Sunday, October 05, 2008

NHK 大河ドラマ新撰組! / NHK Historical Drama: Shinsengumi!

(Japanese Video Series)

After I finished the Asahi Newsreel videos, I was hoping to find another documentary series. (I was thinking of trying to keep to a pattern of watching one anime series and one documentary series). When my local video store didn’t have another documentary series, I moved onto the historical drama section instead.

NHK, the publicly funded broadcast channel in Japan (the equivalent of the BBC or PBS) has a tradition dating back to the 1960s of producing one historical drama a year. Each year they pick out one episode from Japanese history, make it into a drama, and then show one episode a week over the course of a year. The drama wraps up right around Christmas time, and they start up a new historical drama with the new year.
It’s actually a pretty cool idea really. I wish we had a similar program in the US.

My local video store has several of the more popular series from past years on DVD, and I decided to work my way through one of them. I chose the series about the Shinsengumi, because it was the only story I was at all familiar with. And when you’re watching a television series in a foreign language, it’s always a bonus to have some knowledge of the story before hand.

The Shinsengumi were a special Samurai police force created by the Shogun to keep order in the streets of Kyoto during the chaotic years before the Meiji Revolution. Similar to the sheriffs of the old West, the Shinsengumi have become the stuff of myth and legend in Japan. (The last time I was in a Japanese bookstore, I noticed there’s a whole monthly magazine devoted to the Shinsengumi).

I first encountered the Shinsengumi about a year ago when one of our students (who was a bit of a Shinsengumi nut) loaned me his copy of “When the Last Sword is Drawn". Next I found an English book on the Shinsengumi when I was in Fukuoka: “Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps” by Romulus Hillsborough. Finally, I watched “Gohatto”, another film about the Shinsengumi (albeit one that makes some unorthodox reinterpretations about their sexuality).

After all that, plus 50 hours watching the NHK television series, you might think I’m turning into a bit of a Shinsengumi nut myself. Shoko certainly did. And in truth I did get more and more into it as the series went on. But I was never a huge Shinsengumi fan. They were right wing nut jobs on a power trip. (It’s possible to romanticize them now because they lived in the age of Samurai. If they had lived in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia, you can bet their story wouldn’t be nearly as appealing).
But because the Shinsengumi were a story I was already familiar with, I decided I could work my way through this series. I had already read Romulus Hillsborough’s history of the Shinsengumi, but to help me keep track of the story I re-read it 3 more times while I worked my way through this DVD series. (Yes, I’m a bit of a geek, I know.)
As a result of reading Hillsborough’s book to the point of memorization, and watching the whole NHK TV series, I feel like I’m a bit of an expert on the Shinsengumi now. Which is a bit odd, considering a year ago at this time I didn’t even know they existed. It’s a shame I’ve decided not to go on and pursue Japanese studies—now this is just going to be more useless knowledge I have floating around my head.
[I should also make the disclaimer that since Romulus Hillsborough’s book is the only English book available on the Shinsengumi, I am entirely dependent on his interpretation. I’ll make that disclaimer here at the beginning, but it holds true for the whole review.]

During the course of this whole project, it was also interesting to notice what a great educational tool TV can be. When I first read Hillsborough’s history, I had a really hard time keeping all the names and various factions straight, and I forgot most of what was in the book within a few weeks after reading it.
However, after seeing it all acted out for me on TV, I can remember every character perfectly and now have a name and face associated with all of the major members of the Shinsengumi. Live action drama seems to make much more of a lasting impression on my brain than just words on a page. (This drama also helped me get straight the different factions in the Meiji Restoration, but more on that later).

Before I started watching, Shoko warned that NHK dramas are not always perfectly historically accurate. “They change a few things around to make it more interesting,” she said. “You know how you’re always complaining about how historically inaccurate the TV series ‘Rome’ is? It’s kind of like that.”
[It took a few years, but “Rome” has finally hit the video stores in Japan. I’ve got to admit, I thought Mr. Guam might have just been being a puritan when he said it wasn’t very historically accurate, but after watching a few episodes for myself I got so upset by all the bad history I couldn’t finish watching it. But that’s another subject for another post.]

