Strap yourselves in, you’re in for a hair-raising ride.
That is the message NHK is putting out about its 2014 Sunday evening drama series. Depicting the life of 16th century samurai and military tactician Kuroda Kanbei, “Gunshi Kanbei (Strategist Kanbei)” promises to lead viewers through a harrowing tale of love, war, betrayal and honor — replete with weekly cliff-hangers and other emotional hooks that, the broadcaster hopes, will have audiences glued to their television sets for all 50 episodes, starting from Jan. 5.
“We want people to end up cheering for Kanbei as he encounters all sorts of traumas and challenges — we want them biting their nails and thinking, ‘Will he be alright?’ ” explains chief producer Takashi Nakamura.
It will be quite an achievement if Nakamura and his crew can pull it off.
The last two so-called taiga (large-scale) dramas have struggled to attract viewers. “Taira no Kiyomori,” the tale of a 12th century samurai by that name played by Kenichi Matsuyama, managed average ratings of just 12 percent in the Kanto region in 2012, while last year’s “Yae no Sakura,” about a little-known figure in the turbulent period at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, mustered just 14.6 percent. Both fell far short of the 24.5 percent benchmark set by 2008’s “Atsuhime,” which starred Aoi Miyazaki as a late 19th century princess.
In attempting to spice things up in 2014, Nakamura has turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: South Korea.
Television drama from Japan’s western neighbor has been popular in this country since 2004, when “Winter Sonata,” a heart-wrenching tale of love and separation, kicked off what became known as the first hanryū (Korean-style) boom. And yet, despite enviable ratings for imported Korean product (“Winter Sonata” averaged 14.4 percent in Kanto when it aired in Japan first, despite its late-night slot), it is nevertheless unusual to hear usually proud Japanese television producers openly admit that they are trying to emulate the success of foreign competitors.
“As someone who makes television dramas, I’ve always been fascinated by the differences between the Korean approach and ours,” Nakamura tells The Japan Times. “What struck me is that Japanese people would say that they thought our dramas were ‘interesting’ or ‘enjoyable,’ but that they were ‘addicted’ or ‘obsessed’ with Korean dramas. There was a very big difference in terms of emotional investment.”
In crafting “Gunshi Kanbei,” Nakamura has taken a few pointers from the Korean playbook. The first informed his choice of subject.
“It was important that Kanbei have enough adventures in his life to flesh out 50 episodes,” Nakamura says. “Every episode needs to have its ups and downs, its emotional pulls, and that means the subject needs to have led a very interesting life.”
Kanbei, who is played by pop idol-turned-actor Junichi Okada, lived during the Sengoku Period (1493-1590), at a time when rival samurai battled it out in a race to unify the nation. The son of a Himeji-based samurai, Kanbei is known for having maneuvered himself successively into positions close to each of the three men who in turn dominated the political landscape at the end of the 16th century: Oda Nobunaga (played here by Yosuke Eguchi), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Naoto Takenaka) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose role is yet to be cast.
It was while he was aligned with Oda that one of the turning points of his life took place. After assuming control of his own clan on the retirement of his father in 1567 and then a few years later helping Oda assert himself over the rival Mori clan, Kanbei went to bring another clan based at Arioka Castle (in present-day Hyogo Prefecture) under Oda’s influence. However, he was betrayed and instead captured and imprisoned. It was only after a year of confinement in a dungeon dug within the castle grounds that he was able to escape.
Nakamura explains that during this time “Kanbei was essentially left to die,” and the traumatic experience changed him drastically.
“It was such a trying time that he prepared himself to die several times. He thought a lot about who he could trust and who he couldn’t,” Nakamura says. “It also altered him physically in that he came out of it with a disfigured leg and was unable to take part in front-line fighting anymore. From this time, he became a particularly successful strategist.”
Nakamura also notes that after Kanbei’s escape he returned home to his faithful wife, suggesting this forced separation and reunion — along with many other scenes along the way — will be dressed up in the drama for maximum emotional impact.
“In Korean dramas they often emphasize the emotions even at the expense of narrative logic. For example, you often have a character who will be crying one scene and then elated the next. Japanese drama producers tend to prioritize the logic, but we are going to try something new this time,” he says.
The other influence of Korean drama can be seen in the choice of Okada as the star.
“We needed a star who was hands-down good-looking,” Nakamura says.
Noting that it is always female viewers who make up the bulk of television drama audiences, Nakamura explains that there are two ways into their hearts — one is to focus on a female character, with whom viewers will identify, and the other is to feature impossibly attractive men. This time, he’s gone with the latter, with Okada as the designated swoon-inducer.
On that front, the 33-year-old is an old hand, having been in show business since he was 14, when he joined Johnny & Associates and was placed in a then-new boy-band, V6.
“The thing with using an idol in a show like this is that when it comes time for Kanbei to hold his wife in his arms — the romantic scenes — then it will look natural to Japanese audiences,” Nakamura says. “The truth is that when regular Japanese actors do love scenes, it tends to be a bit embarrassing for audiences. But with someone like Okada, it seems totally natural.”
Nakamura laughs when asked if there were going to be many such scenes this year. “There will,” he says. “One of the things about Kuroda that contemporary Japanese people can relate to is that he had one wife for his whole life and no mistresses. He was entirely dedicated to her, which is something that was very unusual for the period.”
So this year’s drama promises euphoric highs and anguished lows, passion and despair — and, no doubt, plenty of thrilling rides in between. Kanbei’s own fate is of course assured — it is known that he and his son Nagamasa performed so effectively in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s wars that when in 1600 Ieyasu finally set up the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would last for almost 300 years, he rewarded Nagamasa with control of the Fukuoka domain. Kanbei lived peacefully thereafter. The fate of NHK viewers’ fingernails this year, though, is less certain.
NHK’s 2014 taiga drama “Gunshi Kanbei (Strategist Kanbei)” will air on NHK-G every Sunday evening from 8 p.m. commencing Jan. 5.