Komyo ga Tsuji is 45h NHK taiga drama. This aired in 2006. The title “功名が辻” can be a pain to translate into English. There are no precise English words for it. I would loosely translate it as “The crossroad to glory”.
Before you go on, I’d like to warn you that this review is full of spoilers but that is simply because this is a historical drama. If you know Japanese history well, you know the outcome. No point in hiding anything.
This taiga drama is somewhat unique in that it deals with Yamauchi Kazutoyo. He was a samurai in Sengoku era. What sets this taiga drama apart from others is that Yamauchi Kazutoyo wasn’t exactly known for anything.
He wasn’t really known for valor. He wasn’t really known for loyalty. I’d say he was a hardworker and that’s about it.
Then why has he come a focus of a taiga drama?
Well, in his life, he encountered three major crossroads and he made three correct choices which ultimately ensured that Yamauchi clan would survive until the clan system was demolished (Meiji revolution).
In a sense, it was gambling at the highest level. He had to make three correct choices and he made it.
The drama begins as we see Kazutoyo in his lowest point of his life. He may call himself a samurai but he has no land, no lord to serve. He has no money. He does have two retainers from his father, and that is all he has.
He is the eldest son of Yamauchi Moritoyo, an Oda retainer who perished amid chaos brought upon by Oda Nobunaga while attempting to unite Owari. So, basically, the Yamauchi clan is in tatters. They have no land but does retain some recognition for the name.
He eventually joins up with Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who went under a different name at that time). Therefore, in a strict sense, Yamauchi Kazutoyo didn’t serve the Oda clan initially. He served Hideyoshi who served Oda Nobunaga.
While Hideyoshi climbs up swiftly in fame and land, Kazutoyo doesn’t really gain anything other than minor promotions. The reason being is that he doesn’t really excel in anything. Another reason is that he starts out as a foot soldier which was the lowest possible rank in that era.
Yet, by end of the drama, he stands as the lord of Tosa. How in the world?
The wife makes his man. (A tale)
It’s probably worthwhile to make a note that Kazutoyo survived tens of battles on frontline. That was no easy feat. Even then until he married Chiyo, he didn’t have much to show for.
The reason is simple. He was a soldier, and that was it. He didn’t show talents for anything else other than fighting. He didn’t have quick wits to please his superiors. He wasn’t that good of a fighter to distinguish himself, either.
Now, this story is quite a well-known tale in Japan. When Chiyo married Kazutoyo, she got him the finest horse she could get with money from her parents. Until then, he always showed up without a horse or with a cheap horse he could afford.
When Oda Nobunaga inspected his army before a battle, he spotted Kazutoyo with a very good horse. Being hugely impressed by the horse as well as the effects to acquire one, he promoted Kazutoyo to a rank of a captain which came with a huge increase in wage.
Now, this taiga drama does not portray the event the way I wrote but the gist is the same.
That was a turning point for Kazutoyo. The reason is simple. The rank of a captain was the highest rank that received a wage. After that, you’d receive land instead. Being given land is very important because, when you have a land, you become a landlord. Once you are a landlord, you start to stand over others. That was the first step of becoming a daimyo.
The first crossroad
His first crossroad was choosing his first lord to serve. He was a landless samurai who was literally penniless. He chose the Oda clan, specifically Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It isn’t exactly known how he came to serve Hieyoshi despite how drama showing you exactly how. It’s made up by the drama. I don’t believe there is any reliable historical record on how he actually joined the Oda clan.
While a crossroad, I bet it wasn’t exactly his choice. The drama makes it as if he was fated to join the Oda clan but I think not. It was probably circumstances. Hideyoshi was actively recruiting men pretty much unconditionally, and Kazytoyo needed the money.
What made him stood out, other than surviving battles, was probably that he was an educated samurai. He was able to read and write, meaning he had proper education. That gave him a path beyond being a mere soldier.
The second crossroad
His second crossroad occurred when the Oda clan was in tatters after Oda Nobunaga was assassinated. The Oda clan was split into two factions supporting different heirs. Yamauchi chose to side with a faction led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Now, choosing to side with Hideyoshi wasn’t exactly his choice. Rather he was Hideyoshi’s man to begin with. He was originally Hideyoshi’s soldier. Even though Kazutoyo was more than a simple soldier at this point, he still wasn’t a daimyo. He had no castle of his own. He did have land though. I believe he had about 3,000 koku of land.
A samurai would need at least 10,000 koku of land to be even considered a daimyo. Even then, one’d be call a minor daimyo instead.
Just to compare, Hideyoshi, his direct superior officer, should have had around 500,000 koku of land at that time.
Therefore, it was entirely logical to simply follow Hideyoshi who was still his direct superior officer. But he still had a choice.
By time when he would run into his third crossroad, he would have a castle with around 55,000 ~ 60,000 koku.
Yep, the Yamauchi had become a daimyo.
