November 24, 2014


I've long hoped that NHK would start distributing its Taiga historical dramas on streaming sites. Well, NHK Cosmomedia took a big step in that direction with dLibrary Japan, but then didn't renew any of the Taiga drama licenses when they expired. So we're back to square one.

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 especially Choshu (the original rebel province) had such outsized influence today. Prime Minister Abe was, in fact, a Choshu man.

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