The NHK series is both accurate and inaccurate at the same time. On one hand, when you have 50 hours to tell a story, you can afford to take the time to be accurate. It’s not like the Hollywood biopic where everything has to be crammed into 2 hours. This film starts at the very beginning of the Shinsengumi (actually it starts several years before the beginning) and continues methodically through all of the major events up until the end.

On the other hand, the whole series is a whitewash of the Shinsengumi. In real life they were notorious killers. In this series, they abhor unnecessary violence, and only fight when it’s forced upon them. Thus, all the incidents when the Shinsengumi were the aggressors have to be reworked so that they were mere victims.

In “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film”, Donald Richie writes that “The Shinsengumi, a pro-government army [is] usually portrayed as a benevolent band of Boy Scouts” by Japanese media.
Richie doesn’t mention the NHK series specifically, but I suspect he had it in mind when he wrote those words. It is hard to imagine a more goody-two-shoes boy scout esque group of young men than The Shinsengumi as portrayed in this series. They help old women clean their houses, they protect the virtue of young maidens, and make toys for young children. None of them would so much as hurt a fly if he didn’t have to.

Someone more knowledgeable about Japanese culture might have to comment here, but I don’t think there’s any ulterior political motive behind this revisionist history. The Shinsengumi might have been right wing conservatives in the Edo period, but they belong to a time and political structure that no longer exists. Modern Japanese right wing nationalism all dates back to the Meiji Restoration, a revolution that the Shinsengumi were on the other side of.
To put this in terms of American politics: it would be like making a TV series which glorified the British loyalists during the Revolutionary War.

I suspect that the only motive behind this white wash of the Shinsengumi was just to make interesting TV. You have to create likeable characters in order for the audience to get absorbed in the story and keep coming back every week. Especially for a show targeted towards families. Also there’s been a big change in the value system from Edo Japan to modern Japan, so it was necessary to make the Shinsengumi acceptable for a modern audience.

That's my theory anyway. If someone reading this knows more, feel free to correct me.

The rose tinted lenses through which the Shinsengumi is portrayed in this series starts with the casting. The leader of the Shinsengumi, the notorious Kondo Isami, is played in this series by Shingo Katori of the pop group Smap.
(Smap is a popular boy group in Japan which also has their own variety show on TV. They might be considered the Japanese equivalent of “The Monkees” if The Monkees had stayed on TV and stayed popular well into their late 30s.)
The lovable Shingo represents an odd choice of casting for the killer Kondo Isami. Again, to put this in American terms, it might be like producing a TV series on Al Capone versus Elliot Ness, and have having all the characters on both sides played by lovable boy band idols like N’Sync and The Backstreet Boys (or whatever it is you kids are listening to now a days).

The series starts out in 1853 with the arrival of Matthew Perry and the black ships, 10 years before the Shinsengumi was even formed. Kondo Isami and his friend (and later 2nd in command) Hijikata Toshizo journey out to see the ship along with Sakuma Shozan, Sakamoto Ryoma, and Katsura Kogoro (all 3 leading figures in the Meiji Restoration).
In real life, as far as I can tell from Romulus Hillsborough’s history, Kondo and Hijikata never ventured out to see Matthew Perry’s ships, and they never met Sakuma Shozan, Sakamoto Ryoma or Katsura Kogoro in person.

From this moment, until the formation of The Shinsengumi 10 years later, the characters of Kondo and Hijikata act like sort of Forest Gumps of Japanese history during the 1850s. They somehow manage to randomly pop up at most of the key moments.
They discover a plot by xenophobic Samurai to assassinate the American diplomat Henry Conrad Joannes Heusken, and they try to intervene to protect Heusken. (The assassination itself is historical fact, but I don’t believe Kondo and Hijikata were involved).
[There is, by the way, a rather shameless scene in which the Japanese writers put a long speech into the mouth of the American diplomat Heusken along the lines of, “Even if I’m killed here, I have no regrets. I’m thankful just for the opportunity to have seen such a wonderful country.”
...Oh well. At least it’s no worse than the kind of patriotic mush you can also see on American TV.]
Kondo and Hijikata are also present at the scene just after the Shogun regent Ii Naosuke is assassinated by Imperial loyalists. And they befriend key figures in the Meiji restoration movement like Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro (mentioned above).
During this time, the members of Kondo’s fencing school (who would later form the core of the Shinsengumi) are slowly assembling, but by the time the Shinsengumi is actually created, the series is already one fourth over.

