kaigou: (1 olivia is not impressed)
[personal profile] kaigou
My current fascination is the Japanese Sengoku/Warring States period, more specifically, Oda Nobunaga (for reasons I won't go into here). Suffice it to say that he's partly a fascinating character just for doing what he did, but also for the reactions I see in his characterizations in modern/post-modern Japanese media. Remarkable that someone who pretty much set the stage for Tokugawa/Edo peace would also be excoriated to such a massive extent. Given what he achieved, I would've expected him to be among the greatest of Japanese heroes, not the embodiment of All Things Evil. Not to mention my curiosity in the unique circumstances that made him such a meritocratic personality. Quite unusual, culturally (and still that way, impression I get).

Anyway, there's an abridged English translation of a massive work on Nobunaga. It's clearly also only for academics, being priced at $95. Holy hell, I mean, seriously. That's only about $25 less than the 23" monitor I bought yesterday. What gives, pricing scheme? Or there's a biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Taiko, which sounds cool but is naturally only available in hardback. Time to find out if we can still check out books from the local university, courtesy CP.

In absence of any substantial texts in our house that go into the Sengoku (all of CP's texts either skip the Sengoku, or just skip Nobunaga), I figured I'd try the next best thing -- a taiga. I mean, the annual "here, let us essentialize our history into a nice sixty-episode package" should have some historical basis, right?

Uhm. Does it? Because something feels not-quite-right to me.

Are taigas basically soap-operatic, fictionalized, adapted-for-storytelling with highlights only? Do they assume you've studied Japanese history extensively so you don't need the extra explanations, or do they assume you know little pieces here and there and aren't concerned with something like, say, historical accuracy?

Okay, so I'm watching Toshiie to Matsu, since I could find it with subs and the impression I've gotten from random history-professor essays on academic webs is that Toshiie was almost as unconventional as Nobunaga. Plus, he was best friends with Hideyoshi, too. But the actual show has me kind of taking a big step back from taigas. Because, hunh. Let me count the ways (which you were probably expecting, anyway).

The women! Reading the rare translated letter to/from Nobunaga, or from Hideyoshi (considering the man had to have been illiterate to some degree until late adolescence, unless he learned while ostensibly trying to be a monk in his shadowy past, he was apparently a massive letter-writer as an adult) -- there are several women who clearly get a kind of respectful, fond, affection from Nobunaga. Nene (Hideyoshi's wife) is obviously one of them. Yet in the taiga, the first time Toshiie, Nobunaga, and Nene are all onscreen, Nobunaga does everything but call her out as a brainless worthless female. "I hate twittering females," he says, dismissively. And it's true, she's characterized and acted as a totally brainless female... which doesn't mesh at all with what few biographical notes I could find. She was apparently quite intelligent, incredibly managerially savvy, and was an endless resource for her husband (Hideyoshi), in a partnership that sounds similar to that of Dolley and James Madison. Not a stupid woman.

I've come across mention that Toshiie had a crush on Nene before she married Hideyoshi, but the taiga reverses that. Nene is completely besotted with Toshiie, who naturally has eyes only for Matsu; of course this means that Nene also abhors Hideyoshi. Uh. The same person who, years later, apparently seduced other women (under pretense of finding concubine who'd bear children, since Nene wasn't able), and complained about Nene, who was quite upset at Hideyoshi's wanderings. It's Nobunaga who wrote her, insisting that she's the best thing ever to happen to Hideyoshi and that Hideyoshi should get his head out of his ass and realize what he's got. (Nobunaga adds, "show this letter to Hideyoshi...", heh.)

But the taiga takes Nene and turns her into a twitter-pated, useless, brainless female who's also rather gossipy and spiteful. It's only insult to injury that in the scene where she's preening for Toshiie's benefit (while Nobunaga watches with obvious disgust), a bird first lands on Toshiie's spear and then alights on Nene's shoulder. That's right, it's a taiga, and there's a damn bird on that woman's shoulder. Alright, who let Disney in? Because a second later, she starts singing. SOMEONE TELL ME THIS WAS ALL A JOKE.

