'Go' tackles Sengoku years from a female perspective

New yearlong NHK drama depicts the tumultous rise of the Tokugawa shogunate

It’s not surprising that NHK senior producer Yotaro Yashiki was pleased when he and his team came across a little-known princess named Go. Born in 1573, Go predates television by a good three centuries, but almost everything about her life suggests she was made for the medium, and, in particular, the Japanese national broadcaster’s annual yearlong Sunday evening taiga drama series.

“Go was directly related to each of the so-called three heroes of the Sengoku (warring states) period,” said Yashiki at a press conference last month, explaining why the princess was chosen as the subject for the 2011 taiga, titled “Go,” which begins Jan. 9. “She would have known Oda Nobunaga as ‘uncle,’ Toyotomi Hideyoshi as ‘brother’ and Tokugawa Ieyasu as ‘father.’ “

In other words, the princess’ tale offered near limitless dramatic potential. Those men are, of course, three of the most iconic figures in Japanese history. Contemporaries, but rulers in succession, they oversaw the gradual unification of hundreds of disparate fiefdoms into a single nation under the Tokugawa shogunate. “Go” represented the rare chance to tell all their tales — and the tale of a particularly tumultuous time — from the perspective of a woman.

A glance back at the recent history of NHK’s taiga dramas reveal why the feminine element is so important. Although seven of the last 10 taiga have been about famous men, it was 2008’s “Atsuhime,” starring Aoi Miyazaki as a 19th-century princess, Atsu, that was by far the most popular. That series averaged ratings of 24.5 for the year — far beyond the 18.7 achieved by the 2010 taiga, “Ryomaden,” starring Masaharu Fukuyama as the 19th-century samurai Sakamoto Ryoma. NHK’s desire to repeat its success of 2008 is further evidenced by its choice of scriptwriter. For “Go” it turned to Kumiko Tabuchi, who also penned “Atsuhime.”

Playing the part of Go is the gorgeous 24-year-old Juri Ueno. Best known for her depiction of the bright-eyed but slightly dim-witted pianist Megumi Noda in the manga-inspired comedy-drama series “Nodame Cantabile” (2006, 2008), Ueno has never attempted a period drama, nor anything approaching the commitment required by the yearlong NHK project.

“It’s really like nothing I’ve done before,” she told a press conference at NHK’s Shibuya Broadcasting Center in November. “I hope to enjoy myself where I can and be serious where I should. I am giving it all I’ve got.”

No one could doubt Ueno’s ability to enjoy herself. In “Nodame Cantabile,” she delighted viewers with the kind of lightening-fast transitions often required by manga-inspired comedy: livid anger to angelic smile to pouting harrumph, literally in seconds. Fans will be watching to see how she copes with the slower-paced acting required for a more mature drama — not to mention the dignified stoicism she will need to project in the face of the myriad trials that visited Go during her life.

The first episode of the series depicts the princess’s birth within a castle under siege. Her father, Azai Nagamasa, the lord of a small domain near Lake Biwa in central Japan, has fallen foul of the fast-rising and increasingly belligerent Nobunaga, who has sent a vassal to invade. The fact that Go’s mother, Ichi, is Nobunaga’s own sister matters little to the ruthless warrior. Azai’s forces ultimately succumb and Ichi is forced to throw herself, the newborn Go and her two older daughters, Hatsu and Chacha, at the mercy of her brother. And that’s just in the first episode.

Scriptwriter Tabuchi told a press conference, also in November, that “with stories like this, it is inevitable that you have to add in a lot of detail yourself — as the historical records are quite scant.”

Tabuchi’s key embellishment, which will underscore much of the drama throughout the year, is Go’s idolizing of her fearsome uncle Nobunaga, who is played by the strikingly good-looking Etsushi Toyokawa.

Although it was Nobunaga who was responsible for Go’s father’s death, Ueno explained, “She looks up to him. He’s so handsome and wears dazzling clothes. She only knew him when she was very young, but I think he influenced her a lot.”

