The 49th NHK Taiga drama is Ryoma den, set back in the Bakumatsu period. The story focuses on the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, who lived from 1835 to 1867. He was an important leader in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa Bakufu, eventually bringing about the Meiji Restoration. He was also one of the founders of modern day Japanese navy through incorporation of western technology, which proved to be a force to be reckoned with during the revolution.
Cast & Credits
For starters, let me mention the difficulty to assemble my thoughts about such a wonderful drama. It took me a while to know where to start but let’s begin with this: Making a Taiga about one of Japan’s most influential figures was such an astonishing idea! Once again, let me insist on the accuracy of Taiga’s, they abide to historical facts with only few minor changes that can never cause the deviation of the historical flow. There is also the very informative “Travelogue” at the end of each episode to nourish your historical knowledge on some characters with the addition of real places to visit in Japan (when my long dream of visiting Japan comes true, I will go there for sure!).
Ryoma didn’t live much but through his short life, he did many unforgettable deeds for Japan and its people. Being born as a Tosa’s Kashi (Low Samurai rank), he wasn’t handcuffed by the daimyo rules or the common traditions. Instead, he had dreamy ideas to change his country to what Japan became like in our recent days. The Bakumatsu era aka the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate was one of the most turbulent times in Japan’s recent history until the Meiji restoration came along. Our hero had to go through that period with many revolutionary thoughts in his mind. Ideas that were harshly rejected at times, hardly accepted at other times but very much acknowledged most of the time.
Ryoma character always intrigued me, being a low-class samurai who stood up for the well-being of all the people of Japan must be the main reason behind it. When the bakufu was ruling Japan for over 260 years with the same old fashioned thoughts, an air of change had to blow them up and make them realize that the world is moving on and so should they. That air was Sakamoto Ryoma, through his adventures he was able to gather the essence of Japan’s future in a new world. It’s a world where they can be amongst the leading countries instead of falling into the merciless claws of imperialism.
Ryoma’s life had many turns and countless of encounters. It started with his family, his childhood play-pals, going through his first love, his idols in life, his allies, his enemies, his teachers, his women meetings and all of his comrades. Sakamoto Ryoma always managed to leave a deep impression into anyone he met, whether they loved him, hated him or even those who wanted to kill him. I think Ryoma’s most note-worthy quality was his ability to negotiate and convince the other party of the legitimacy of his views; he does that with perfection even against the most fearsome and huge figures of his time. Many believed in him and countless supported him as he embarked his journey towards a bright future and that didn’t come from naught, Ryoma was able to capture them one way or another.
Turbulent times are full of political clashes and endless battles but that made the drama even more exciting. Every detail of the Japanese history at the time was inserted in the most captivating way. Our narrator Yataro played by Kagawa Teruyuki added more attractiveness to the events. His historical tone while telling Ryoma’s life was priceless; one of the best narrations I ever came across in any Asian drama!
Now if I have to state my little displeasure about this drama it would be the over-idolizing of Ryoma’s character. I know about that because I actually read a lot about Sakamoto Ryoma and Japan’s history prior watching this drama and his character isn’t as perfect as the drama describes it to be. I know that they want to honour a Japanese hero and a little dramatization is no escape to make an appealing drama but I felt uneasy about those parts, even a little.
When we talk about Taiga dramas, we need to pay extra attention to acting considering its crucial role in maintaining ground-breaking historical telling. Fukuyama Masaharu nailed it so bad as Sakamoto Ryoma, he was able to make the character feel pretty much alive. He once stated about playing Ryoma’s character: “His appeal stems from being the kind of person onto whom anyone can project themselves”; that explains it all.
The supporting cast was full of many incredible talents such as Omori, Tanihara, Iseya, Takahashi, Aoi, Kiritani, Oizomi, Takito, Oikawa, Maki, Kamikawa, Sato, Kaname and many others. They were able to maintain a very intriguing historical tone throughout the whole drama. It’s no secret that Taiga and historical dramas overall are what make you test an actor’s skills and this drama’s cast gave wonderful credits to the characters they played. However, the best of them all was Kagawa as Yataro, no wonder he got many awards for that role; he was able to flawlessly play the role of Ryoma’s lifelong friend with all of their complex relationship, it takes an actor from a high calibre to pull that off. He undisputedly managed to steal the lights from Fukuyama countless of times.
The cinematography was pretty well illustrated with all of those charming sceneries in old-times Edo, Tosa and Kyo. I was pretty immersed in the realistic depiction of the historical setting and the soundtrack used in this drama. However, I was displeased with the camerawork. Directing has been the major issue with Taiga dramas. Although it can be disregarded since this is a drama not a film but I still hope this can be changed.
-You like historically accurate dramas.
-You like NHK Taiga dramas.
-You want to watch a drama about one of Japan’s most important figures.
-You like political oriented dramas.
-You want to discover Taiga dramas.
Don’t watch if:
-You don’t appreciate historical Japanese dramas.
Ryoma Den left me with many great thoughts about Ryoma’s character even with the little differences compared to history. My second NHK Taiga adventure was a total success and now I am thirsty for more!
It was incredible watching Sakamoto Ryoma from childhood to his death, seeing him grow and lose the naivety of his younger years to become the man that history came to know him as. And the fact that this man, who lived only a century and a half ago, achieved so many things before turning 30 is just mind-blowing. He lived for his cause and worked for Japan to become a stronger, more modern country so it would not fall a victim to imperialism.
Ryoma lived in the turbulent period at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate's rule, the time at which Japan finally revoked its closed country policy because of pressure placed on it by the United States's then president. In the aftermath of such a decision, the country was split into those who supported the Shogunate's decision to open the country to foreigners and those who wanted to expel the foreigners at all cost.
You could just imagine the kind of unrest spreading in Japan during those hard times when Ryoma was in his early twenties.
One of the great things about this drama (and all Taigas as it seems) is the travelogue at the end of each episode, which shows the real places that some of the events occurred at, as well as extra information about the characters, so you end up with a well-rounded picture of the setting and characters. Don't worry about getting lost in all the historical details; the English subtitles done by izumisano are the best that I've seen ever. Terms are explained clearly and the translation notes are very helpful.
Also, the narrator of the story, Iwasaki Yataro, is the lifelong friend of Sakamoto Ryoma and they have one hell of a complex friendship.
Ryoma is someone who inspires all kinds of feelings upon meeting him: admiration, respect, love, fear, envy, hatred, jealousy. All those who meet him can't help but feel something strong towards him, be it positive or negative. That's the kind of man we're talking about here. And Yataro, who came from humble origins and later became a wealthy businessman who eventually founded Mitsubishi never got over his inferiority complex when it came to Ryoma. He was never able to escape his shadow.
It's truly fascinating to see admiration, love, and envy on his face every time he looked at Ryoma. It's a complicated mix of emotions and it feels so real that I have to just kowtow to Kagawa Teruyuki for his intensity and powerful personification of such a difficult character. We see Yataro curse Ryoma many times, claim to hate him but his eyes betray him every time.
Yataro's my favorite character and I don't think that would have been the case had a lesser actor taken the role. Kagawa deserved those three awards he'd earned for the role. I have to include here that he was the only actor from 'Ryoma Den' who had gotten any awards at all.
I have so much more to say about 'Ryoma Den' but I don't want to spoil anything. Yes, the camerawork was a bit messy sometimes (shaky camera, awkward up-close shots of faces) and there was this annoying meowing sound running in the background of the most serious scenes, but I could overlook these minor things when I look at the full picture.
'Ryoma Den' overwhelmed me at times to the point where I got tears in my eyes from being so filled with emotion.
Such a drama should not be missed.