...An episode later, we get similar treatment with Matsu, who has to gently retrieve a fly (doesn't light up, so doubt it's a firefly) from her shoulder, talk to it, and let it go. What? Does this mean the entire crew of the Maeda family are a stand-in for the dwarves? Nobunaga makes a seriously unconvincing charming anything, even if the actor stalks about and looks constipated as his attempt to look princely.

This is ignoring that the first episode was downright painful. The events date from when Toshiie would've been, oh, 11 or 12. (He was 13 when he first began as a page for Nobunaga, and was among the youngest of Nobunaga's closest circle.) He's being played by an actor who's maybe in his mid-twenties. It's seriously off, and when Matsu -- played by a little girl of about five -- it's downright creepy, knowing that this is (supposedly) where Toshiie first develops his lifelong love for Matsu. If he were a 12-yr old actor, it'd probably come across as more of a devoted adopted elder-brother, at first, but a guy who's maybe 25, playing "elder brother" to a girl of five? Just a little... not.

(This is one way the Korean saeguks/historical-dramas do it right: a younger character is played by a younger actor, and then after an episode or so, we get timeskip and the actor is "aged up" to the right-aged actor who'll play the character as an adult. Having a bunch of adults play the various characters at what would've been 13, 15, 17... really shifts the perspective. Not to mention plenty of Nobunaga's advisors were only in their late twenties!, but they're almost all played by guys in their 30s and 40s. Eeeech.)

There are also parts where I've actually backed up, rewatched, and still aren't sure whether the subtitles mistranslated or the original was that far off. Like, Maeda Matsu (Toshiie's eventual wife) was known for absolutely loathing Tokugawa Ieyasu. Wiki gives a cursory explanation that Matsu abhored the way Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu competed for power, except they didn't really compete. Their personalities seemed to have meshed/complemented more than competed. Maybe Ieyasu was just a personality that rubbed her the wrong way, which would make sense if she'd had a life with Toshiie's unconventional if good-natured self.

But the taiga gives Matsu's backstory as the child of some guy who got killed by opposing clan, when Matsu was five. So she ends up adopted by the Maeda, and then fast-forward to when she would've been, oh, sixteen, and meets the young Tokugawa Ieyasu (known as Matsudaira Takechiyo at the time). According to the taiga, she instantly recognizes him as the man who killed her father! Except that when she was five, Ieyasu would've been nine! Not to mention I think he was a hostage at the time, which he was for most of his life off-and-on until mid-adolescence. Sure, that creates some story-telling tension to explain Matsu's obvious and intense dislike, and adds tension to the scene, but makes no sense to me. Chronologically, at least, unless Ieyasu had a clone or something.

Speaking of which, the "you killed my father!" works great as a tension-builder until you realize that it's the tension-builder for nearly every single character. Nene reportedly hates Nobunaga because, well, some guy under his command killed her father. And Maeda hates Ieyasu because he killed her father. And I think the Sassa clan has a killed-my-father in there, too, and maybe the Imagawas. I mean, Japan had been at near-constant war for what, several hundred years? There was a lot of killing, and I'd 'spect a lot of the dead were fathers. So, lots of father-killing, lots of that kind of tension, and eventually it's no tension at all.

(Do they have drinking games in Japan, for taiga? "If she says, "you killed my father!" take two shots!")

The most egregious example of rendering Matsu -- who according to what I've read was a brilliant and strong-willed woman with excellent literary and martial skills -- into some kind of latter-day simpering wife is in the scene where Toshiie and Matsu announce their marriage to the rest of the Maeda clan. They've just helped rout a group of Imagawa samurai, and Toshiie tells the various farmers that he and Matsu are getting married. Of course, everyone knows the timing is pretty bad, since it won't be long before Nobunaga moves on the Imagawa and the Saito, which means Toshiie will be heading off to war.

