November 24, 2014

Ryomaden


I've long hoped that NHK would start distributing its Taiga historical dramas on U.S. streaming sites. Well, NHK has taken a big step in that direction. Ryomaden, one the most popular recent series, is now available (free) on Hulu [update: it isn't any longer].


Played by Fukuyama Masaharu (Galileo), Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the most influential figures of the mid-19th century. Japan's version of Alexander Hamilton, he founded Japan's first private corporation and drafted the outlines of the Meiji constitution.

Ryoma was assassinated by government agents in 1867, a year before the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown. His story is entwined with that of Iwasaki Yataro (Kagawa Teruyuki), a fellow Tosa countryman who would build on Ryoma's work to create Mitsubishi in 1870.

An intense and engaging character actor, Kagawa delivers a bravura performance as a disenfranchised samurai pulling himself up by his bootstraps with every ounce of his strength. These lower-class samurai were the principal agents of change in the Meiji Restoration.

The Perry Expedition to Japan in 1853 was the turning point both in Ryoma's life and that of the nation. Ryoma's reaction to the mind-bending technology of a steamship was: "I want one of those."

He would eventually get one.

Quite unintentionally, the depiction in Ryomaden of this clash between East and West, between feudalism and modernism, and tradition and technology (especially weaponry), well captures how an actual encounter with "advanced" aliens might affect the human race.

The challenge is to accommodate the new without becoming unmoored from the past, because what's already there isn't going anywhere (and would stick around for decades).

The authoritarian regime that had ruled for 250 years simply couldn't keep up, and was overwhelmed by the change bubbling up from the provinces. Alas, in only 75 years the new regime would grown just as sclerotic and ultimately fail even more catastrophically.

But following the barely-contained chaos of the Meiji Restoration, for a few short years wistfully remembered as the "Taisho democracy" (1912-1926), Sakamoto Ryoma's vision of a New World came true.

Though he might be more surprised that the political factions he helped birth in Tosa (his home province), Satsuma and Choshu (the original rebel provinces) were still moving and shaking today. Prime Minister Abe is, in fact, a Choshu man.

Ryomaden runs 42 episodes, so we're talking about a serious investment of time. Familiarity with the geographical and historical context is presumed (foreigners like  Matthew Perry and Thomas Blake Glover also play key roles), so keep a Wikipedia window open.

Speaking of Fukuyama Masaharu, season 2 of Galileo is streaming on Hulu [update: it isn't any longer]. The only big change from season 1 is that Kishitani Misa (Yoshitaka Yuriko) replaces Utsumi Kaoru (Shibasaki Kou) as the detective who depends on the professor's crime-solving skills.

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