There will always be some historical characters who, whether by virtue of their achievements or notoriety, get more attention in any medium, and this is same for Oda Nobunaga, one of the most famous and pivotal figures in Japanese history. A good chunk of jidaigeki tend to feature Nobunaga in some form and last year’s offering, Nobunaga Concerto, was quite a hit, enough that a movie sequel is apparently in the works.
Saburo (Oguri Shun) is a high-school student who somehow manages to travel back in time to the Sengoku period of 1549. He bumps into Oda Nobunaga (also Oguri Shun), who is the son of a warlord and magistrate of the lower Owari Province. Nobunaga looks and sounds just like Saburo, but is physically weak and wants Saburo to take his place in this turbulent time. Saburo initially thinks it’s for a lark, but as he gets used to living in the Sengoku era, Saburo as Nobunaga sets out to unify Japan…
Nobunaga Concerto is a generally fun and wacky drama, featuring a fairly star-studded cast. It is adapted from a manga by Ishii Ayumi and also has an anime version. However, the drama works fine as a standalone and has a good balance of funny and serious moments. Oguri Shun, who cannot pass for a high-school student no matter how you look at it, sells his character(s) well – he’s fun and energetic, hilarious and loud-mouth as Saburo, making you want to root for him to survive in the Sengoku era with his head intact. As Nobunaga, he is serious and somewhat forbidding, and there’s an insidious aura about him towards the end of the drama as Akechi Mitsuhide. The transitions between the characters was done with seamless ease, which says something about Oguri’s acting. Having not watched any of Oguri’s dramas before this (since I’m fairly allergic to actors of the Hana Yori Dango franchise), I found him engaging and versatile, with good screen presence and an ability to make me root for his character(s).
It also helped that Oguri had an able supporting cast. I was pretty pleased to see the chemistry between him and Shibasaki Kou, who played Nobunaga’s feisty wife Kichou, growing with each episode. Yamada Takayuki was suitably two-faced and conniving as Denjiro, whose whole demeanour was so fake it was a wonder only one person effectively saw through him. It is no fault of Yamada, but the leap in logic that happens in just about every drama – the obvious baddie is never obvious until it facepalms you into the wall. Among the retainers, Mukai Osamu put in a solid performance as the fairly inflexible Ikeda Tsuneoki who was Saburo’s voice of reason, while I found Takashima Masahiro an absolute hoot as Shibata Katsuie. I also liked Fujiki Naohito’s turn as Hanbei, he looked pretty cool as a brilliant strategist even if there wasn’t enough strategising done to fill a teacup. Mizuhara Kiko was passable as Oichi, but does not seem to have the “jidaigeki look”. Kaho, however, was a lovely addition as Yuki, Kichou’s maid who was more than who she seemed.
The drama makes the most of Saburo’s fish-out-of-water circumstances, which is where all the fun is. For example, Saburo spouts plenty of modern lingo such as “DV (domestic violence)”, “bye bye”, “smile” etc, and tries to introduce things (Christmas parties, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk) that would never have existed in the Sengoku era, puzzling all of Nobunaga’s loyal retainers and Kichou. It’s pretty hilarious seeing everyone roundly confused by this new Nobunaga, assuming he’d knocked his head and lost his memory when they found him just after the switch. Instead of the reserved, weak Nobunaga they’d known, Saburo is lively and chatty, preaches peace and life above war and bloodshed, commits faux pas like nobody’s business, is happy to hang out with his retainers and clearly doesn’t have any sort of hang-ups about class, hierarchy or any of the social rules prevalent during those times.
The comedy isn’t only from Saburo’s side. Kichou is snarky and enjoys a spirited verbal battle with “utsuke” Saburo, whom she dislikes because Nobunaga previously told her she had no sex appeal and didn’t seem to care much for her. When Saburo is worried about the threat of Imagawa’s attack, she hilariously composes a “death poem” for Saburo, with a straight face, freaking him out. When preparing Saburo for a meeting with the fearsome Saito Dousan of Mino, the retainers fret over which kimono Saburo should wear, proclaiming solemnly that no matter which one he picks, it’d invite war, hahaha. And Saburo’s high-school history textbook, which is supposed to tell him how things will turn out in history, is pretty useless on all counts.
Heartwarming and heartbreaking moments abound as well. I really like how the Saburo-Kichou relationship was developed, the bickering and fun times they shared, and how she offered him comfort when he was hurting. The friendships between Saburo and Tsuneoki, and between Kichou and Yuki were also done very nicely. Particularly memorable was the friendship between Saburo and Azai Nagamasa (Takahashi Issei), doomed to failure despite Nagamasa being Nobunaga’s brother-in-law, and there’s a scene towards the end that was pretty gut-wrenching. Nagamasa was clearly caught between a rock and a hard place, and Takahashi brought out that dilemma well. I also thought he and Mizuhara made a cute couple.
I also really like the theme song Ashioto ~ Be Strong by Mr Children. At first listen, I thought it seemed out of place in a jidaigeki, but it grew on me and now I really like it. Besides, you can’t really go wrong with Mr Children:
The historical baggage
The drama takes plenty of (outrageous) liberties with history, as its premise already indicates, which may or may not sit well depending on how much of a stickler you are about dramas getting their historical facts right. It assumes you already have a basic understanding of Sengoku history and its key characters, so if you don’t, you might miss out on “aha” moments whenever familiar names and events pop up. Overall enjoyment shouldn’t be too affected, however, if you chuck your brains at the door and ignore the fact that this drama and its characters are based on real historical figures – if you choose to take history into account, it could be a rather frustrating watch.
