Taiga drama is NHK’s longest running show. Ever since 1963, bar some years due to World War, NHK has aired a 49 (or 50)-episode series about someone from their history every year.
Sanada Maru aired in 2016 as NHK’s 55th Taiga drama. And this is the last taiga-drama I’ve enjoyed. 6 more taiga drama have passed by as of 2021, and they’ve all sucked. It appears I am not alone on that opinion since its viewership has fallen to mere 10%-ish. Taiga drama had usually retained 20 ~ 30% viewership. 58th taiga drama had only 8% of viewership which is the lowest.
As you may guess from the title, this drama is about Sanada clan. If you are familiar with Sengoku era of Japan, you will immediately recognize the name, Sanada, because they played a huge role in Japanese history.
The drama begins as you see Takeda clan is on verge of total collapse. Being led by Takeda Katsuyori, the son of legendary Takeda Shingen, the clan proves to be utterly hapless against invading Oda forces.
Then we see the first protagonist of the drama, Sanada Masayuki. I say “the first” because, as the story advances, you will see his son taking over.
Now, one of the reasons I enjoyed this taiga drama is its humor. Taiga drama generally avoid comedic moments. Well, comedy is not the point of these series, so I have absolutely no problem with that. Regardless, Sanada Maru is passively comedic at times.
For an example, Masayuki swears to his sons that Takeda clan won’t fall unless a local volcano erupts. Well, it does erupt, and Masayuki is looking at the volcano with his mouth open wide with one of his son looking at him.
Other than occasional light-hearted comedic moments, Sanada Maru plays like any other Taiga drama. The stories in Taiga drama are quite accurate, so, if you know the history, you will know how it will unfold.
However, while core elements of the story will adhere to historical accuracy, minor details will be tempered with. For an example, historically, there is very little information about the love life of Sanada Yukimura, one of Masayuki’s two sons. Therefore, NHK adds a female childhood character as one of his love interests.
A female childhood friend …. Well, sounds familiar? You see those in anime all the time. A fine-looking female actress was chosen for that role as well. But she can never marry Yukimura because historically he married someone else.
NHK has to do this in order to make story elements. Otherwise, they may as well just produce documentary films.
Throughout 50 episodes of 45 minutes each, we see Takeda clan fall before Masayuki’s eyes. He fights to keep his clan intact under Oda rule. Then Oda clan falls. He bows to Toyotomi instead of Tokugawa.
When Toyotomi and Tokugawa fights, Masayuki himself chooses Hideyoshi while making one of his sons choose Tokugawa. It is his insurance policy to keep the clan from being destroyed, should Tokugawa emerges victorious.
Well, we all know who wins. At least, I hope you do. Tokugawa wins. Masayuki is exiled; he will soon die. Then the focus of the drama moves to Yukimura who also chose Hideyoshi.
Sanada Yukimura is the second son of Masayuki.
Now, you may wonder what happens to his first one who chose Tokugawa clan. Well, his primary objective is to keep the clan afloat. Therefore, he does nothing. That’s not interesting, so he is effectively removed from the drama.
Yukimura, however, is allowed to do whatever he wants. I personally do not know why he chose to stick with Toyotomi. He must have had his reasons.
Either way, he does whatever he can to fight Tokugawa and attempts to keep almost defunct Toyotomi intact. But his efforts won’t be enough.
In the end, Yukimura commits seppuku. I am not even placing a spoiler tag here. This is Japanese history.
In the end, what makes Sanada clan likable is that the clan was not driven by ego. From the start to finish, the clan had always been practical. It is because they had never been rich and had never had big lands. Basically, they were a middle-class clan.
Sanada clan was never big enough to be able to alter the flow of Japanese history, and they didn’t alter the flow. But they did try.
Masayuki held off a huge Tokugawa force. It was 38,000 men vs 2,000 men. The only advantage he had was that they were in a defensive position in a small castle. He eventually lost but those 38,000 men never showed up in the battle of Sekigahara because Masayuki held them up for so long.
Then there is Yukimura who did everything in his powers to make Tokugawa Ieyasu sweat. It wasn’t for him, Toyotomi would have fallen with relative ease.
I am pretty sure Tokugawa Ieyasu got sick of the name “Sanada”. Neither Masayuki nor Yukimura was successful in defeating Ieyasu. But they did damn good jobs making him sweat.
In Masayuki’s case, the absence of 40,000-men army gave Toyotomi side a chance to fight on an even ground.
In Yukimura’s case, it was a race against the time. Ieyasu was very old at that point. He feared that Toyotomi would be revived if he died. He had to get rid of Toyotomi but Yukimura hindered his efforts. In fact, Ieyasu would die exactly a year after destroying Toyotomi, so it was a close call.
In both cases, Sanada clan gave the losing sides a chance as well as making Ieyasu sweat for life.