So Matsu, apparently thinking of the fact that her affianced will be leaving within just a few days, and the Maeda clan will be caught (again) between the Imagawa and the Oda, tells the crowd, "Leave it to me!" The camera is at pains to show Toshiie's astonishment, as Matsu goes on to add that if anyone needs help or advice with anything, to come to her. (By the fourth episode, this has practically become her mantra, repeated enough so it's clear she's a Proper Samurai Wife: "leave it to me!")

Afterwards, just the two of them, Toshiie mentions what she said, and she replies (and I am so not making this up) that it was, wow, just like heaven had whispered in her ear what to say.

Jawdrop. She can't even be assertive in her present/future domain on her own? But had to pass it off as "heaven inspired her and she just repeated what she was told"? If you want to make a character seem spineless (to me), that'd have to be at the top of the list for ways to do it. That's not strong-willed, that's like the antithesis of it. She doesn't even get to own her managerial position. She just repeats what she's been told. Say what?

I guess maybe I should look into saving up the pennies for that $95 book on Nobunaga, because clearly pop culture is falling way down on the job.

Date: 12 Mar 2012 10:07 pm (UTC)
maat_seshat: Shuurei seated at a desk, studying, with Kouyuu leaning in behind her. (Shuurei studying)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
Oh, Taiga dramas. So darling. Sengoku era is particularly problematic in that regard, because it's possibly The Era of history that everyone is expected to know (for a fascinating stat, over half of the Taiga dramas in the last ten years have been about some aspect of Sengoku). It's NHK, too, which means you will absolutely get the most (socially) conservative interpretation. And one thing that you should remember is that Sengoku-era studies in English have actually been surprisingly heavily influenced by feminist scholarship, in the sense that from the 1950s onward feminist scholars have been writing some of the major papers in English. There is a considerably denser amount of more sexist Japanese scholarship making up the backbone over here. But believe me, I sympathize. I'm attempting to watch the current Taiga, about Taira Kiyomori, and apparently Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa is off his rocker, noisily and viciously. This...does not so much make sense with his historical persona or his persona in Heike monogatari, preeminent story of the period. I'm really not sure where they got it; it bothers me and I don't even like the man.

tldr; For creative interpretations of history you might be better off looking at animanga. A lot of them are aimed younger (Taiga dramas are geared more towards middle-age), with less of an assumption of knowledge, and they're more wedded to 'interesting!' than 'traditional interpretation'. For facts, though...yeah, university library is good for what it's worth. Information available in English on the period sucks. (There is, however, a biography called Hideyoshi of which every university library I have ever seen has at least one copy. It's blah writing, but it has some interesting information, and there's plenty on Nobunaga as a contrast to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.)

Hmm. Other random results of history study. Possibly a major element of Nobunaga's infamy is the fact that he razed Buddhist monasteries. Historical figures who made a policy of razing churches don't come off too well in European history, generally, even if they were excellent rulers in other ways. Especially since the Tokugawa era, which saw the first major welling of historical research, relied heavily on a network of Buddhist temples to keep the country pacified. And Nobunaga's willingness to use Christianity against Buddhism didn't endear him to Meiji anti-foreign nationalists either.

Date: 12 Mar 2012 10:18 pm (UTC)
maat_seshat: Winged Maat sitting (Default)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
Also, almost forgot. Cambridge History of Japan is a collection of essays by preeminent scholars in the field, and Volume 4 basically starts with Nobunaga. Should be library-obtainable, but if it's not there are definitely PDFs floating around the internet.

Date: 14 Mar 2012 08:34 am (UTC)
maat_seshat: Shuurei seated at a desk, studying, with Kouyuu leaning in behind her. (Shuurei studying)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
It's actually not just Sengoku! There's this entire argument in Japanese history about when women were best off, and basically all anyone can agree on is the Edo was not it. There are people who say Sengoku, people who say Kamakura, people who say Heian, people who say Nara, and people who say Asuka. And that's just what I've read; I'm sure there's someone out there arguing that Hino Tomiko proves it was Muromachi.