The third, and final, crossroad
His final crossroad was a hard one. When Toyotomi clan was in tatters after Hideyoshi’s death, Tokugawa clan rose to power to challenge. The well-known battle of Sekigahara was about to happen. Clans had to choose a side. Yamauchi chose Tokugawa despite a fact that he had served Hideyoshi for pretty much his entire life.
Now, historically there is little record (none) of why he chose Tokugawa. But there are historical evidence that his wife, Chiyo, was heavily involved in making the final decision.
On paper, both sides were pretty much even, on paper at least.
Ultimately, Chiyo’s vision was correct. Tokugawa clan won, and those who supported Toyotomi were either stripped of their lands or outright executed.
At this point, the Yamauchi clan was a minor daimyo. He did have a small castle with its surrounding land. Nothing he had done warranted a big reward because, in the battle of Sekigahara, he did virtually nothing. He didn’t even swear his full allegiance until the last moment.
Yet, when the Tokugawa began land redistribution, the Yamauchi clan was given the entire region of Tosa domain. (About half of the current shikoku island) He was given a land worth 200,000 koku.
From a small daimyo with 60,000 koku at the best to a major daimyo with 200,000 koku.
Why the big reward?
For about 99% of his life, he was a weak samurai. He didn’t have lots of lands. But, after he chose to support Tokugawa, he was given an entire region of Tosa which propelled Yamauchi clan to be a major clan until Edo period.
But a question lingers. Why? Why was Yamauchi Kazutoyo given so much rewards compared to others?
We will never truly know but I can certainly speculate.
One, Seniority & a clean record
Yamauchi Kazutoyo was a senior member despite his small land. Tokugawa Ieyasu may have felt that he deserved a bigger reward simply because of his seniority.
In fact, Kazutoyo and Ieyasu were of similar age. Kazutoyo had been through a lot of shit to get where he was. If anyone could understand that, it was Ieyasu.
Kazutoyo also had a very clean record. He neither had friends nor enemies. Because he wasn’t a bureaucrat, he simply did his things on battlefields and did very little diplomatic deals. Basically, he was not a schemer.
This ultimately meant that, even when he was given a huge land, no one really spoke out against it.
Two, Chiyo factor
As mentioned, Kazutoyo didn’t swear his full allegiance until the last moment. Yet, he was given more rewards than others.
If you dig a bit, it is entirely understandable for why he was hesitating. Chiyo was being held a hostage by Ishida Mitsunari of the Toyotomi side which was preventing Kazytoyo to commit to a side. Everyone around him knew that, and Ieyasu probably knew that as well.
Three, Kazutoyo factor
In Sengoku era, marriages weren’t usually made out of affections. Most marriages were political in nature. Therefore, even if a samurai’s wife was held a hostage, it was entirely feasible that a samurai in question would simply go “meh” and get on with whatever he was doing.
Now, Kazutoyo never took in a concubine despite them having no son. Taking a few concubines was norm in that era even. That probably spoke volumes about how much he cared for Chiyo. And I bet Ieyasu factored that as well which made Kazutoyo’s refusal for a commitment more understandable. At least, someone like Ieyasu would have known that Kazutoyo wasn’t just faking it.
Now, I’d like to mention again that it was extremely rare that a samurai of his stature didn’t have a mistress or two. It was extremely rare in that era.
Above is their tomb stones, Kazutoyo and Chiyo’s. Notice that their tomb stones are the same size. I believe their case is the only one in Sengoku era where a wife’s tomb stone was the same size of husband’s. A wife’s tomb stones were either completely ignored or were almost always far smaller.
That alone speaks volumes about their relationship.
This is a very good taiga drama. Even if a HD version does not exist, this should be watched. Actors played their roles very well. My only complaint is that Chiyo should have been played by someone else. It should have been someone … uglier.
There are some comical moments as well. When you see supposedly legendary figures fighting over something childish while their giant helmets sound like tin cans, I had to grin.
The actor for Tokugawa Ieyasu did a masterful job also, especially during a scene where he receives urgent words that Hideyoshi passed away. Looking possessed, he stands up lazily and starts to cry, saying that his time has finally come. He waited 40 years but his moment had arrived.
The exactly same thing can be said for Yamauchi Kazutoyo. He had to wait decades for his moment to come. Sadly, he passed away some years after receiving Tosa domain. His nephew inherited the Yamauchi clan then.
This taiga drama touches some of controversial subjects as well. Normally, anything controversial is simply said “it’s done” via a narrator. But, in this taiga drama, they show. Below is a moment where Kazutoyo and others are ordered to murder defenseless women and children. This order was given out by Oda Nobunaga.
This drama is also one of those that handle Oda Nobunaga’s death better than others. In some cases, they just skip the whole scene. But you are going to see it in this one.
In conclusion, I consider this to be one of better taiga drama series out there. Interestingly, I’ve found that the older a taiga drama is, the better they are. The issue is, though, it’s very hard to source the older ones, especially the ones in black & white.