The relationship serves several dramatic purposes, too. As Ueno explained, “The young Go tries to get close to Nobunaga, and eventually he opens up to her. She is always asking him to explain himself, and that means the audience will be able to learn a lot about him through her.”

As students of Japanese history will know, Nobunaga has a lot of explaining to do. In the course of bringing unity to the central regions around Kyoto in the late 1500s, he mercilessly crushed several recalcitrant Buddhist groups as well as leading families.

Nobunaga was eventually betrayed and died in 1582 in the infamous Honnoji Incident (depicted in the series’ fifth episode), but Go’s brushes with fame certainly don’t end there. Soon her mother remarries, only for that husband to be vanquished by the next fast-rising strongman, Hideyoshi (Goro Kishitani), who takes in the three young sisters and eventually marries the eldest, Chacha (Rie Miyazawa).

Go, meanwhile, is married off no less than three times — all in ways politically expedient to Hideyoshi. After her first husband falls out of favor with Hideyoshi resulting in their divorce and the second is killed in battle, she marries Tokugawa Hidetada (Osamu Mukai), the third son of Tokugawa Ieyasu. While the couple achieve a degree of happiness, their marriage fails in its real goal, which is to avert war between the increasingly hostile Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Thus, Go and her sister Chacha (now Hideyoshi’s wife) find themselves on opposing sides in the famed Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600, where Ieyasu’s ultimate victory over Hideyoshi sets him up as undisputed ruler of a united Japan, the first of the Tokugawa shoguns who would rule until the 19th century.

And thus the majority of the NHK drama will document the chaotic lives of princesses during wartime, as Go and her sisters are transferred back and forth between variously competing and collaborating warlords and then forced to watch as their husbands battle it out to the death.

As Ueno said at the press conference, “The women at this time were like pieces in a board game. That is how they were seen by the men.”

The actress believes that Go survived the turmoil through internal strength. “She is so powerful. She has the ability to express real anger. And in the background is always the presence of Nobunaga, as an influence and a source of strength.”

Ueno explained that she felt affinity with Go because they both grew up as the youngest of three sisters. “When you’re the youngest, you don’t get told what to do so much. I was like that, and I think Go probably was, too,” she said. “We were both kind of independent from a young age.”

For Ueno, that sense of independence has in part arisen from the quick maturation process required by young actors. Having decided she wanted to “sing and dance,” she entered the entertainment business at the age of 14 and soon found herself acting. Perhaps like Go four centuries before her, she found it exciting to be surrounded by so many powerful people, many of them much older than herself.

“The acting business is not like school, where most people are similar,” she said. “Everyone in this business is different, in terms of generation and background. There are so many inspiring people.”

Ueno reported that producer Yashiki told her he wanted the character of Go to be like water. “He said she was thrust together and separated from all sorts of people, and as she went through her life, she adjusted her outlook.”

Tabuchi explained that there is something in this waterlike strength that contemporary people could learn from. “Not very much went as she wanted, and yet she continued to live as herself. She came to accept that there are things simply beyond our control. That’s a lesson that could be applied today.”

In 1605, when Go was 32, her husband Hidetada became the second shogun, succeeding his father, who retired. Go lived long enough to see her family tree sprout yet another shogun — her son Iemitsu, who succeeded Hidetada in 1623 — and also a member of the Imperial Family, as one of her daughters married into that politically sidelined but still symbolically important household.

Go benefitted from the gradual consolidation of Tokugawa power, seeing out her last two decades in relative peace at Edo Castle — a far cry from the chaos of her younger years. When she died from illness in 1626 she surely would have known she had witnessed an extraordinary era, even if she wouldn’t have used same words that NHK’s Yashiki chose: “Go saw enough in her life for several taiga.”

Commencing Jan. 9 on NHK-G, “Go: Himetachi no Sengoku” will run for 47 episodes airing every Sunday from 8 p.m.

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