Historical Samurai Drama

NHK is Japan’s equivalent of BBC. It is a non-profit public organization that handles public broadcasting, known most prominently for its lightning fast earthquake warnings and secondly for excellent educational programs and nature documentaries. Drama is not quite their forte. Their fiction programs are generally higher quality than Japanese commercial network programs, but that is not saying much.

Since 1963, it has broadcast single-season, one-off, historical dramas that span, with few exceptions, from January to December, broadcast on Sunday nights from 8pm-9pm. It is an unusually high quality show among a sea of irrelevant and pitiful Japanese TV programming, with only a handful of disappointments. We are now watching the 55th annual historical drama and it is shaping up to be quite a good story.

Of the 55 programs, 19 were set in the Sengoku Period, otherwise known as The Age of War from the late 15th to late 16th centuries, mostly focused on the later part of the Sengoku Period with some crossover to the Azuchi and early Edo Periods. Only one was focused on the late Muromachi to Sengoku Period transition. Judging from the number of dramas being made, the most interesting and entertaining period of samurai history is the period between 1493 and 1603. (Not to mention, most samurai video games seem to be set in the same time period.)

9 programs were set in the early to middle Edo period (1603-1868), which was mostly a period of peace with few dramatic events. However, to be fair, most of NHK’s Friday night and Saturday night historical programs were set in the Edo period, but the stories tended to be about city dwelling commoners rather than about warriors. Friday night and Saturday night costume dramas (which moved time frames frequently and occupied the Wednesday slot for a while) were often good quality but was never up to par with the Sunday night dramas which remain the crown jewel of NHK programming.

13 of the Sunday night dramas were set in the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunite, the end of the Edo Period period known as Bakumatsu (1858-1868) with some crossover into the Meiji era. This seems to be the second most popular era for samurai drama. It spans the time between the arrival of Commodore Perry to the fall of the Tokugawa government. It often crosses over to the early Meiji Era including such events as the Satsuma Rebellion.

Most other parts of Japanese history are given little attention. The period surrounding the famed conflict between the Heike and Genji has been dramatized five times. The Heian Period, the time period of the famous movie Rashomon, was the subject only twice. (Although that may not count as samurai stories because the samurai class was not established in those days.) One program focused on the Mongol Invasion, one on the Ryukyu Kingdom, one on the Imperial Schizm, one on the later Meiji Period, one on Post WWII Japan, and one drama series on Japanese immigrants in North America starring Toshiro Mifune as one of the immigrants.

The drama that won the highest ratings of all time was Dokuganryu Masamune (1987) starring (at the time untested) Ken Watanabe as Date Masamune, a one-eyed samurai who was one of the maverick warriors of the Sengoku Period. Watanabe pulled off the part brilliantly, shooting him into a glorious career.

So most of the dramas focus on either the Sengoku Period, the period of war just before the lengthy peacetime of the Edo period, and the Bakumatsu Period, the period of killing and confusion just after the Edo period. This Sengoku-to-Bakumatsu time span is what we have been most closely associating with Japanese costume drama for the past half century.

This is just the breakdown of one TV slot, but it reflects the popularity of samurai stories in general. Big epic sagas involving multiple story lines and numerous characters amid tidal currents of historic events are usually set in either the Sengoku Period or the Bakumatsu era, while small scale light entertainment involving fewer characters in simpler story structures tend to set the stage in the peaceful Edo Period.

Literary types still regard the stories surrounding the Genpei Wars, the series of conflicts between the Heike clan and the Genji clan (1180-1185), as the representative examples Japanese costume drama, but that view seems to be dated. The Genpei Wars was what the samurai of the Edo Period enjoyed reading about.

So in order to write a samurai story, you should set your stage carefully, choosing the right historical period for the story you want to write. James Clavell’s Shogun is set in the late Sengoku Period. Times of great turmoil makes for great stories about warriors.

Come to think of it, something feels familiar about this. Let me see. Japan enjoyed peace and stability for over a century under the benign Muromachi Shogunate, but due to the selfishness and apathy of the ruling elite, the government collapsed and all the regional lords began to fight for supremacy in a no-holds-barred battle royale called the Age of War ( the Sengoku period) until power became concentrated in a handful of winners who fought the final end-game until the nation was united under one banner, the Tokugawa shogunate. A period of peace lasted over two hundred years, during which the rulers became complacent to the evil threat from over seas and were overthrown by a renegade band of modernists who would adopt foreign technology, build a modernized army, fight the shogun, and create a new nation in order to repel the foreign colonizers intent on turning the country into a decadent hive of opium addicts. The dissenters win again, but this time reinstating the emperor as head of state. Does that sound vaguely like the history of the Jedi’s galaxy to you? An alternating history of Dark Times and the Republic? And the drama is always set in the transition era between the dark times and the good times.

This is actually not a coincidence, as this YouTube clip explains. George Lucas is a big fan of Japanese costume drama, jidai-geki, which is where the word “Jedi” came from. And the underlying theme of almost all Japanese period fiction is yonaoshi, literally “world fixing”, the quest to restore a damaged world. The biggest epics are about the fall and rise of the shogun’s rule, or the emperor’s rule, or even the regional lord’s rule. Lucas must have figured it out and adopted it into the triple trilogy of Star Wars.

It is not entirely unique to Japanese historical drama. You can find similar composition in Lord of the Rings, only not as pronounced.

Historical drama has a way of focusing on the pinch points of history. Nobody cares about what happened ten years before the American Independence or what people were doing in Europe during the Belle Epoch. We want to see what was happening when empires and dictatorships rise and fall. That is where the stories are. The same can be said of samurai fiction.

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