[From September Issue 2011]
Recently historical dramas have been in the spotlight due to a sudden surge of interest in Japanese history among young people. NHK has been broadcasting its one year Grand Historical Drama Series featuring a different historical figure each year. CS satellite broadcasting’s Jidaigeki Senmon Channel specializes in showing historical dramas and movies. Broadcast on that channel from July,“Courtroom Period Drama, Tamura Okitsugu” became CS’ first program to receive the Galaxy Award Commendation –an award given to programs that have contributed to Japan’s broadcasting culture.
Jidaigeki, which means period drama, refers to dramas and movies that are set in the years before the Meiji Era. Many of them are set in the Edo Era, a period that lasted for about 260 years from 1603, with the central figure being a feudal lord or samurai. In such settings issues such as what is right or wrong and matters concerning duty and sympathy amongst townspeople are dealt with.
Many jidaigeki movies are highly acclaimed and have received international movie awards, these include “Yojimbo” and “Seven Samurai” by director KUROSAWA Akira and “Zatoichi” directed by KITANO Takeshi (who also plays the lead role). There are also many jidaigeki dramas that have been made into TV series.
A typical example of such a series is “Mito Komon,” which was made into a TV drama in 1964. MITO Komon is a fictional character based on TOKUGAWA Mitsukuni, the feudal lord of Mito (Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture). In the story this historical figure hides his real identity and travels around the country in order to set right injustices; along the way he develops a rapport with the common people as he deals with various situations.
Together with young and muscular Suke and Kaku, who are his retainers on the journey, Mito Komon fights with feudal lords and local administrators who engage in evil deeds. The high point of the drama is during the climactic sword fight, when Kaku takes out an “inrou.”
An inrou is a pillbox the size of a cigarette case which bears the crest of the Tokugawa clan on its front. The Tokugawa clan for all intents and purposes governed Japan in those years (even though officially the emperor ruled Japan). When Kaku shows the pillbox, the villains, who have been violent, throw themselves at Mitsukuni’s feet. Once his identity is disclosed, the villains have no other option than to throw themselves at his mercy.
The catchphrase, “Don’t you see the crest!” gives the viewer a good feeling. Although the show follows the same pattern every time, the simple plot in which bad guys are punished and justice always wins out gives viewers peace of mind and hope for the future, therefore the show has a loyal following.
“Hissatsu” (fatal blow) is another popular drama series. The story concerns shigotonin (workers) who have double identities, and is based on a group that really existed in the Edo period. Officially, they work as government officials or craftsmen but when they are petitioned by people in weaker positions of society, the shigotonin group assassinates villains for them. The drama depicts the conflicting emotions in people’s hearts and also shows how people can be assassinated with the tools of a trade; with inconspicuous items like a needle and thread.
Samurai are now known to people around the world. However, they are not the only type of people who are heroes in jidaigeki. Ninja, who were employed by feudal lords as spies or assassins from the Kamakura period to the Edo period are important too. Although ninja are usually depicted in supporting roles there are also jidaigeki movies that depict them as heroes.
“Fukurou no Shiro” (Owls’ Castle), a story by SHIBA Ryotaro, which received the Naoki Literary Award, has been adapted for the big screen many times. HATTORI Hanzo, a ninja who really existed, appears in this movie too. The name of HATTORI Hanzo II, who served TOKUGAWA Ieyasu can be found at the Hanzomon gate of Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace). Tokyo also has a subway line named Hanzomon which runs through the capital.
There are magnificent and gorgeous works too. The drama “Ooku” is an unusual jidaigeki movie because women play the central roles. Ooku is the word for the inner palace that shoguns of the Tokugawa clan allotted to their wives and mistresses. Passionate turmoil, power struggles and other matters related to human relations are depicted in a setting where, except for the shogun, only women are allowed. The gorgeous kimono worn by shogun’s wives, the Japanese gardens and various sets of the drama have been much discussed.
“Jidaigeki Hotei” (Period Play Court)” will be broadcast for six months from October this year on Jidaigeki Senmon Channel. It is a new style of program which judges the acts of historical figures in modern fictional courts. The defendant in October will be the eighth shogun, TOKUGAWA Yoshimune, who is known as the hero in the drama, “Abarenbo (uncouth) Shogun.” Although he has a positive image as a leader who tried to listen to the opinions of the common man, he is prosecuted for fraud in this program.
MINODA Hisaki, who works in the publicity department of the channel, talks about recent trends in jidaigeki: “Jidaigeki that are popular now are mostly those that reach people’s hearts. The fact that people who suffered in the earthquake supported each other has been much discussed. This kind of support for other’s feelings and ways of life is expressed in jidaigeki.”