During the beginning of the series, Kondo Isami, the historically cold blooded killer, seems to be portraying a version of Gandhi. Kondo refuses to kill anyone, even in self defense. When he finally does kill someone to save the life of his friend Hijikata, Kondo is filled with remorse.
As the series progresses, he eventually does make a transformation to someone who believes violence is occasionally necessary, but he never becomes the ruthless killer portrayed in Romulus Hillsborough’s book.

According to Romulus Hillsborough, the Shinsengumi had a rule that if you do not kill your opponent in a fight, you must commit seppuku (harakiri). It was, he writes, “a particularly severe regulation that perhaps more than anything else accounted for the lethality of the Shinsengumi”. In the NHK drama, this regulation is nowhere to be seen, and the Shinsengumi always show mercy to weaker enemies.

As a history purist, I was slightly upset by the numerous historical inaccuracies. And yet at the same time I have to admit it made the series more interesting. Not only did it increase the like-ability of the main characters, but, since I had read Romulus Hillsborough’s book, and knew what was coming, I knew that as the series progressed the innocent boy scouts portrayed in the Shinsengumi were going to have factional infighting, start killing each other in some cases, and in other cases force each other to commit seppuku. It kept me wondering. “How are they going to portray this or that incident without ruining the image of the pure hearted characters they’ve been showing so far?”

To their credit, the TV series did not omit any of the bloodier or uglier incidents in the Shinsengumi history, but they always found an interesting way of interpreting these incidents to show that the Shinsengumi was never at fault itself, and their leader Kondo Isami abhorred any unnecessary bloodshed.


Because of the length of this series, it took me over half a year to work my way through the whole thing. Which means I started it before I broke up with Shoko, and near the end of the relationship, when she got increasingly frustrated with all of my habits, this used to be one of the things she would (repeatedly) criticize me for. “Japanese history is thousands of years long,” she used to say. “If you’re going to make a serious effort to study it, you can’t spend all your time on just the Shinsengumi.”

And yet, from this series I learned a lot about not only the Shinsengumi, but also the Meiji Restoration.

For example Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the leading figures of the Meiji Revolution is one of the main characters in this series. In fact on the DVD jacket cover, Sakamoto Ryoma is billed as one of the 3 leading characters in the show. In some episodes sometimes as much time is devoted to Sakamoto Ryoma’s exploits as to the Shinsengumi. And near the end a whole episode revolves around Sakamoto Ryoma’s assassination.

Sakamoto Ryoma is sort of like the Thomas Jefferson of Japan. He didn’t actually survive until the Meiji Restoration (he was assassinated in 1867) but he helped to broker the alliances that would result in the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogun, and his ideas helped to shape the new era.

In real life, Sakamoto and Kondo probably never met, and the two regarded each other as enemies. According to Hillsborough, “Several of Ryoma’s friends had been killed by the Shinsengumi, whom he [Sakamoto Ryoma] regarded as brutal thugs.” As for Kondo Isami, he was overjoyed to hear of Sakamoto Ryoma’s assassination, and celebrated the news with a big drinking party.

However in the TV series, Sakamoto Ryoma and Kondo Isami are portrayed as close friends. Both of them undergo several ideological transformations throughout the course of the show, but they stay close friends throughout even as they end up on opposite sides of the revolution. Kondo even tries to intervenes to stop Sakamoto Ryoma’s assassination.

Other leading members of the Meiji restoration are major characters in this drama, such as Okubo Ichizo, the political leader of Satsuma, Iwakura Tomomi, the leader of the anti-Shogun faction of the Imperial court, Katsura Kogoro, the leader of the Choshu loyalists, Katsu Kaishu, the commissioner of the Tokugawa Navy, and many others. Near the end of the series, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun, also becomes a major character.

I had read about all of these figures before, but I could never remember who was who. Seeing it all acted out on TV for me cemented it firmly into my brain and I started to be able to keep it all straight. I shocked several of my students by being able to converse with them about the various figures in the Meiji Restoration. (Actually, in Japan the bar is set pretty low for foreigners to begin with. Just as Japanese people are very impressed if you can utter even a few words of Japanese, they tend to also be easily impressed if you know even a few basics of Japanese history. Just knowing the name “Meiji” can sometimes create quite a stir.)