There’s always a danger when romanticising and simplifying historical figures who are actually much more ruthless, formidable and complex. In this case, Saburo as Nobunaga was almost unrecognisable from the real Nobunaga and while I could relate to him as Saburo, and drama Nobunaga as himself/Mitsuhide, neither of them remotely came close to the real historical figure. The disconnect was particularly jarring and I had real trouble buying that someone like Saburo/Nobunaga could have come so close to uniting Japan, especially when most of Saburo’s victories came down to luck. Drama Nobunaga’s one brutal act did not even come close to the real thing, though it did have the effect of setting him apart from Saburo where the ends mattering more than the means was concerned. The excuse that this drama is fiction and artistic liberty was taken doesn’t really wash – if you base and name your character on a real one in history, the very least you could have done was to have your character share some traits with the real figure so that there is the possibility that your fictional character could also have somehow existed as a believable alternative. Besides, the drama made Saburo the victim of other people’s aggression and ambition, which is pretty much the complete opposite of the real Nobunaga. Also, no mention was made of why drama Nobunaga chose the name Akechi Mitsuhide, other than for the initial shock factor if you’re in the know about the Honnoji incident. It is a pretty clever twist, but I would have liked some explanation.
I also did not like the drastic change in characterisation of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who for the purposes of this drama was Denjiro – the man had a grudge against Nobunaga for wiping out his family in an earlier battle and joined the Oda clan for revenge. History has it that Hideyoshi was loyal to Nobunaga and avenged his death at Honnoji by offing Mitsuhide. Hideyoshi was also responsible for convincing Hanbei to assist the Oda clan, and was the chief architect of Nobunaga’s victory at Inabayama Castle, among other notable feats. I appreciate the drama giving a twist or three to keep things fresh, but Denjiro’s revenge story bored me and I felt it was the weakest link. I didn’t care about his quest for revenge, and he struck me as petty and irritating. He did play some pretty neat mind games on Mitsuhide and the events leading up to Honnoji linked up well, but as an antagonist he was not compelling. And since Honnoji happened in 1582 (the drama ended in the year 1573), that means Denjiro had to keep up nine years of mind games on Mitsuhide for the latter to finally become pissed off enough to off Saburo – doesn’t really speak much for said mind games.
Slightly less offensive was turning Tokugawa Ieyasu into a weakling who liked women and was nutty over erotic magazines – at least he was funny, even if his character, achievements and the role he played in Nobunaga’s battles got nary a mention. And while I was generally okay with how Hanbei turned out, asking Denjiro outright what/who he was is a pretty stupid question on all counts – pray tell which suspicious person would ever give a straight answer to such a question?
For a drama about a samurai daimyo whose life was pretty much non-stop military conquest, it fell woefully short on the battle front. I spent at least half the drama hoping for a decent battle scene, but what there was petered out before it could really get going. The timeline was a little screwed up as well – in the drama, the Enryakuji incident came after Takeda Shingen’s death and this worked in the drama narrative as it marked a darker turn for Saburo and Nobunaga, and because Takeda’s death was ultimately anti-climatic. However, in history Nobunaga burnt Enryakuji down two years before Takeda died in 1573, which was the same year Nobunaga destroyed the Azai and Asakura clans and ended the Ashikage shogunate. I don’t see the reason for the switch and besides, there was such minimal build-up of Takeda in the drama that there was actually very little reason why Saburo and the retainers would be scared to take him on, even though in history Takeda Shingen was a feared and powerful daimyo, possibly the only one who could have been able to stop Nobunaga’s march to unite Japan.
The drama also gave short shrift to some notable events in history. The Battle of Anegawa didn’t even get round to battling, while the brutality of the Enryakuji incident was muted – the reasons for burning Enryakuji were rather flimsy and unconvincing. In feudal Japan, the sohei held considerable power and gave Nobunaga plenty of trouble, so it was a feud that spanned a number of years and not a one-off, which the drama had made seem. By 1571, the anti-Nobunaga faction had grown pretty strong and included the Azai, Asakura and Miyoshi clans, along with a considerable group of warrior monks. The sohei of Mount Hiei aided the Azai-Asakura alliance, so when Nobunaga burnt Enryakuji, it was literally a massacre – he took with him an army of 30,000 and razed the temple to the ground, killing thousands and wiping out once and for all the power and influence of the Mount Hiei warrior monks. Had the drama done a proper build-up to the Enryakuji incident and let Mitsuhide make the decision himself to torch it instead of being goaded into it by Denjiro, the impact would have been greater and there would be more cause for Mitsuhide to feel he really needs to fight for his rightful place again in the Oda clan.
I understand that in 11 episodes it is difficult to cover in greater detail such a complex period of Sengoku history, but I do feel there’s a bit of a wasted opportunity not to make Nobunaga Concerto span two seasons just so certain events and characters could be better fleshed out. The humour and cast are obviously big selling points, and despite my beef with the historical boo-boos, I have enjoyed the drama as a whole. However, I feel that a stronger script and characterisation could have elevated the drama into something more solid. Saburo sticking to his ideals amid these turbulent times is a nice theme to explore, but it does wear thin after a while and is ultimately unrealistic – it’s also amazing he actually got this far without losing his head. I don’t think anyone watching the drama would take it to be anything definitive on Oda Nobunaga or Sengoku history, and I’m not asking for even 50% accuracy or for the humour to be toned down, but a little more attention to (historical) detail would have created a much more believable world and characters whose existence feels more grounded and less silly.