Taking on Japanese Taiga: Ryomaden

Ryoma-den, as it is sometimes spelled, or The Story of Ryoma, is about the life of Sakamoto Ryoma. It encompasses his childhood, his kendo training in Edo, seeing American steamships arrive, and getting mixed up in efforts to protect Japan from the foreigners. He was a real person and one of Japan’s most famous national heroes (who I had never heard of before). Can a westerner who doesn’t know much about Japanese history enjoy a taiga drama? Let’s find out.

What is a Taiga Drama Anyway?

There are SPOILERS from history. I’ll tell you the big one that everyone knows going in, and you can find out the rest yourself.

Taiga (tī‘ ga) dramas, I discovered, are something like the BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre. The word means “great river,” and they are grand scale historical dramas that are put on every year by the Japanese public network, NHK. They are always well researched and very well done, with great costumes and sets. Since he is such a big hero, everyone in Japan who watched this show started out already knowing about Ryoma. He was a low-caste samurai who negotiated an alliance between the most powerful clans in Japan to force the shogun to give up power, and he was assassinated. If you’ve ever heard of the Meiji restoration, this is it.

Who gets involved?

Let me stick in a note here. Ryoma’s name is hard to say. The Japanese ‘r’ is flapped, which sounds something like the ‘d’ in ladder. Half the time the actors pronounce his name as Dyoma, which is easier for me to say. You may like to try it.

Ryoma was an awkward kid who was raised by his older sister, Otome, after his mother died. He was not studious and didn’t do well in school at all. Otome enrolled him in kendo and he eventually went to train in Edo, where he became a master swordsman. He was there in 1852 and saw Matthew Perry’s squadron of ships arrive to force Japan to open its borders. He was overcome with how big and powerful the ships were, and knew that swords could do nothing against them.

The opening scene takes place about 1880 with Iwasaki Yataro, the president of Mitsubishi (yes the real Mitsubishi) hosting a grand reception and telling how he built his company up from nothing. (The actor looks like Yataro, down to the handlebar mustache.) He agrees to talk to a reporter about his childhood friend, Ryoma, and then the drama skips back to about 1843 as he narrates his recollections of his efforts to make something of himself as Ryoma, with his winning ways, gets clan support. “Ryoma,” he tells the reporter, “was a carefree, selfish, likable man who was adored by women. No one infuriated me more!”

Yataro was a hard-working, smart kid from a poor family that couldn’t afford to send him to school. They had even lost their samurai status because of debts. Here we see him watching Ryoma and a bunch of other kids jumping into a swimming hole, but Yataro is too busy helping his father to play with them. These kids are all of the lower samurai rank, called kashi. They are major historical figures and Ryoma always stayed friends with them, even those who ended up in opposing factions.

In this picture, we see Ryoma with the same friends, now all grown up, on their way home from a wedding. The drunk guy on Ryoma’s back is Takechi Hanpeita, the local kendo teacher who will head a political faction to expel foreigners from Japan. To the right of Ryoma is Hirai Shujiro and to the left is Nakaoka Shintaro, both of whom are Hanpeita’s followers. At least I think it is Shintaro, I kind of lost track of who was who sometimes. The other guy is Okada Izo, the beauty of the group, who becomes an assassin.

No kidding! Not about being the beauty, and not about being an assassin either. After finishing the show I went back to the beginning to get pictures and was astounded that so many people Ryoma was with throughout the story were right there with him in the first episode! The Japanese audience probably knew who they were.

In this scene, we see why all these guys got so involved in the political upheaval. Still walking home from the wedding, they are met by a group of joshi, the upper-rank samurai. Kashi always had to bow to joshi whenever they met. Moreover, the joshi bullied and mistreated the kashi whenever they had the chance, and never even got punished if they killed one of them. These joshi make Ryoma and his friends kneel down in the mud so that they spoil their wedding finery. With this kind of resentment built up against their own upper class, the kashi are ready to explode when westerners arrive and start pushing everyone around.

A Little History Lesson

I’m going to throw this in because it is background information that the Japanese audience knew. The harsh treatment of kashi didn’t happen everywhere, but only in Tosa, a province in the middle of Shikoku. There were three main islands: Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, which you can see labeled on the map (Hokkaido had very few people in those days). The emperor, who had been a figurehead for hundreds of years, lived in the old capital of Kyoto. The shogun, a warlord with the real power, lived in Tokyo, which in those days was called Edo. (Pronounced with a short ‘e’.)