There’s also an hour and a half epilogue about the last day of Hijikata Toshizo (the co-commander of Shinsengumi, and one of the last surviving members). It was in my video store alongside of the Shinsengumi drama, so I rented it and watched it as well. Hijikata Toshizo, and some of the other die-hard Tokugawa Shogun loyalists had attempted to create their own country, the Ezo Republic, up on the Northern island of Ezo. It was defeated by the Imperial troops, and Hijikata Toshizo died in the fight.
This was filmed a couple years after the original drama had ended, but it did manage to re-unite all of the original cast for a flashback scene.


In addition to Katsura Shingo, there are a few other big name Japanese actors in this series. Serizawa Kamo, Kondo Isami’s rival for power in the Shinsengumi, is played by Sato Koichi who also played the Shinsengumi member Saito Hajime in the movie “When the Last Sword is Drawn”.

I thought the actor who played Okita Soji (the young 19 year old fencing prodigy in the Shinsengumi) looked familiar, and it turns out he was played by Fujiwara Tatsuya who played the lead character in “Battle Royale" and also the lead character in “Death Note” and “Death Note 2".

(Given my limited knowledge about Japanese pop culture, there are probably many more famous actors I didn’t recognize, but these are the ones I caught).


Since my interests have shifted in another direction, this is the last Japanese DVD series I plan to work my way through.

In total, I’ve made it through 5 different series:
The Asahi Newsreels (mentioned above),
Romeo X Juliet,
The Mysterious Cities of Gold,
The Rose of Versailles,
And this Shinsengumi drama.

And I think 5 is a respectable number, considering each DVD series represents several hours of shows. This Shinsengumi series alone, for example, was over 50 hours and so represents the equivalent of one whole week of work. Or over 2 whole days of my life. Or (subtracting 8 hours sleep) over 3 days in terms of normal waking hours.

....Actually, maybe it’s best not to think about how much time I sunk into this project. At least the whole thing was good for my Japanese study. And I was able to learn a lot of Japanese history at the same time I practiced my Japanese language. So hopefully the whole thing isn’t a total waste.

Link of the Day
“History Could Be Swallowed Up So Completely”

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music music on Youtube.

Kiyoko Suizenji has long been one of my favorite old Japanese singers. When I first started linking to Japanese youtube videos, I had a hard time finding anything by her, but the internet has gotten bigger since then, and there are now several videos of her. She's from the mid to late 1960s, and does a good job of mixing traditional Enka melodies with a really bouncy pop beat. Like in this song here. And here. And here. And here. (There are a lot more videos on youtube, but this will give you a start and if you're really interested you can start sifting through them on your own).

Her big hit (although somewhat of an atypical sound for her) was the "365 Step March"


sid fujinari said...

First I must say the Shinsengumi are possibly the most well known group of men that stood for the Samurai Bakufu in the period of the "Bakumatsu era", that was out of date, and it would be more accurate to compare them to one of Police, Sheriff's, FBI's and CIA's of today, rather than British during the Civil war of the US. Every domain had their differences as every department does not like infringement. They were possibly 50 men average, after the original boon at the start for cash, and joined the joui (anti samurai and pro Imperialism as so many samurai had become ronin during 260 years of no wars for expanding influence, and same years of isolationist policy and having rope lit muskets when the west had explosive cannon munitions and revolvers as pistols. Rifles were cartridges and shot one after another and ships with steam power. Even Hijikata went to Ezo (Hokkaido) and asked the new Meiji government to allow samurais to continue to police the Northern Frontier, as Saigo who joined their deadly enemies, Choshu to bring down the Bakufu, yet switched and died fighting the Meiji soldiers as to continue samurais in some capacity.Those were the Boshin Wars. He fought, ironically against the Shinsengumi, but died as a samurai in the South of Southern most mainland, Satsuma Domain, today's Kagoshima Prefecture. My Grandfather, having lost his retainership to Lord Hosokawa of Higo, today's Kumamoto, just above Kagoshima and as eldest son, emigrated to the US.

Joel said...

Thanks a lot for the comment. The extra information is interesting.