and anyone is free to add in the details as suits their purpose.

Hence we are at the point where an NHK producer, Kei Suzuki, can stand up and in all seriousness explain that his goal in producing yet another rendition of the Ryoma tale — NHK’s 2010 Sunday-evening (so-called taiga) drama, “Ryomaden” — is to “create a new type of Ryoma suited to the current age.”

It’s anyone’s guess how the famously brusque samurai would have reacted to being “upgraded” for the viewing pleasure of a listless post-noughties Japan. Considering the way he is reported to have berated and sent away two strangers who did no more than warn him that his life was in danger (one month before he was killed), I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to go back in time to deliver the news.

That said, if anything was going to ingratiate the new production with the great man it would be the fact that he will be played by Masaharu Fukuyama, who for most of the last decade has been named one of Japan’s favorite males in an annual ranking by magazine An An.

The casting of the 40-year-old pin-up is at the core of producer Suzuki’s attempt to reinvent Ryoma for 2010.

To date, the revolutionary’s image has been defined by his documented habit of wearing shabby, dirty clothes, and his tendency for vulgarity. During one meeting, in 1867, when he was trying to gain the backing of his native domain of Tosa (present day Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku) for his militialike Kaientai (auxiliary navy), Ryoma is said to have announced that his participation in the discussion was simply to “oversee (the work of his staff negotiators) and maybe pick my nose.”

It is understandable, then, that most commentators expressed surprise when the clean-cut singer/actor was offered the gig.

“I wondered why they chose me,” Fukuyama admitted at a news conference in November. “I had this image of Ryoma as a very rough-hewn guy, and I thought my image was different to that.”

Producer Suzuki explained that, “This time, it’s a cheerful, down-to-earth Ryoma that we wanted to depict,” suggesting that this would be easier for today’s viewers to identify with — at least at the outset. As the series progressed, he continued, Fukuyama’s clean image would be considerably “roughened up.”

Sakamoto Ryoma was born in 1836 in the lower of two classes of samurai in the Tosa domain. He was thus privileged enough to gain an education — and so learn about the West’s naval prowess and its fledgling democratic institutions — and he was also low enough within the Tosa hierarchy to experience firsthand the humiliation of being downtrodden.

In 1862 he abandoned his home domain (an illegal act) and headed to Edo to join a group of men who, convinced that a navy was the first step to modernizing Japan, were building a seaborne force for the Tokugawa shogunate, the government of the day.

“Ryoma set out from the countryside and headed to Edo to try to make a difference,” explained Fukuyama. The singer said that he feels affinity for Ryoma on this point because he too had left his native town of Nagasaki in order to make it big in the capital.

“Like Ryoma, I just believed that everything would work out when I got to Tokyo,” said Fukuyama, who arrived in the metropolis in 1987.

Fukuyama’s optimism paid off, and it was after just one year of part-time work at a lumber yard that he got his first break: an acting gig in talent agency Amuse’s “movie audition” series for undiscovered actors. In 1992 he had his first Top 10 single, “Good Night,” and by June this year he had clocked up his tenth No. 1 on the Japanese charts, the single, “Keshin.”

Fukuyama said he also relates to the samurai in that they both grew up near the ocean. “I imagine Ryoma grew up looking at the sea every day,” he said. “I did the same. I think that environment naturally fosters a curiosity for what exists out in the wide world.”

Unlike Fukuyama, whose countless overseas jaunts have included reporting gigs at the Sydney and Athens Olympics, Ryoma was killed before he could realize his dream of traveling beyond Japan’s shores.

For a country-born samurai, however, Ryoma did become an astoundingly shrewd navigator of late-Edo Period politics.

If one trait characterizes the Ryoma legend it was a cunning pragmatism. Sure he joined the shogun’s navy, but that was simply to gain knowledge of what at the time was the key form of military power. A 20th-century Ryoma probably would have done a PhD in nuclear physics.

What Ryoma had in mind all along was not the defense of the shogun, but its destruction. He wanted to scrap the system of feudal domains, replace it with a national government at least partly elected by the people, build up Japan’s strength through international trade and then compete on an even footing with Western powers.

If that sounds like what Japan did in the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and through the succeeding Meiji Era, then it’s no coincidence. Ryoma more or less made it happen.

Just one of Ryoma’s many famed tactical successes, which will feature prominently in the course of the 48-episode NHK drama, was to orchestrate a coalition between the outlying but powerful domains of Choshu and Satsuma, in Japan’s west. This he did by highlighting their shared distaste for the shogun’s government and their love for the Emperor. He quickly counteracted Choshu’s long-held distrust of Satsuma by brokering the delivery of new, fast-loading European rifles from the latter to the former.

But gun-running was just one of many skills the multitalented Ryoma drew upon to realize his plan.

Fukuyama says Ryoma’s greatest asset was his willingness to try anything.

“I initially had this idea of him as a bulldozer, a man with a one-track mind who would barnstorm through whatever obstacles got in his way,” Fukuyama said. “But, in fact, he was a sponge. He absorbed everything and then extracted only the very best ideas.”

This is the lesson the singer says he hopes to take from this yearlong acting assignment. “When I’m busy or I’m working a lot, I have a tendency not to listen to people,” Fukuyama admitted. “Ryoma has taught me that learning to absorb everything and having a healthy curiosity is important.”

Producer Suzuki’s objective is more Ryoma-esque in scope.

“The lesson to learn from Sakamoto Ryoma is that anyone — even a nobody from the country — can actually change the course of history,” he said. “There are a lot of things about Japan today that also seem unchangeable. I hope this new Ryoma will demonstrate that they can in fact be changed.”

Commencing Jan. 3 on NHK-G, “Ryomaden” will run for 48 episodes airing each Sunday evening from 8 p.m.

Prime yourself for TV epic by reading about Ryoma in English

Most Japanese know the story of Sakamoto Ryoma. If you’re new to the tale, then don’t let yourself be outdone! Prepping with any of the following will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the NHK drama.

Marius B. Jansen, “Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration” (423 pp; Columbia University Press, 1995)

Classic nonfiction account of the Meiji Restoration and Ryoma’s role.

Romulus Hillsborough, “Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai” (614 pp; Ridgeback Press, 1999)

A daunting prospect at over 600 pages, but this literary biography is a page-turner. At the conclusion you wish history didn’t ordain the protagonist’s bloody demise.

Romulus Hillsborough, “Eigo de Yomu Sakamoto Ryoma” (“Reading Sakamoto Ryoma in English”; Vol 1 and Vol 2: The Japan Times, 2009)

For students of English wishing to gain an international perspective on the Ryoma tale.


The Japan Times has five sets of the two-volume “Eigo de Yomu Sakamoto Ryoma” to give away to readers.

To apply, use the form available at

The deadline is Dec. 29. For further information call (03) 3452-3599.