Japan had been isolationist for a couple of hundred years. Their ships were like this one that Ryoma sailed on to Honshu. The only foreigners allowed in were the Dutch and the only city they were let into was Nagasaki in northwest Kyushu. Now westerners had forced the shogun to open more ports and allow more trade and there were clashes and murders. Two of the most powerful clans, Choshu on the western tip of Honshu, and Satsuma in southern Kyushu, were already having battles with the westerners and were ready to go to war to oust the shogun for letting them in. That’s where Ryoma came in, with his forceful personality and his negotiation skills.

Is there any romance?

This is an important question to watchers of Asian dramas. There is some, but it’s not the main point of the drama. Ryoma is portrayed as being rather dense where women are concerned, even though Yataro accuses him of attracting women. We know, or can easily find out, who his wife was, but there are three women who liked him and that he had some kind of relationship with. One was Hirai Kao, Shujiro’s sister, from Ryoma’s hometown. Yataro liked her as well, so there were some hard feelings.

Another woman who liked him was Chiba Sana, the daughter of the owner of the dojo where Ryoma trained in Edo. She was quite a tomboy and was able to best any of her father’s students at kendo until Ryoma came along, and even he lost to her at first.

Then there was Narasaki Ryo, whose father was a doctor who had died and left debts. She became a maid at an inn that Ryoma used to hide out in and warned him when enemies came around. She is the one who learned to shoot a gun.

How accurate is all this?

From what I can tell, most events in the drama are true, but there seems to be a little bit of whitewashing of the hero. Leaving home without clan permission was against the law, and in the drama, his family were upset about it but agreed because they thought he would do something really important. In real life, only his sister Oei knew. She gave him an heirloom sword and then committed suicide to take responsibility for letting him go. This picture, however, is Otome, his older sister. Oei wasn’t in the show.

In the drama, Ryoma goes to see Katsu Kaishu, the minister of the navy, wanting to study under him. Shortly afterward his hometown friend Hanpeita shows up with the idea of assassinating Katsu because he was building western-style ships; we saw him and his aide fingering their swords, but they left without doing anything. In real life, Ryoma had been the one who went there to assassinate Katsu Kaishu but had been convinced by Katsu’s argument that only if Japan were strong and had its own navy could it stand up against the western powers. Ryoma had become an enthusiastic supporter and had helped run Katsu’s naval training school. I think the true version would have been more exciting, but the writers evidently didn’t want their show to set a bad example for the youth.

Would I recommend this drama?

Yes, definitely! It would have helped me to know something about these people beforehand, but now you all have a head start. If you like history or historical fiction, you should enjoy it. At 48 episodes it was long but never dull. It is true that in the middle there were a few episodes with people being tortured or forced to commit seppuku, which even though they didn’t really show everything on screen was sufficiently nasty. It had really happened, however, and at least those people were actually guilty.

This guy, by the way, had the most amazing voice! I was happy when his scenes came around just to listen to him.

I watched this on Dramafever, and they have another taiga drama, Yae’s Sakura. I started it recently; it’s about a woman who lived in the same time period as Ryoma. Already they have had some of the same events but from a different perspective. Ryoma’s people were against the shogun, and Yae’s people are vassals of the shogun. It should be interesting.

If you have favorite historical dramas, let us know! Happy watching!

Telzeytalks of Dramas With a Side of Kimchi







2 thoughts on “Taking on Japanese Taiga: Ryomaden

  1. The taiga are very well-made generally, but I could never sit through one, so kudos to you for finishing Ryomaden. I failed with Taira no Kiyomori even though it had a number of actors I generally enjoy watching. I need to try another again. I think Atsuhime is another one that’s generally praised.

    As for Ryoma’s name, the Japanese R is somewhere between an R and L sound, which is why all their romanised R and L sounds merge, although the R generally prevails because Japanese has no L. For example, London is ロンドン (written “Rondon” in katakana). ライト (raito) can be either “light” or “right”.

    Here’s a video on how to pronounce Sakamoto Ryoma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mw3ncOfXIGs

  2. I’ve been fascinated with this period of Japanese history since the late 1980s. Several Japanese films fostered my interest originally, then anime (Rurouni Kenshin specifically, then others). So I know the history :d
    I really love this and keep going back to it – I’m going slowly BECAUSE I know how it ends…

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