‘Gakko wo Tsukuro (Let’s Create a School)’

A historical tale that is long on period, short on drama

by Mark Schilling

The Japanese audience has long loved period dramas, including ones based on the lives of real people, generally men wearing topknots. And usually, at some point, the swords come out, as in the story of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who in 1703 attacked a shogunate official in revenge for his role in the death of their lord two years earlier. In its many retellings on stage and screen, much of this incident has been fictionalized, but the central characters are taken from life.

“Gakko wo Tsukuro (Let’s Create a School)” is Seijiro Koyama’s drama about the real former samurai who in 1880 founded Senshu University, the first college in Japan to offer specialized instruction in law and economics, and it features no swords whatsoever. Or bloodshed for that matter, not to mention tempestuous love affairs, vicious power struggles or any other of the usual plot machinery.

Instead it is closer to a docudrama, a genre more common on television in the West, such as “You are There,” an early dramatized history show that famed TV anchor Walter Cronkite hosted from 1953 to 1957. The narrator of “Let’s Create a School” doesn’t inject herself, Cronkite-like, into the historical action, interviewing the characters with an anachronistic mic, but the story does stop dead for extended off-camera explanations, with looks at historical documents and photos, as well as views of the film’s various locations today.

Meanwhile, the dramatized sections portray the four founders and their associates as impeccably earnest, serious and high-minded, if occasionally exasperated or hot-tempered in the pursuit of their goals. There is not a slacker in sight, as well as no obvious villain, though the foreign amateurs emoting woodenly on camera deserve prosecution for crimes against the acting profession.

This may make ” . . . School” sound like a total snooze, but as I realized that it was methodically re-creating the actual events of Senshu’s foundation, boring planning meetings and all, instead of making bad fiction of them, I found myself waking up.

I saw I could learn something here. Something sentimentalized and idealized by Koyama, a veteran maker of historical dramas, but still relevant to the present.

The Senshu founders — Nagatane Soma (Takahiro Miura), Inajiro Tajiri (Ryoma Ikegami), Tanetaro Megata (Ichiro Hashimoto) and Shigetada Komai (Tokio Emoto) — were all teenage sons of samurai families when the Meiji Era began in 1868, bringing feudalism to an end. Believing that Japan’s path to power and prosperity lay in rapid Westernization, they decided to educate themselves in everything Western, from armaments to the English language.

And that is what they proceeded to do, taking time and pains that today look heroic or, depending on your perspective, masochistic. One of the filmmaker’s aims is to convince Japanese youths, who fear falling afoul of the insane corporate recruiting system if they study abroad, that the benefits of engaging the world outweigh the downsides. (Another, of course, is to glorify Senshu, which has lent its support to the project.)

The film’s strongest focus is on the most determined of the four, Soma. A son of the fighting Hikone Clan and ambitious to be a soldier, he is told by his mentor, Saigo Takamori — the model for Ken Watanabe’s rebel general in “The Last Samurai” (2003) — that he had better study military science abroad.

Though speaking no English, Soma wangles a scholarship from his clan to study in America, but discovers after his arrival, in 1871, that the school of his choice, West Point, does not accept foreigners (a misunderstanding that may make him look like an idiot, until we remember that Google did not exist in his day). Quickly changing his field of study to law and economics, Soma burns the midnight oil until he dangerously strains his eyes.

Unable to continue, he is called home, but manages to return to the States in 1873 and finally, after more arduous labor, enters Columbia University in 1875. In the course of his stay, he meets other studious, ambitious young Japanese and on coming home in 1879 joins with three of them — the even-tempered Megata (Harvard Law), the feisty Tajiri (Yale, economics) and the laconic Komai (Rutgers, economics) — in setting up a law office in Tokyo. Their dream, however, is to launch a school where their countrymen can learn Western law and economics in their own language.

There is no suspense about the outcome — the story is framed with Soma, now an old man at a school commencement ceremony, looking back at his beginnings. Also, compared with the struggles today of many Japanese entrepreneurs with ossified corporate and bureaucratic structures, Soma and his colleagues had it easy, since their Western educations, then an extreme rarity, gave them instant credibility.

Watching their rather smooth progress, postgraduation, to success, I had to wonder whether college students now, some of whom are even passing up Harvard to ensure themselves a good full-time job, will find the film’s “go West, young man” message too unrealistic.

“Let’s Create a School” ought to also be seen by their elders, who have narrowed the younger generation’s horizons for their own organizational needs. The Japan of Soma’s day was full of energy and purpose. The Japan of today is listless and drifting. What’s killing the dream?