I don't have a definitive answer for why the feminist slant is so strong in English-language scholarship, but I think it might have something to do with the ways of framing Japanese history: after violently repudiating the explicitly Japanese-exceptionalist scholarship (I'm talking foreigners, here), you have the Marxist lens and the feminist lens, and possibly the literary lens for the Heian era. Outside of those, you're building your own framework of analysis at the same time you're trying to analyze a specific topic, which is even harder than it sounds. Some people are doing that, too, which is leading to interesting additions of Foucault-influenced theory, but, still, if you don't want to analyze using Marxist class-shift, the easiest alternative is feminist frameworks. Whereas in Japan, while feminist scholarship is alive and thriving, it's working against literally hundreds of years of anti-feminist backlog (whereas, for example, feminist scholarship is a prominent framework in Japanese manga-analysis--no such backlog). It's kind of like trying to do revisionist feminist history of the ancient Greeks: it's out there, it exists, but it's mostly drowned out by common wisdom that Athenian women didn't do politics and Spartan women were physically trained only so they bore stronger sons.

Anyway, yes, that's what happens when someone pokes me about my specialty. :-) What text was that on the English Civil War, if you happen to remember?

Date: 13 Mar 2012 01:00 am (UTC)
haya5h1: Drunk cat. (Default)
From: [personal profile] haya5h1
A Japanese friend recently cited this very taiga as a sterling example of how NHK seems to have a phobia against casting actual children as children.

Anyhow, taiga are usually about as historically accurate as Disney's Pocahontas.

Date: 13 Mar 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
hollyberries: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hollyberries
Taigas are about as historically accurate as the Chinese historical dramas about dynastic turning points, I have discovered. (I think sageuks have, so far, the best track record for that sort of thing.)

I'm probably feeling more bitter about this than warranted, but I just finished watching the taiga on Oeyo, most famously married to Hidetada Tokugawa (Gou ~ Himetachi no Sengoku, I believe). It did go for some fairly controversial interpretations of Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and even Hidetada, but the characterizations were so weak! The writer went for the high road of non-vilifying everyone to the point of making everybody a good guy, which, newsflash, Sengoku era, not going to happen. (I think they might have strained something, trying to keep everyone happy.)

So it became a little farcical to me, aside from reducing who was probably a fairly badass samurai hime to a milksop who tilted her head and went 'ha?' all the time. D:

Maybe actual documentaries fare better?

Date: 13 Mar 2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
hollyberries: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hollyberries
I'm convinced that half the time Chinese battle scenes take place because they can have that many people run around stabbing and slashing at each other in carefully choreographed motions. It's probably a mandatory class in Chinese film school.

Gou had a decent budget, so the castles and battles were appropriately to scale. Ieyasu striding around before Sekigahara? Gold. The kimono were also gorgeous, though it makes me wonder how nobody died of heatstroke in those things.

Nobunaga was presented as having done those things out of necessity, and then gradually built up a cult of personality around himself. What annoys me is that this drama tried to present everybody, from Mitsuhide to Mitsunari (Mitsunari!), in a positive light, with varying degrees of success. For heaven's sake, it's not wrong to show ambition or genius or venality, they're human.

I honestly think they still did a good job, considering the material they had to work with - unfortunately the writing is structured around Oeyo, and it just didn't resonate - Ueno Juri is too mellow, and someone who went through all those upheavals, plus survived to (probably) rule Hidetada with an iron fist at home would not act all cutesy and sit around to sigh about life. She spends a lot of time walking around and going 'maa' or 'hai?'

Date: 23 Feb 2015 04:17 am (UTC)
d_a_renoir: (Default)
From: [personal profile] d_a_renoir
Were you able to understand Japanese or is there a version of Toshiie and Matsu that's subtitled in English? I've been wanting to watch that taiga for ages...

PS: I dunno if you since found out since this comment is YEARS late, but "Taiko" is a historical novel, not a biography of Hideyoshi. There's as much fiction as there are truth in it XD
Edited Date: 23 Feb 2015 04:19 am (UTC)